“One of the very ﬁrst bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing,” Jeanine Cummins writes in the first sentence of the opening chapter of American Dirt, her latest novel, a so-called social-justice thriller. These clumsily placed first words, apparently, were enough to inspire media deity Oprah Winfrey to select, on Tuesday morning, the much-discussed book for her global audience of readers, unleashing a flood of discourse in the wake of that selection.
It’s no surprise that within this introduction the tableau for the rest of the novel is set: Strap in, dear reader, because something incredibly hard to digest this way comes. Each page and chapter continues this way, putting its very disenfranchised, very brown Mexican immigrant characters through one harrowing scene after another. Lemony Snicket, eat your heart out.
This storytelling soil has been harvested to exhaustion in both the United States and Mexico (see: Netflix’s Narcos or any given season of a telenovela with a cartel at the plot's center), but it would perhaps be marginally more digestible if, say, Cummins were a member of this community. She isn’t. Her online presence proudly proclaims she is Irlandaisa/Boricua/Persona, and maybe persona is the most apt identity in the mix here. In a New York Times op-ed, she plainly described herself, stating, "I am white. The grandmother I shared with Julie and Robin was Puerto Rican, and their father is half Lebanese. But in every practical way, my family is mostly white.”
Still, her novel lurches forward, collecting a smattering of clichés along the way like wayward pieces of gum underfoot: She throws in some quinceañeras, drug cartel violence, and a little italicized Spanglish for good measure, holding up these moments to an ostensibly American audience, as if begging them to observe a particularly gnarled car wreck; Want to know what it’s really like to be a poor, sad Mexican immigrant? Wait till you hear this.
This is not a review of the novel itself; many others have taken on this task with excellent, incisive, and some lackluster degrees of success. Chicana writer and artist Myriam Gurba was early to capture the novel’s failings most succinctly, writing in December for Tropics of Meta, “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.” Gurba’s subsequent tweets exposing the shockingly tasteless fanfare of the novel’s launch have reached viral status, exposing the vulgar ability of the publishing world to turn real-life experiences into decorative symbols of an aped persona.
Mexican immigrants to the United States and their experiences at the border are simply missing from not only the pages of Cummin’s latest effort but from the cultural context, which gave way to its exaltation in the first place.
Ultimately, I find the disappointing issues within this catastrophe to be facets of the same flawed prism through which experiences are viewed when they are not our own. From a purely literary perspective, the novel’s prose fails because of an innate gap in knowledge; simply put, it’s a problem of not knowing enough about an experience to portray it believably, because of lack of experience or lack of depth of research — and, perhaps, empathy.
But this knowledge gap widens to a chasm when you take a closer look at the world that gave way to this book. To start, there was likely a dearth of Latinx, or specifically Mexican, editors at the publishing house where Dirt was picked up, in the marketing departments that served it up to largely white American audiences, and in the decision-making offices at the film studio set to turn the story into a feature film. And of equal concern is how this chasm appears on the desks of editors who first reviewed this book and thought it deserved glowing reviews, including from Oprah’s Book Club, which gave the book its most effusive and pervasive platform.
Mexican immigrants to the United States and their experiences at the border are simply missing from the pages of Cummin’s latest effort and from the cultural context which gave way to its exaltation in the first place. Dirt shouts at readers that it is here to do the work of social justice, that its pages contain a window to tragedies that are happening today (right in front of you, if only you were aware enough to see it!), but it’s less a window than a funhouse mirror, reflecting a vision of whiteness back on itself to disturbing effect.
Last night, Dirt's publisher, Flatiron Books, released a statement on Twitter regarding the controversy, stating in part, "The concerns that have been raised, including the question of who gets to tell which stories, are valid ones in relation to literature and we welcome the conversation." This has never been a reductive discussion of who gets to tell which stories, nor one of gatekeeping — even lived experience is not a one-for-one stand-in for thoughtful analysis of the nature of oppression; it’s that this novel was a shoddy attempt at depicting a personal experience and analyzing the politics of a humanitarian crisis, to harmful effect.
It’s true. This is a cultural moment starved for stories that center nonwhite voices, and it is a moment when the Mexican immigrant experience is also increasingly complex. But it is also a moment for storytellers, like any other in history, inextricably tied to historical structures that regularly prevent stories from being told from marginalized points of view. So writers, well-intentioned as they may be (I am suspicious if Cummins really set out to be), are left to wrestle with some stark realities: that the work they create may invalidate and subvert the work done by the audiences they wish to serve; that their opportunistic efforts may prevent marginalized people from pursuing similar endeavors; and that, ultimately, the entire pursuit was never worthwhile in the first place.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue