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The Dust Up Over American Dirt

By Glenda Cohen

Almost as polarizing as last week’s presidential impeachment proceedings has been the cross-fire about American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, but given the number of excerpts that have appeared in columns and online, I feel like I already have.

Cummins, who identifies as white, writes a story of a Mexican migrant and her son who are trying to elude a drug cartel. Respected voices have both panned the book (Myriam Gurba) and praised it (Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros). The ferocity of the debate has led to the publisher cancelling the book’s publicity tour over concerns for Cummins’ safety.

Initially, I was confused as to what was at the heart of the argument: Was it that the book was bad or was it that the story was not Cummins’ to write?

American Dirt is not the first poorly written book and it will surely not be the last. So it seemed to me that the issue of appropriation was really what was inflaming critics like Gurba who writes: “ Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a ‘road thriller’ that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.”

Whose permission should one ask before writing a story, painting a picture or composing a song? To stand in another’s shoes requires empathy and getting out of our own narrow box of experience, and that is something each of us should strive to do. Some of the most moving works of art and literature have appropriated the lives and experiences of other people. A few examples: John Steinbeck, who was white, wrote movingly of the indigenous of Mexico in The Pearl; Ernest Gaines, a black man, portrayed the struggles of an African-American woman in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; sculptor Maya Lin, an American woman of Chinese descent, created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Talented artists have opened a window for me to view the lives of others that I would never have experienced had I not read their books, viewed their art, or watched their performances. Maybe, I thought, Jeanine Cummins is just getting a raw deal.

I was curious to hear directly from Cummins about how she was coping with the tidal wave of criticism, so I listened to a thought-provoking segment on the controversy by NPR’s Maria Hinojosa. What I heard completely turned around my perspective.

Hinojosa interviewed author Myriam Gurba, who made the case that Cummins was sloppy with her research into basic facts about Mexican culture and folklore. One example that Gurba cited was Cummins’ use of conchas, a common Mexican sweet bread, as a romantic gesture to woo Lydia, the book’s female protagonist. Gurba said, “It’s like using a glazed donut to seduce someone.” According to Gurba, other plot points were so poorly researched that they feed into “the worst tropes about Mexican life – that it is primitive and uncultured.”

Hinojosa also spoke with author Luis Alberto Urrea who said that details in American Dirt were strikingly similar to those in his book By The Lake of Sleeping Children, published in 1996. Urrea describes a scene where a young boy who is playing in a dump is crushed by a garbage truck. “I buried that child. I didn’t lift that passage scene from someone’s book. These were boys that I knew.” He terms Cummins’ book as “a minstrel show.”

But it is the words of the author herself that I found to be most damning. Hinojosa’s masterfull questioning revealed Cummins’ shocking lack of awareness, not just about Mexican culture, but of how her own actions and words might be seen as offensive. Cummins (who begins her book writing, “I wish that someone browner had written this story.”) admits to reading Urrea’s book, but says that she has no memory of the specific passage that she is accused of lifting. “I just didn’t put it together. It’s very distressing to hear.”

She refers to the controversy about floral arrangements with barbed wire used at the book’s launch party as a “dust-up.” “I didn’t see the symbolism until someone pointed it out to me just last week.” Cummins also tweeted out a picture of a woman whose manicure used the book’s barbed wire illustration, which some have disparagingly termed “border chic.” Cummins lamented that she had no idea what these actions conveyed. “I’m mortified now,” she said.

Cummins seems to feel she deserves a pass for her ignorance and intellectual laziness about Mexican culture. Her words come across as “Sorry, not sorry.” And given that she has received a seven-figure advance, and the book is at the top of this week’s New York Times best seller list, whatever guilt she may feel about perpetuating Latino stereotypes is probably not that difficult for her to carry.

Cummins may be a writer, but she is no artist. Artists empathize; they don’t exploit. Art endures over time; it doesn’t require an Oprah ad campaign to prop it up. That’s why American Dirt may be on the bookshelves today, but it will be in the dustbin tomorrow where, true to its name, dirt belongs.

Glenda Cohen is a teacher, editor, and writer.


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