'American Dirt' is a bestseller because it reflects guilty liberals' quiet beliefs about migrants

The setting of Jeanine Cummins' novel isn't Mexico, but fundamentally conservative, white American construct of its neighbor that many liberals buy into.
Image: Jeanine Cummins, author of "American Dirt," in Nyack, N.Y., Jan. 9, 2020. (Heather Sten/The New York Times)
Jeanine Cummins, author of "American Dirt," in Nyack, N.Y.Heather Sten / The New York Times via Redux Pictures
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Julio Ricardo Varela

Jeanine Cummins' now-bestselling novel "American Dirt" was not written for the “faceless brown mass” that Cummins said she so wanted to make visible; that “mass” is not all "faceless" to one another and it never has been. It was not written for Latinos to read, or to find ourselves in — especially those Latinos of Mexican descent. “American Dirt” was, and will always be, for the kind of mostly white liberal who says they care about immigration policy but still look at immigrants from the Global South, and the Global South itself, with a discomfort they don’t ever want to admit.

The novel — once billed as the most anticipated release of 2020 after a bidding war resulted in a seven-figure advance and a film deal for Cummins, who, as recently as 2016, self-identified as white — will still make plenty of money for publisher Flatiron Books. Even with (or perhaps because of) the publisher canceling book events amid claims of security concerns, even amid a barrage of criticism over the book's stereotypical portrayals of Mexicans, and despite calls by mostly Latino activists about the lack of diversity in publishing, Cummins' book has found its audience, and its audience is mostly white.

"American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins.Flatiron

That's because “American Dirt” tells the story of a middle-class Mexican woman and her son fleeing from a sensationalized narco-cartel massacre (that could be featured in a Trump rally speech) to the United States alongside Cummins' imagined "faceless brown mass." America's mostly white media gatekeepers have always believed that Americans can only feel empathy for nonwhite people if there's a nominally white character to show them how; they take as an article of faith that the problems of nonwhite people don’t feel real enough until the white saviors come swooping in and see those problems for themselves. That’s why “American Dirt” sits atop the bestseller list right now.

It doesn’t matter what any given writer, reviewer or group of authors does to try to stop it; the urge to 'other us' for our own good is apparently too powerful for the publishing industry to resist.

Chicana author Myriam Gurba couldn’t do it, even though her now mega-viral December review about “American Dirt” — which was first commissioned by Ms. Magazine and then killed for being overly critical — raised serious and valid critiques about a story that presents a Mexico that is really Not-Mexico. She was a justifiably loud voice in calling out Cummins’ novel for what it is — a Trumpian version of Mexico — than for what it isn’t — a social justice novel about the perils of migration. But in the eyes of the white-dominated publishing industry, Gurba was just a rabble-rouser who couldn’t dare speak to this novel.

But its myriad, unmistakable flaws is why this novel needed the deep marketing push that only the monied publishing world can muster. It needed Oprah Winfrey to make it one of her selections for her Book Club (and then, after massive criticism, hold an AppleTV+ special that will look at "both sides"). It needed kudos from Latina author powerhouses like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Álvarez and Reyna Grande to "prove" to mostly white readers that it was authentically Latino. It needed praise from other Latina celebrities and influencers, even if — and perhaps preferably if — they hadn't yet read the book. (At least Mexican actor and naturalized American Selma Hayek admitted the latter bit after the fact.)

In order to have white American readers embrace a novel about Not-Mexico written by a non-Mexican with the cooperation of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, one needs to make sure that there are enough nonwhite voices to vouch for its authentic Mexican-ness.

But even with the marketing machine cranked up, the manufactured narrative of “American Dirt” as the Great American Immigrant Novel never fully took hold, because the people who widely noticed its existence first were Mexicans and Central Americans who, along with their other Latino allies, knew Mexico and the border area better than anybody else and recognized Cummins' Not-Mexico as a fundamentally conservative, white American construct.

So when Cummins reminded the world that she identified as Puerto Rican last week during some early interviews about the controversy, her embrace of her Latinidad didn’t excuse her ignorance. Or when word that Flatiron Books had promoted the fact that Cummins' husband used to be undocumented, only to later admit that he was Irish, it only added to their problems. When people noticed that the publisher had used floral arrangements of barbed wire walls for last year's book launch and that Cummins had tweeted out a fan’s barbed wire nail art, it added to the anger. Everything about this unrealistic migrant narrative in the book was already incorrect; the cutesification of the symbols of American arrogance and appropriation of the immigrant experience to excuse her pandering to the white gaze just proved her critics rights.

But, if there is one lesson to take from the controversy surrounding “American Dirt,” it’s that one should never underestimate the power of that white gaze. No matter how many Latinos and Latinas write their think pieces, call for major changes to the publishing industry or even share interviews that have added much necessary nuance and perspective, it’s clear that “American Dirt” resonates with the elite, affluent, politically progressive and mostly white people for whom it was written.

Those would be the same progressives who abhor Trump's immigration policy but were eerily silent when a migrant crisis occurred under Barack Obama's leadership, when many in the Latino community began referring to him as “the deporter-in-chief.” Those would be the same progressives who, in 2015, quietly asked me in worried voices: “But maybe Trump is right? Maybe a lot of Mexicans are rapists?”

To them, Mexico is Chapolandia, filled with nothing but poverty and misery. It’s no wonder, then, that Cummins biggest defenders are the white readers who tell critics her work is fiction, even though in the back of their heads, they really think that Cummins’ Not-Mexico is really Mexico. They honestly believe that Cummins' version of Mexico — Trump's version of Mexico — is the real version.

But that doesn’t mean the book's success is a complete loss for Latino writers. “American Dirt” has taught us is that the Latino literary community is more united than ever; the push for #DignidadLiteraria (Literary Dignity) proves that they are not fighting one another for scraps but for representation for all. They have moved past focusing on the controversy around one book and are creating their own spaces to have conversations about Latinos' invisibility in the publishing industry and how to fight it. Maybe instead of Cummins' giving the "faceless brown mass" a voice with her work erasing our individuality, we are seeing the start of a movement to look at each face, and listen to each voice, on its own merits, rather than because a white person says we have earned it.