Brow Beat

Why Everyone’s Talking About American Dirt

The controversy about Jeanine Cummins’ novel encompasses appropriation, cries of silencing, and four separate New York Times stories.

A headshot of Jeanine Cummins next to the cover of American Dirt.
Jeanine Cummins. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Joe Kennedy and Macmillan Publishers.

Why is literary Twitter piling on Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, once one of the most highly anticipated books of the year? After an intense bidding war among nine houses that ended in a reported seven-figure deal, the novel landed on both the New York Times’ and LitHub’s 2020-in-reading lists. It’s in stores Tuesday, accompanied by praise from heavyweights like Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, and Don Winslow—the last of whom compared the migrant drama novel to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. A film adaptation is already in the works by the same company that produced Clint Eastwood’s The Mule.

But an increasingly vocal contingent of Mexican and Mexican American writers has panned the novel as “trauma porn,” pointing out myriad inconsistencies and errors in Cummins’ descriptions of Mexico that a largely American, non-Spanish-speaking industry of agents, editors, and publicists seemed to not have been able to notice.

Over the long weekend, the slowly brewing clash spilled onto the pages of the New York Times books section. Here’s what’s going on.

The Book

American Dirt follows the journey of a mother and son fleeing Mexico for America after their entire family is murdered on the orders of a local cartel kingpin. Before the slaughter, Lydia Quixano Pérez is a bookseller in Acapulco, mother to Luca and wife to journalist Sebastián. It is Sebastián’s exposé on the kingpin, who also happens to be a frequent customer of Lydia’s bookstore, that serves as the linchpin for the violence that sets off the novel and Lydia’s journey through the desert to the border.

In her afterword Cummins describes a four-year writing process that included extensive travel and interviews in Mexico. Cummins writes of her desire to humanize “the faceless brown mass” that she believes is so many people’s perception of immigrants. “I wish someone slightly browner than me would write it,” she continues. “But then I thought, if you’re the person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge.” I’m sure you can see where this bridge is going.

The Backlash

At first glance, the criticism of American Dirt reads as the increasingly pro forma conversation about who’s allowed to tell whose story. On one side are Mexican and Mexican American writers asking why Cummins felt the need to tell this story, other than to individuate a “faceless brown mass” that she’s not a part of—simultaneously raising the question of who exactly sees that mass as faceless and whether it’s worth writing for them. On the other side is Cummins raising a familiar alarm on how conversations around cultural appropriation will eventually morph into censorship. In a profile in the Times touching on the controversy, she said, “I do think that the conversation about cultural appropriation is incredibly important, but I also think that there is a danger sometimes of going too far toward silencing people.”

The public debate began with a review of American Dirt by Myriam Gurba* published in Tropics of Meta, an academic blog that publishes essays on a broad range of topics. Gurba takes to task not only Cummins’ identity—she apparently identified as white as recently as four years ago, when she wrote in the New York Times that she wasn’t qualified to write about race—but also American Dirt’s similarity to other books about Mexico that Cummins used for research, as well as the novel’s ignorance of the very people the book purports to represent. “That Lydia is so shocked by her own country’s day-to-day realities […] gives the impression that Lydia might not be … a credible Mexican,” Gurba writes. “In fact, she perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.”

Gurba also dropped that she was originally assigned to review American Dirt by “an editor at a feminist magazine”—later revealed to be Ms. While her editor thought the review was “spectacular,” Gurba wrote, it was nonetheless killed because Gurba “lacked the fame to pen something so ‘negative.’ ”

Though Gurba’s review was published over a month ago, in the days before American Dirt hit the shelves it was shared again and again. Writers like Jose Antonio Vargas and Viet Thanh Nguyen publicly called for Ms. to account for why they decided to kill the review.

The New York Times

But the pan with the biggest reach came this weekend when Parul Sehgal wrote for the New York Times’ daily Books of the Times section that “this peculiar book flounders and fails.” Two days later, the Times Book Review published Lauren Groff’s conflicted review, which makes the case that the novel “was written with good intentions, and like all deeply felt books, it calls its imagined ghosts into the reader’s real flesh.”

What’s literary drama without the Gray Lady? The differences between Sehgal’s and Groff’s reviews were noted as soon as the latter published on Sunday. Soon after Groff’s review dropped, it was linked from the Book Review’s Twitter account with a line more complimentary than any that exists in the published review: “ ‘American Dirt’ is one of the most wrenching books I have read in the past few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser’s novels.” Groff responded, “Please take this down and post my actual review.” (She added, “Fucking nightmare.”) The tweet, according to Groff and, later, New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul, had mistakenly been pulled from an earlier draft of the review—one that perhaps started out more positive about American Dirt than it ended up. Groff seemed to agonize over the review in public, eventually tweeting, “I give up. Obviously I finished my review long before I knew of Parul’s—anyone who has gone through edits knows the editing timeline—but hers is better and smarter anyway. I wrestled like a beast with this review, the morals of my taking it on, my complicity in the white gaze.”

Once upon a time, books frequently received reviews from both the daily Times and the Book Review, but that’s much rarer now. These days it happens only to the most newsworthy or most highly anticipated books—which often happen to be their publishers’ seasonal lead titles, the ones that get the biggest publicity budgets. In addition to those reviews, the Times also published an excerpt for some reason. Oh, and the profile. All of which makes Cummins’ fears—stated in the New York Times!—about being “silenced” seem a bit silly. For the big-money book publicity machine to wield its influence on behalf of a novel about the Mexican immigrant experience written by a non-immigrant, non-Mexican author—when books by Mexican and Mexican American writers often struggle to see daylight—is another reminder of what the industry deems valuable. Cummins’ good intentions have largely been acknowledged, but as Rebecca Makkai wrote in LitHub last year—and linked to on Tuesday, “apropos of nothing”—“I [can’t] good-person myself into good writing.”

Still, the conversation seems to have reached its peak and is calming down. Let’s just hope Oprah doesn’t pick American Dirt for her book club or anything.

Correction, Jan. 21, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Myriam Gurba’s last name.