At first, Jeanine Cummins was worried she had no business writing “American Dirt.” Born in the United States, of mixed Irish and Puerto Rican heritage, she feared she was unqualified to tell the story of migrants journeying through Mexico.
The result of that effort became one of this year’s buzziest literary titles, landing her a seven-figure contract, advance praise and a movie deal. On Tuesday, Oprah Winfrey said she had selected “American Dirt” for her sales-boosting book club.
In recent days, however, a growing group of Mexican Americans and other Latinos have also spoken out against Cummins, accusing her of appropriating a story they say is not hers to tell — and writing it for a largely white audience, with the stereotypes and cliches to show.
“American Dirt” follows Lydia, a middle-class Mexican bookseller and her 8-year-old son, Luca, after a drug cartel murders much of their family in Acapulco, Mexico. The two are forced to embark on a treacherous journey north that has been hailed as “a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our time.”
But in a scathing, widely shared review, the Chicana writer Myriam Gurba called it “a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle.”
“American Dirt fails to convey any Mexican sensibility,” she wrote in the website Tropics of Meta. “It aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it, instead, embodies Halloween.”
David Bowles, another Chicano writer, accused Cummins of borrowing too heavily from other works about immigration and the border but instead whitewashing those themes through the lens of what he called “trauma-porn melodrama.”
Neither Cummins nor her publicist immediately responded to a request for comment late on Tuesday night.
“American Dirt” has received praise from a number of celebrated Latina writers, including Erika L. Sánchez and Julia Alvarez. The best-selling Mexican American author Sandra Cisneros called it “the great novel of las Americas” and “the international story of our times.”
Yet, the controversy around Cummins’s novel has also revived a perennial debate in the literary world over whether — and how — writers can tell stories about identities they don’t know firsthand.
Born on a naval base in Spain, Cummins was raised in Gaithersburg, Md., and graduated from nearby Towson University. Although she grew up with a Puerto Rican grandmother, her Irish roots were a strong influence: She lived in Belfast and her earliest works were set in Ireland, according to the Baltimore Sun.
In a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times, she said she grew up identifying and being perceived as white.
“I really don’t want to write about race,” she wrote in the Times op-ed. “I’m terrified of striking the wrong chord, of being vulnerable, of uncovering shameful ignorance in my psyche. I’m afraid of being misinterpreted.”
When Cummins decided to write a novel about immigration and the border, that apprehension led her to conduct exhaustive research, she has said. She made multiple trips to Mexico to interview migrants seeking refuge in shelters along the border, lawyers who represent unaccompanied children, deportees forced out of the United States and family members left behind.
Cummins also consulted with Norma Iglesias-Prieto, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at San Diego State University, who encouraged the author to pursue the novel despite her limited personal experience with immigration.
“Jeanine, we need every voice we can get telling this story,” the professor said. Iglesias-Prieto later told the Los Angeles Times that “everyone has the right to write about a particular topic even if you are not part of this community.”
I keep thinking about how Jeanine Cummins wrote, in print, that she was white five years ago and how she POOF! suddenly made herself latina ahead of her new book. And how that's directly related to actual latinas who aren't white and don't get the book deals and movie contracts.— Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) January 20, 2020
Yet, Cummins’s author’s note was, in many ways, prescient about the criticism. “When I decided to write this book,” she wrote, “I worried that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have …”
Lately, that question has been a tricky one for many in the literary world: The white Australian novelist Lionel Shriver, among other writers, has landed in hot water for what she has called “fascistic” identity politics. On the other end, Jonathan Franzen, who is also white, has been criticized for saying that he doesn’t write about race because he lacks “firsthand experience” on the subject.
For Gurba, though, it’s not so much about who wrote the book, but about how it was written. “American Dirt,” she said, reflected a portrayal of Mexico that was more of a flattened caricature, leaning into “white savior” tropes, than anything true to Gurba’s own lived experiences.
“Nobody is going to rip a pen out of Jeanine Cummins’s hand,” Gurba told The Washington Post in an interview. “But if you write a trash, racist story, people are going to criticize you. If you do it, be willing to take the heat.”
She pointed to a number of scenes in the book that seemed off: For instance, she said, Lydia, the protagonist, is shocked to discover a skating rink in Mexico City, even though a middle-class character like her should be well-acquainted with such an attraction. In Acapulco, Lydia’s bookshop is frequented more by American tourists than Mexican residents.
Where Mexican writers have been telling stories about migration for decades, Gurba said, the industry has praised and promoted books by other authors instead — in some cases, because publishers and critics fail to see the shortcomings of titles like “American Dirt.”
Skip American Dirt. Buy “Someone Like Me,” or “The Distance Between Us,” or “Call Me American,” any other real life story of migration to the U.S. I am so tired of others telling OUR story while we struggle to tell our own.— Julissa Arce Raya (@julissaarce) January 20, 2020
A 2015 study from the children’s book publisher Lee & Low found that 79 percent of professionals in the publishing industry are white, and that nearly 9 out of 10 book reviewers identify as white. (It’s unclear how the study might classify people like Cummins, who said she identifies as white and Latina.)
“We have been writing these stories,” Gurba said, but “people don’t pay attention because we’re not white. The answer’s not complex. It’s racism.”