“We got there first, Oprah!” that tweet reads.
The book festival, which describes itself as “one of the nation’s top literary events,” got there in December, before the novel was published and before Latino writers started to criticize it as a flawed and dangerous portrayal of Mexicans and migrants. It got there when the reviews were still sparkly and it could enthusiastically tout the novel as worthy of kicking off a first-of-its-kind event without worrying about any backlash.
“We are so excited to invite YOU — and the WHOLE community — to join us in something we’ve never tried before: a community-wide READ,” an announcement on the book festival’s website declares. “In fact, we’re calling it Gaithersburg Reads!”
The announcement goes on to describe the novel as “not just any story” and the writer as “not just any author.”
“Jeanine Cummins is no stranger to Gaithersburg,” it reads. “She grew up here. She is a graduate of Gaithersburg High School. . . . After college, Jeanine moved to New York to work in the publishing industry and one day become a famous author. That ‘one day’ is here. ‘American Dirt’ is about to make her a household name.”
The book just came out on Tuesday, so it is too soon to know whether that praise-wrapped prediction will prove true. It’s not too soon, though, to see that people in households where her name is already known are feeling divided over the book’s merits, and the fierceness of the criticism is forcing book clubs and festivals across the country to address uncomfortable but important questions about storytelling and representation.
The novel, which fetched a seven-figure sum from Flatiron Books, has been met with enviable reviews by many critics and novelists. Oprah touting it Tuesday was just the latest high-profile endorsement. Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros have praised it, and Don Winslow compared it to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
But respected Latino writers have responded to it with passionate takedowns and have criticized it as a shallow, stereotypical portrayal of the immigrant experience. They have described it using curse words, in English and Spanish.
“Dirt is a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle and while some white critics have compared Cummins to Steinbeck, I think a more apt comparison is to Vanilla Ice,” author Myriam Gurba writes in a biting piece that has been widely shared. She envisions what a film version of the book might inspire. “I can see Trump sitting in the White House’s movie theater, his little hands reaching for popcorn as he absorbs Dirt’s screen adaptation. ‘This!’ he yells. ‘This is why we must invade.’ ”
Gurba also describes Cummins as “still breaking in her Latinx-ness.” She points to a 2015 interview in which Cummins described herself as “white.”
Latinos can, of course, also be “white.” But a dissection of the Latino identity is not needed to see the point that Gurba and others are making by distinguishing Cummins, whose grandmother was Puerto Rican, from the Mexican migrants she writes about. At the core of the criticism is the issue of authenticity. It is about life experiences and whether authors, when writing from a perspective outside of their own, are stepping into a pair of shoes that fit perfectly, fit almost right or, without a lot of work, will make them walk awkwardly. Cummins’ critics see her as wobbling.
They also see many book critics as blind to that wobble.
“I am an immigrant,” Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez wrote in a Twitter thread about the book. “My family fled El Salvador with death pounding on our door. The terror, the loss, the injustice of this experience shaped everything about me. I see no part of myself reflected in #AmericanDirt, a book white critics are hailing as the great immigrant novel.”
What she does see: “A book industry that’s so out of touch — that so rarely supports immigrants to tell our own stories — eager to make money off of our suffering with a cheap, stereotypical thrill. #ImNotAmericanDirt.”
Writers all the time have to tell stories from perspectives that are not their own and that are sometimes vastly different from their own. To do that takes meticulous research, careful observation and a realization that you may, despite your best effort, still get things wrong.
I am a Mexican American who grew up in Texas not far from the border. A border that my grandfather crossed when he was 9 years old. A border that my childhood best friend’s parents crossed before she was born but not before her brother was born. A border that shaped the foods I eat, the words I use and the lives of people I love.
Even then, I don’t consider myself an expert on the immigrant experience. The life my grandfather lived is different from the one he allowed me to live. That doesn’t mean I can’t write a book from his perspective. It just means that to create each scene, I would have to draw from research whereas someone who has lived that life could draw from memories.
If nothing else comes of the criticism, it should lead to a collective shift in our awareness of who is in a position to tell their own stories.
Cummins confessed in an author’s note that she worried she “had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants.”
“I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it,” she wrote. “But then I thought, if you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge? So I began.”
Like many of you, I haven’t yet read the book. I haven’t even decided if I will buy it. But if I do, I can assure you that I will read it with the criticism in mind because you can’t appreciate the stories of fictional immigrants and ignore the words of real ones.
Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman says he is the one who decided to pick the novel for the book festival’s first community-wide read.
He received an advance copy of it over the summer and describes it as “a page-turner.”
The idea to invite the entire city to read it together, he says, grew from a confluence of factors: that it was written by “a daughter of Gaithersburg” and that the subject was relatable to many people in a city “where roughly a third of our residents were born outside of the United States.”
He says he has been surprised by the criticism but has no regrets about choosing the book.
“The question of who should be writing what type of character is a fascinating question and there is no perfect answer to it,” he says. “But I feel like, when people really get down to it, I think it’s a good idea for authors to get out of their comfort zones and imagine people other than themselves.”
A community-wide discussion of the novel is scheduled for March 31. Ashman says Cummins will participate.
So, too, will another author.
The book festival was going to hold off until next month to announce the special guest, Ashman tells me before revealing that author Reyna Grande has accepted an invitation to attend the event. Grande wrote “The Distance Between Us,” a memoir in which she describes coming as a child and undocumented immigrant to the United States from Mexico.
Bringing the two women together, Ashman says, will give the public an opportunity to hear “an interesting discourse between a writer of fiction who imagined the story . . . and somebody who has lived something like this.”
“My message would be to anybody who has trepidation or concerns about the book, come to the discussion,” he says. “Let’s air it out.”
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