American literature

Where Things Stand on the ‘American Dirt' Book Controversy

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A novel written by a white author who said she hoped to educate readers about the experience of Mexican migrants has sparked a backlash over “American Dirt’s” portrayal of the journey and Mexican culture.

Publisher Flatiron Books has canceled the remaining dates of a planned promotional tour for “American Dirt” in response to the controversy. The publisher will organize instead a series of town hall meetings with Jeanine Cummins, the book’s author and some of the groups who opposed the book.

Bob Miller, Flatiron’s president and publisher, released a statement on Jan. 29 apologizing for “failing to acknowledge” their own limitations around “issues of representation,” even as he said he remained proud to have published the book.  He also cited “safety fears” for canceling the book tour, which critics have dismissed and said furthers stereotypes.

“American Dirt’s” release had been one of the most anticipated of the new year and was celebrated by prominent authors including Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros, who called it “the novel of las Americas.”

Oprah Winfrey revealed it as a pick for her book club, bringing the novel more publicity. Then the criticism began as excerpts of the book were made available and read by the Mexican and Latinx community.

What's the story?

“American Dirt” tells the story of a woman and son fleeing Acapulco, Mexico, after her family was killed at a family function. Lydia, the protagonist, is a middle-class bookstore owner. She started a flirtatious friendship with a member of a cartel that led to the death of her family. She then disguises herself and her son as migrants to make the journey to the U.S. as undocumented immigrants.

The publisher’s foreword

In a letter to readers introducing the book, Amy Einhorn, executive vice president and publisher at Flatiron, praises the story as the “novel that changes how we think of the world, that changes us in a profound way.''

Flatiron was the winner of a bidding auction to obtain the rights to publish the novel, reportedly paying seven figures for it in 2018.

The letter also mentions a phone conversation with Cummins where the author refers to migrants at the Mexican border as a “faceless brown mass” to which she is giving a face.

Who is the author?

In an opinion piece written in the New York Times in 2015, Cummins identified herself as a white woman who did not want to talk about race. “I’m terrified of striking the wrong chord, of being vulnerable, of uncovering shameful; ignorance of psyche,” she wrote.  

Cummins says in her book’s foreword that her husband is formerly an undocumented immigrant. He is originally from Ireland. “American Dirt’s” critics have said that he could not have faced the same obstacles and dangers as migrants from Central and South America.

In an NPR interview with Rachel Martin to address the criticism, Cummins said she acknowledged herself as the “beneficiary of white privilege” as well as having a Puerto Rican heritage on her father’s side.

"I endeavored to be incredibly culturally sensitive I did the work," she said. "I did five years of research. The whole intention in my heart when I wrote this book was to try to upend the traditional stereotypes that I saw being very prevalent in our national dialogue."

She attributed part of the criticism as to who’s work receives attention. She agreed there is an imbalance of representation in the book industry.

Cummins worked in publishing for 10 years before becoming a full-time author. She wrote three paperback novels including “A Rip in Heaven,” a 2004 bestselling memoir about her family’s personal experience with violence.

She is originally from Spain and lives with her family in Maryland.

What have critics said?

Following the book’s release on Jan. 2, many Latinx readers and literary experts released critical and negative reviews of the book. One of the first negative reviews appeared on the online magazine Tropics of Meta.  L.A.-based writer Myriam Gurba said the book was guilty of “appropriating genius works by people of color and repackaging them for mass racially color blind consumption.”

Gurba continues to be critical of the book and its publisher. On Jan. 22, she tweeted photos taken from a dinner celebrating the release of “American Dirt,” where the centerpieces holding purple flowers on each table were white concrete containers wrapped in barbed wire. 

Ignacio Sanchez Prado, professor of Latino and Mexican Studies at the Washington University in St. Louis, finished reading the book the day of its release Jan. 21 and wrote a negative review in the Washington Post.

“The thing that strikes me and still strikes me is that the book is off. There are many characteristics that a Mexican would know and the protagonist does not,” Prado told NBC. “It makes no sense.”

One example: the catalyst that leads Lydia, the book’s protagonist, to cross the border on foot. Lydia has difficulty obtaining a birth certificate for Luca, her son, in order to purchase a plane ticket to the U.S.

According to Prado, a Mexican citizen is able to obtain a copy of a birth certificate easily.

“In Mexico, a citizen can go online and request a birth certificate and print it. This certificate is of legal value,” he said. “An author has to have the authority to write a book. It does not mean they have to be Mexican. It means they have to have academic, literary or personal expertise to write it.” 

Jaime Espinoza, was among those who tweeted his criticism at Cummins after reading several chapters made available on Google Books.

Espinoza, who is Mexican American, said his father and several other family members came to the country as undocumented immigrants. He says he remembers going to immigration court with his family in the early ‘90s. His father later gained legal status and “achieved his American dream,” he said.  

“My biggest complaint is not who wrote the book but how the story of the migrant is portrayed -- it is a gross misrepresentation,” Espinoza said. “With the aggression in the country towards immigrants, this book feeds into negative stereotypes of Mexican and Central Americans. There are so many other works of literature by people who experienced the journey to the U.S. or their parents experienced it.”

Espinoza said that the author’s Twitter account blocked him after he tweeted at her. Cummins unblocked him a day later.  

Cummins’ statements regarding her book have also received criticism. Especially the afterword of the novel, where she questions whether she is the right person to “give a face to the migrant.”

“Representation matters so much. What worries me is that this book is being read by white people,” said Melissa Castillo Planas, a professor of Latinx Literature at Lehman College. “This is the idea they are getting of Mexicans. There has to be truth to the story and it has to resonate with migrants and the Latinx people.”

“Mexicans have been writing about the border and borderlands published in English since the 1800s. It is a bit insulting that someone thinks we need them to tell our story,” Planas said.

What have early champions of the book said about the controversy?

In response to the criticism of the books, Winfrey responded on Jan 28 with a video on her Instagram account. After receiving many passionate opinions regarding her book club choice, Winfrey said she would host conversations with people to discuss cultural appropriation. “American Dirt” remains the pick for Oprah’s Book Club.

Cisneros, one of the early supporters of the book continued to give her support to the book. She appeared on NPR’s Latino USA podcast along with Cummins, Gurba and author Luis Alberto Urrea.

While she acknowledged that Cummins used creative liberties by turning the topic of immigration into a thriller. “She’s [Cummins] going to reach a different kind of audience, and we’re all together side by side working to raise consciousness about this issue. So I wanted to support it. I do support it, and I do stand by it," Cisneros said.

Others like actress Salma Hayak released a statement on her Instagram account promoting “American Dirt,” without having read the novel. “I apologize for shouting out something without experiencing it and doing research on it," the actress said.

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