The Controversy over American Dirt

American Dirt pics
American writer, Jeanine Cummins and her recent book American Dirt.

American Dirt (2020) is a novel about a Mexican mother and her son who are forced to join the hordes of immigrants to try to enter the USA. The controversy around it rests on not just a white woman writing about a brown woman, and a writer who doesn’t understand the plight of ‘the other’, but critics are also  questioning her writing skills.

The two sides are simply described by NBC journalist Gwen Aviles:

The novel’s defenders maintain that Jeanine Cummins’ book, released on Jan. 21, is an important narrative confronting a topical issue, U.S. migration from Mexico and Central America. The book has been championed by high-profile celebrities, like Oprah who named it her bookclub pick.

The novel’s critics, however, primarily consisting of Latinos and other people of color, have deemed the book opportunistic and racist and are questioning why Latino authors often don’t receive a similar level of support for their projects, which touch upon similar themes and are written from an insider’s perspective.

This white-privileged use of people of colour and from other cultures as ciphers in novels has been around for hundreds of years: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) are the most famous examples and both spurned novels that ‘wrote back’ to the colonial centre with Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea respectively. The characters: Dickens’ Abel Magwitch, a convict escaped from Botany Bay, and Bronte’s creole and unnamed mad-woman in the attic were used as plot points and not as rounded characters and it took Carey and Rhys to give these characters a voice and their own power and agency. These latter books are part of a literary genre known as Post-Colonial literature.

It’s not that a white writer cannot write about a brown character, it’s that when a white writer does they must do it with an understanding that that brown character has agency, honour, a past, and future. In other words the brown character must be respected.

The publishers of the American Dirt, Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan have cancelled their planned national book tour because of the controversy.

An open letter signed by 138 writers has been sent to Oprah Winfrey asking her to rescind her support for the book. The letter succinctly explains the criticism and you can read it here.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones, co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union

Polish writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk (t’ KAR chook) won the Nobel Prize for Literature 2018 and the 2018 Booker International Prize for her novel Flights

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009) was finally published in English in 2019.

It is about an old woman, Janina Duszejko – she doesn’t like her first name and prefers to be addressed as Mrs. Duszejko – who lives alone on a high wind-swept plateau in the south-west of Poland, close to the border with the Czech Republic.

In her youth she was an engineer, built bridges in Syria, had an affaire with a Protestant, but shared her bed with a Catholic, and now teachers English one day a week to 12 year olds. She believes in astrology; that Animals have reasoning and seek Vengeance ; and writes essays to magazines about the fascinating connection between Astrology and TV programming. But she has Ailments, a vivid imagination and raw emotions just below the surface where the pain of her Ailments live – simple nouns like Ailments and Folly are capitalised, like in the works of William Blake, from where the title comes. She has Theories, including why people find other people attractive, but some not, about almost everything; why magpies need lots of bathes, why foxes run in straight lines, and why Evolution is not about adaptation but about Beauty. And buys clothes too big for her, she likes the freedom. A vivid Dreamer of her dead family – her Mother and Grandmother appear to her in her boiler room dressed and ready for church – and a believer in a planet crossing an invisible point that causes two red fruits to fall from a wild rose bush. She cries easily.

She tends to the houses abandoned by their owners in the winter and wants to write her autobiography. She calls people, not by their given names but by what they suggest: Oddball, Dizzy, Dig Foot, Good News, and Black Coat. She finds words like ‘priority’, ‘cadaver’, and ‘cohabitee’ ugly and hideous.

The story opens with a death, a strange death, and is followed by three others; all victims are hunters and Mrs. Duszejko is certain the deaths are deliberately caused by Animals, deer, foxes, and boars, in retribution for the regular slaughter of their relatives by these criminals. And she sets out to prove it.

Her neighbours call her that crazy old woman.

The story is told in the first person, from the mouth of this crazy old woman. This allows for Tokarczuk’s theme, society’s disdain for the marginalised, their fear of the other but never is this message didactic; it is told with humour, irony, and a lightness of touch. The writing is adventurous, unexpected, insightful, (“Are you religious?” “Yes.” “What?” “An atheist.”), and a joy to read, and, in the end, it is about how there is really nothing called evil, it doesn’t exist; there is just need, sometimes misguided, overwrought, and out of all proportion, but need nonetheless.

The Stars and the Planets are Right about everything, except us humans sometimes get in the way and always for selfish reasons. As Mrs. Duszejko says, “The fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future is a terrible mistake in the programming of the world. It should be fixed at the first opportunity.”

Here is a telephone interview with Olga Tokarczuk about her Nobel Prize win. She took the call while driving in a car in Germany.

You can listen to Tocarczuk talk about writing and Poland (with English Sub-titles) here.

You can buy the Kindle, and other editions here. Also on this Australian Amazon site you can ‘look inside’ and sample some of the text before you buy.