A white Latina author's new novel about the border unleashes fierce debate, criticism

“It ticks all of the boxes: a quinceañera, narcos, machetes, Día de Muertos, violence, and suffering, lots of suffering."
Image: American Dirt J3anine Cummins
"American Dirt" by Janine Cummins.Flatiron

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By Gwen Aviles

A new novel about a woman and her young son's harrowing trek across the U.S.-Mexico border, an Oprah Book Club pick, has drawn praise from several literary figures, but it has also stirred fierce debate after being slammed as stereotypical and racist.

What's more, the hype around Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt” has unleashed a firestorm on social media about who gets to write about the migrant Latino experience and the realities in Mexico — and whether the publishing industry favors certain authors and narratives to tell these stories.

Cummins, who got a seven-figure deal for the book after a fierce bidding war, identifies as white with Latina heritage; one of her grandmothers is from Puerto Rico.

In the novel, a middle-class bookstore owner in Mexico flees toward the U.S. border with her son after her journalist husband and other family members are killed by a ruthless drug cartel.

'Thrilling' or reinforcing stereotypes?

Prominent authors including Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez, as well as Stephen King, Ann Patchett and Don Winslow wrote blurbs for the text, with Winslow comparing the novel to John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” The Washington Post described it as "thrilling and devastating," the movie rights have already been sold, and actresses Gina Rodriguez and Yalitza Aparicio have posted pictures of themselves reading it, urging their followers to join Oprah’s book club.

Yet the novel has been slammed by several Latino critics, most prominently by Mexican American author Myriam Gurba, whose scathing takedown has been widely shared and has ignited fierce debate.

Gurba criticizes the novel for having an outsider's perspective of Mexico that perpetuates the stereotypes of a narco-state, one that would inspire President Donald Trump to say "this is why we must invade," writing that the main character, Lydia, "experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of México, realities that would not shock a Mexican."

This criticism is echoed by Domino Perez, an associate professor of English with a focus on Latinx literature at the University of Texas at Austin.

“‘American Dirt’ is the continuation of a systemic problem that involves the publishing industry more broadly and the public need to consume particular kinds of stories about Mexicans, preferably ones that reinforce popular beliefs,” Perez said. “It ticks all of the boxes: a quinceañera, narcos, machetes, Día de Muertos, violence, and suffering, lots of suffering. It’s timely and does nothing to threaten the status quo.”

Gurba and others note that while Cummins relies heavily on the work of other Latino authors — which Cummins notes in her acknowledgments — there are so few books by Latinos that receive the same level of support that “American Dirt” can have undue influence in promoting a distorted view of migration. Critics feel the work of many Latinos has been devalued in an industry that is nearly 80 percent white, according to a recent survey.

Guba says she originally wrote her review for "Ms." Magazine but it was rejected for being too negative and she thought it would be dishonest to add positive praise.

“‘American Dirt’ is precisely the kind of book that would appeal to Ms. readers because it is being marketed as a social justice and protest novel when instead it treats migrants like a zoo curiosity,” Gurba told NBC News.

Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Rigoberto González, also an NBC News contributor, praised the book's "highly original" story but thought it got overshadowed by its “moments of pandering to social justice language.”

Who tells the story?

Cummins, for her part, has questioned whether she was “the right person” to write “American Dirt.”

She has said in her previous writings that she is white and can't claim to know what it's like to be profiled, for example, as is the case with darker-skinned Latinos.

In the book's afterword, Cummins wrote that she was concerned that her “privilege would make me blind to certain truths” and said she wished “someone browner than me would write” the novel.

Yet the book's attention and ensuing controversy have ignited more debate, including the fact Cummins identifies as "Latinx." David Bowles, a prolific Chicano author, tells NBC News that Cummins cites her marriage to a formerly undocumented immigrant in the author's note — but fails to disclose her husband is an immigrant from Ireland, not the same experience as a migrant from Mexico or Central America. Gurba called this “racial rebranding.”

At a bookstore event in New York City on Tuesday, Cummins was asked whether her “whiteness factored in” on her decision to write about the topic and whether this impacted the book's positive reception.

“I don't know, and frankly I don't think it's a question for me. I think this is a question for all of us in this room,” Cummins said. “I think this is a question for the publishing industry.”

She added that she thought it was an “important question to be asking,” but that she didn’t feel “qualified” to answer and didn’t “really want to answer.”

Gurba, the author of “Mean,” a memoir about a serial killer that touches upon themes of migration, among several other works, said that she has often received feedback that her work is either “too Mexican or not Mexican enough” — a criticism that’s particularly frustrating when it appears some writers find success with making Latino identity exotic. Perez has also observed writers who’ve been told to “add more spice” or “magical realism” to their works just because they’re Latino.

In highlighting the disparity between which Latino narratives are accepted and uplifted by the publishing industry, “American Dirt” has reignited a contentious debate: who claims ownership of certain narratives?

The controversy surrounding “American Dirt” is ongoing as critics, who are concerned that the novel does not address the United States' complicity in the violence Mexico faces, have called for protests at Cummins’ book signings. Meanwhile, pictures of celebrities holding copies of the novel and urging others to read, along with the Oprah Book Club, are also flooding social media, highlighting the juxtaposition.

“We understand and respect that people are discussing this and that it can spark passionate conversations,” Amy Einhorn, Cummins’ publisher, wrote in an emailed statement. “In today's turbulent times, it’s hopeful and important that books still have power.”

As for whether people should read the novel, critics hold differing opinions. Perez said she personally doesn’t plan on doing so and recommends people who are interested in reading about Mexico and the border to read the works of authors such as Oscar Cásares, Norma Cantú, Ana Castillo, Benjamin Saenz, and Luis Urrea.

Yet Bowles, who has already read the novel, disagrees, and states that it’s important to have more Latinos read the book and add their voices to the conversation as the dialogue will “lose weight if the same chorus of people are repeating the same things.”

“In the past 10 years, the publishing industry has been paying lip service to improving visibility for people of color,” Bowles said. “Some publishers do a great job shining a spotlight on a few select books and storing weight behind them, but they’re not taking real steps to diversify the overall landscape of publishing.”

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