Just after the book was released in late January 2020 Oprah Winfrey announced her latest Book Club pick, American Dirt. Professional critics and some Latinx writers criticized Cummins for telling this migrant story in an American voice for American readers sparking a literary and Twitter debate about who can write what. More white and Latinx reviewers got in on the act creating another debate about not only who should write them but who should review them. The design of the blue and white cover includes shiny silver barbed wire; Cummins had her nails emblazoned with the design AND the barbed wire motive was also used in the table decorations at a book launch event: a symbol of oppression being used as ‘pretty’ decoration. Flatiron Books, the publishers, expressed dismay at the reaction, acknowledged ‘serious mistakes’ including announcing that Cummins’ husband was an ‘undocumented immigrant’ without revealing he is Irish, and cancelled the book tour for ‘safety’ reasons.
It could be argued that the Latinx writers were annoyed that it took a white American woman to tell one of their stories when it should be left up to them; to make it authentic. No Latinx writer had written this story. Cummins did.
A letter to Oprah Winfrey, signed by 142 writers of varying ethnicities, asks her to ‘reconsider’ her endorsement of American Dirt. It states;
Cummins’s book is, yes, a work of fiction. Many of us are also fiction writers, and we believe in the right to write outside of our own experiences: writing fiction is essentially impossible to do without imagining people who are not ourselves. However, when writing about experiences that are not our own, especially when writing about the experiences of marginalized people, still more especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved—when this is the case, the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.
You can read the entire letter here.
Cummins book The Outside Boy (2010), a coming-of-age story set in Ireland in the 1950s received no such criticism from Irish writers.
When a writer writes fiction they create an entire universe in which the story lives. This universe is usually the same universe as the reader; usually but not always. Science fiction and fantasy novels exist in an entirely different universe, and some fictions, like Alan Ball’s television series, True Blood, exist in a universe similar to ours but not the same: vampires exist in its universe and are treated similarly to the way gay people are treated in ours. Similar but also fictitious.
American Dirt is in a universe created by Cummins and it is her job to make the reader believe it. It could be argued that the universe of American Dirt is its own, and noone elses.
So, what about the book itself? It’s terrific. Well written and utterly believable. The action begins in the very first line with a bullet through a bathroom window. Its violence is not overt but, at the same time, terrifying. Lydia, a middle class bookshop owner and wife of an investigative journalist, and her eight year old son, Luca, are the only survivors of a cartel massacre of her entire family. Sixteen bodies are strewn around what was a family barbecue. Lydia and Luca run. But always with the threat of the cartel assassins not far behind.
They seek out friends but don’t want to implicate them. They hide, but cannot rest, ride on the top of trains, risk their lives at every turn, at every jump. They meet other refugees and immigrants who all are susceptible to rape, kidnapping, and extortion, but it is entirely possible that one or more of the allies they attract are also in the pay of the cartel they are running from. They cannot trust anyone, but of course, they do; they have to.
But immigrants spend a lot of time waiting: for darkness, for decisions, the right person, the right moment to run again. These moments are where the humanity, relationships, and back-story play out enriching the story and rewarding the reader.
This reader is not a Mexican middle-class bookshop owner with a massacred family so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Cummin’s invention but that does not concern me. What concerns me is that the universe of Lydia’s world, the universe created by Cummins, is believable. It is. The story therefore has veracity. I went with it all the way.
Here is an American television panel discussing the American Dirt controversy.
You can buy the book in various formats here.