American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, and the Controversy Surrounding it

As someone who worked very hard to create a character outside my own ethnic/racial background, a female African-American child no less, and who has been accused both of racism (a crazy accusation that is beyond risible) and of writing a “white savior novel” (an accusation whose origin I understand better but still think the reader missed 90% of what she read), I was very interested in the controversy surrounding the novel American Dirt. I finally got around to reading it. As a white male, it is impossible to empathize with the experiences of Latinx who have responded so strongly to this novel’s publication. The essential arguments against it are that it contains inaccuracies regarding Mexican culture (ghosts don’t say “boo” as depicted in the novel; instead, they cry etc.), the author is white and so, it is maintained, got a seven-figure advance, whereas Mexican writers don’t have the same degree of exposure or success, and the novelist is guilty of cultural appropriation. These issues have spawned a backlash that can at times be described as extreme; the author has cancelled personal appearances out of concern for her personal safety (although this could also be because of reluctance to navigate protests). I suppose the arguments against the book have some merit. However, I think American Dirt is exactly the kind of novel Americans living in Trumpland need to read. The mother and child fleeing the cartel are strongly sympathetic characters and you’d have to be pretty depraved not to root for their successful (illegal) efforts to get into “el Norte.” It’s hard to believe a “build the wall” Trump supporter wouldn’t at least have a twinge of regret if they read American Dirt and it will probably infuriate decent Americans and prompt them to support more humane immigration policies. The book isn’t a masterpiece (the publicity that included a review of its being another Grapes of Wrath is almost offensively wrong) but it’s still a solid piece of storytelling. It might not align with the experiences of Mexicans, and it is likely white authors get treated more favorably in traditional publishing, but these aren’t sufficient offenses for hatred toward the novelist or her work.

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