American Dirt tells the story of a Mexican mother and her son who are forced to flee their home in Mexico for the U.S. after their whole family is murdered by a drug cartel. Because the cartel is looking for the two everywhere, even among the police and public officials, Lydia and Luca can’t risk leaving by plane, but must illegally travel the perilous routes to el norte used by other migrants. It’s a gripping story about the experience of Mexican migrants hoping to leave behind the trauma of their past. So what’s the problem with American Dirt?

Anyone who’s read the reviews on American Dirt knows that it’s been the subject of controversy since its publication in 2019. Readers have blamed Cummins, who is neither Mexican nor a migrant, for telling a story that isn’t her own. They’ve further pointed to her erroneous use of Spanish and argued that the novel is ripe with stereotyped characters. Critics have also harshly criticized the publishing industry for choosing an immigrant story written by a white woman over that of a Latinx author, calling attention to the marginalization and under-representation of these authors in the book industry.

“In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant.”

Lauren Groff in her NYT review on American Dirt

Cummings herself said that she never intended to appropriate someone else’s story. Having done extensive research for her novel, travelling to Mexico and interviewing people on both sides of the border, she wanted her readers to understand “that the people coming to our southern border are not one faceless brown mass, but singular individuals, with stories and backgrounds and reasons for coming that are unique.”

Oprah Winfrey, who chose the book for her acclaimed book club, defended Cummins’s right to write the story, saying that she “fundamentally believes in the right of anyone to use their imagination and their skills to tell stories.” She said that the book has changed her perception of migrants in a way no other story ever has and argued that that’s in the end what fiction should be all about.

“From the first sentence, I was IN … Like so many of us, I’ve read newspaper articles and watched television news stories and seen movies about the plight of families looking for a better life, but this story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant in a whole new way.” 

Oprah Winfrey on American Dirt

In the end, I find myself deeply ambivalent. While I agree that the publishing world is not nearly as diverse as it should be, I can’t help but find the story deeply compelling. From the very beginning, I was hooked to the pages and felt with the characters as if I was myself on that very journey with them. Cummins has made me care about an issue I wasn’t aware of before and opened my eyes to the sad reality of migrants’ lives. On the other hand, I’ve to admit that I’m neither Mexican nor do I speak Spanish, so it was perhaps easy for me to overlook the flaws other readers have pointed to. Maybe it needs a second, more critical reading for me to fully understand the criticism.

If nothing else, American Dirt has generated important conversations about diversity in the publishing industry. It’s a discussion we have to lead, but at the same time, it shouldn’t detract attention from the relevance of the story’s topic.

Have you read American Dirt? What’s your stance on the controversy? Let me know in the comment section below!


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