Digging Out ‘American Dirt’: What This Controversy Tells Us About the Shortcomings of the Publishing Industry

By Luisa De La Concha Montes

In early January, I woke up to find my Twitter feed flooded with very outspoken opinions about Jeannine Cummins’ most recent book, American Dirt. As I started interacting with the two main writers that reviewed and criticised the book, Myrian Gurba de Serrano and David O. Bowles, I realized that I was witnessing something quite revealing, and potentially, something that would push publishing houses to take a hard look at themselves and challenge their internal structure.

Jeannine Cummins’ book follows the story of a ‘Mexican’ mother (the deliberate use of quotation marks will become clear later on), who, threatened by the drug cartel that killed her journalist husband, is forced to flee the country with her son. As I read the synopsis of the book, I started laughing while I muttered no mames (a wonderful Mexican phrase that can be used in many different ways, but in this context, I was using it for ‘no way’). Once more, the story of Mexico was weakly summarised into a mishmash of drug cartel references, violence and yes, you guessed it, quinceañeras.

Critics of the backlash have been quick to highlight that the bad press surrounding the book is just a product of cancel culture and political correctness.They fear that this type of criticisms will eventually lead to censorship. Latino readers that have been outspoken about the stereotypes that this book utilises have been widely questioned: What could possibly be so wrong about a white writer choosing Mexico as the setting of their narrative? Are white writers not allowed to write about other foreign countries anymore?

As a Latina reader and writer, I want to clarify that this is not a case of irrational political correctness. We do not want to censor this book, nor we want to stop white writers from writing books set in Latin American countries. We never did. What we do want, however, is for writers and editors to be honest about their intentions, and to write their stories with awareness of the topics they are presenting. After all, it is 2020: writers will be held accountable for the depictions they create. Or, in words of David Bowles: “authors definitely have the right to write outside of their identity. An absolute legal right. No one disputes that. But there’s homework to be done. Questions to be asked.”

So, why did the individuals behind the writing and publishing of American Dirt fail to do their homework? They certainly didn’t fail because they set the book in Mexico, nor because it was written by a white author. They failed because the book was promoted as a true depiction of migration, when in reality, it is very far from it. A true depiction of migration would never have a wealthy mother getting on La Bestia (the train that people from marginal backgrounds have to take to reach the U.S). A true depiction of Mexican migration would never have a drug cartel called Los Jardineros (The Gardeners) – in all fairness, that makes me giggle every time. A true depiction of a Mexican mother would never get surprised when she finds out some Central Americans migrate by foot. There are several examples like this across the novel, and I really suggest you go read Myriam Gurba’s review of the book, which is a masterpiece in its own right. 

Alternatively, Daniel Peña also described the book as being “totally on brand for the Trump era”, as it is a “lab-created brown trauma built for the white gaze”, giving a highly curated “textural experience” to those who don’t want to encounter the true depictions of migration that other documentary books have achieved. As unfiltered as this opinion might seem, there is some truth to it. The audience that Cummins had in mind when she wrote it, clearly was not Latin American.

Regardless of the divisive opinions of the book, one thing remains clear: the active PR campaign of the publishing company Flatiron Books was, at its core, a calculated process of manipulation. They actively tried to lead the American public to believe that Cummins’ writing managed to depict what migration to the U.S. is really like, and in the process, it ignored all the Latin American writers that had already written their own accounts of it. But they didn’t stop there, they also got on board high-profile figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Stephen King to promote the book, alongside a Don Winslow quote on the cover, deeming it “A Grapes of Wrath of our time.” Even more insultingly, the tables at the release party, bore center pieces cladded with barbed wire, and Cummins even had the nerve to post her barbed wired manicure on her Twitter, demonstrating how the writer, and the audience the book is aimed at is extremely desensitised to the migrant crisis in the U.S.

So, why couldn’t it be promoted as what it really was, a speculative thriller, not grounded in reality but in a dramatic reconfiguration of migration? It seems to me that it was deemed “the novel of migration” to gain traction; it was a PR stunt to make it relevant to the times, which makes it even worse. They were trying to profit off something that has killed 2,243 people since 2014 –and continues to do so. They were trying to profit off something that in 2019 alone kept 69,550 migrant children in custody.

In the editor’s letter that was sent to reviewers, the Executive Vice President of Flatiron Books argued that Cummins was concerned that “migrants at the Mexican border were being portrayed as ‘a faceless brown mass’”, and because of this, “she wanted to give these people a face.” Ironically enough, the publishing of this book actually managed to do that: the ‘faceless brown mass’ spoke up. Latino writers started the movement #DignidadLiteraria, showcasing their own writing of their migrant experiences in the hope to bridge the gaps that currently exist between the publishing industry and writers from minority backgrounds. In response to this, Macmillan invited the main figures of the movement to a round table discussion, and they agreed to increase their Latino inclusion. However, even though the outcome (for now) is positive, this whole movement demonstrated two things that should not be forgotten. Firstly, it showed that publishing industries are willing to listen. Even though there are arguments to suggest that this openness to criticism was an easy way out to avoid bad press, this move towards inclusion could really change the future of Latino writers. And secondly, the controversy itself raised very important questions about authorship, privilege and self-criticism that contemporary writers should be able to ask themselves.

Ultimately, the issue of migration is complex and painful. Because of this, it should definitely be written about, but it should be done sensibly and carefully. As the petition to remove American Dirt from Oprah’s Book Club list put it: “When writing about the experiences of marginalized people… especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved… the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.”

Some books reveal truth inside their pages, others, however, reveal truth outside their pages, demonstrating faults and cracks about the readers they are aimed at. American Dirt belongs to the second category, it was tailor-made for those who don’t want to see reality in the face (or for those who think some realities are faceless). It truly belongs in the bookshelves of those who would rather simplify the Latino narrative to a thriller of half-concocted references to Mexico. Ultimately, it is a great representation of what creeps in the background of every Trump rally: a clear disjunction between the America that is home to millions of migrants, and the false idea that America should only be home to a selected few.

That is the real American Dirt.