Books

Not What She Intended: a review of American Dirt

I’ve read books better written than Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Some were more eloquent, others more compelling, and others more believable. I’ve read immigrant stories less transparently inauthentic and seen pop culture phenomena less unapologetically shallow. But still, American Dirt was a first. I can’t claim to have read anything quite like it. And though I may not have gleaned from it what Cummins had wanted her readers to, I’ll reluctantly admit that in reading American Dirt I did learn something.

American Dirt was meant to be the immigration story of the year. It had planned to tell one side of a story that Cummins believed had only been seen from the other. Cummins had hoped the book might assist in the fight against the racism and xenophobia sweeping her country. She wanted to write the kind of book that provoked her audience to think about immigrants and asylees from a human perspective. And from the way the book was written, she may have even believed she was writing the first book of this kind.

That was what most surprised me when I first picked up the book. In school in the States I read countless immigrant stories. Many a writer has come to America and decided to document it. Some relayed their immigration experience as is, writing personal essays starring themselves. Others dramatized and fictionalised their experiences, building off memories from their journey to craft compelling and realistic fiction. Cummins, it seems, did neither of those things.

To American Dirt, Mexico may as well be Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The subtleties of life in Mexico are forgone in favour of an exoticisation of Mexican culture and thrilling scenes with the Big Bad Cartel Men. The story frames natural occurrences in Mexico as foreign not only to the audience, but also to the characters. When mysterious love interest Javier first talks the cartel thugs at the main character Lydia’s store into leaving, his obvious association with the cartel is entirely overlooked, as if Lydia were naive enough to believe he were just a smooth talker. When Lydia learns that immigrants cross the US-Mexico border by foot, she responds with the sort of surprise a real Mexican would-be immigrant would only fake in front of border officials. When Lydia’s husband Sebastian publishes an exposé on the cartel, he returns home and carries on as if all were normal, oblivious to the imminent danger he has placed himself in. Thus, to help the reader suspend disbelief, the text’s scattered Spanish words (mostly cognates and things you might learn in an intro Spanish course) serve as a crude reminder the characters described are Mexican. Tokenistic Spanish infests the text, appearing even in dialogue implicitly translated into English and serving as an ever-present reminder: if you do speak Spanish, this book probably isn’t for you.

Cummins spares no time in making clear that Mexicans and other Latinx people are not her intended audience. Her intended audience is, oddly enough, me – the curious reader who picks up the book with no understanding of context, who dives into the story unaware it is a fantasy. And I’ll admit that when I picked up American Dirt, I was enthralled. With just a little wilful ignorance I managed to truly enjoy it. The story never really stops moving. Whatever difficulty I had reading past the wavering style and forced literary devices was overcome by the constant action and simple language.

Herein lies American Dirt’s greatest strength and gravest weakness: the act of reading it feels like engaging with literary clickbait. Cummins ignores style in favour of impact, description in favour of action. She forsakes depth of character and instead fetishises the trauma Mexican immigrants have faced, crafting an illusory dreamscape the ignorant reader might assume is commonplace in Mexico. Perhaps even one she assumed was commonplace.

It should be noted: Cummins is part Puerto Rican. Her Grandmother was born in Puerto Rico, and she herself was born in Spain. But though she identifies as Latinx now, before releasing American Dirt she identified as white. Most importantly, though, she is not an immigrant, the child of an immigrant, or even the grandchild of one. We might, then, forgive her for including in the forenote: ‘I wished someone slightly browner than me would write [this story]’. Or perhaps we might not.

And there are many who have chosen to not. After all, despite her willingness to acknowledge that this is not her story to tell, she took the spot of someone who may have been able to speak to it more authentically. In a review in The New York Times, Parul Seghal pans the book. Not for its white author, but for its poor language and its lack of literary value. In another review in The Guardian, Daniel A Olivas takes a more personal tone. The way Cummins herself perceives immigrants, he says, is in itself offensive. He points out that, in her author’s note, she refers to immigrants as a “faceless brown mask” and denies their status as human beings (albeit she then takes up the mantle of dispelling this perspective). He believes the book shouldn’t have achieved success not because Cummins herself isn’t an immigrant but because “American Dirt is not art.”

Personally, I’m glad I read it. By no stretch of the imagination would I call it a work of literary genius – perhaps the seven-figure advance Cummins received was ever so slightly overbid – but having read both the book and the responses to it gave me the opportunity to engage in the discussion of what makes good fiction. The book will most certainly not have the legacy Cummins intended it to, but it will still have one. And perhaps, even one that makes it worth reading.