The Problem With American Dirt Is Not Its Author’s Background

I couldn’t care less if Jeanine Cummins is white, but her book is a failure.

The American Dirt book cvoer
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I wanted to like American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’ much-debated novel about a young mother and her son who, after an act of brutality, find themselves in a desperate attempt to escape the clutches of a drug cartel in southern Mexico. As a Mexican journalist living in the United States who has written extensively about both my country’s struggle with violence and the Hispanic immigrant experience, I even wanted to support it.

First, I thought Cummins had been treated unfairly. I have disagreed with many of the attempts to question her right to fictionalize Mexico’s predicament simply because she long identified as white. There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu. (Under the Volcano is just one of many great ones.) Although I find the lack of diversity in America’s publishing industry appalling, I couldn’t care less if Cummins is white, not Mexican, or not a first-generation immigrant herself. If she wants to write about Mexico, so be it—Mexico and the Mexican immigrant experience are terrific subjects for a novel that deserves many outstanding books, perhaps even a definitive one that could surely be written from the United States by an American writer. At least for now, not many in Mexico seem to really care that a woman named Jeanine Cummins has dared to write about us.

I also found the book’s very public aspirations interesting. The possibility, for example, that Cummins’ book might, as advertised, offer an antidote to some severe afflictions in American popular culture: a chronically erroneous representation, rooted in ignorance and indifference, of Mexico, and the deluge of stereotypes about both the country and its immigrants that American Dirt promised to counter with complex, accurately developed characters. In a blurb for the book, Sandra Cisneros, the brilliant Mexican American novelist, called American Dirt “not simply the great American novel” but “the great novel of the Americas.” (She has stood by her praise.) The promise, then, was of a book that could not only be a rewarding read but a transcendental one, a novel that would be emblematic, even canonical.

The problem is, American Dirt is none of those things.

Cummins has captured the endearing importance of maternal figures in Hispanic life, and that is no small feat. The novel is also a perfectly adequate and suspenseful romance thriller. Cummins clearly did her research on Mexico minutiae. She knows Acapulco inside and out and could probably pinpoint the location of El Rollo Aquatic Park. She has dutifully taken notes and sprinkles the plot with the required quota of palabras en español, for authenticity’s sake. She knows her conchas, her fútbol, and her abuela. What Cummins does not do, though, is offer a depiction of immigrants (or drug lords, for that matter—who will speak for them?) that could be worthy of a great novel, much less a definitive one.

The book spins around two main characters: Lydia Quixano Pérez, the bereaved mother on the run, and Javier Crespo Fuentes, the drug lord who woos and pursues her. Neither one is even remotely representative of immigrant mothers nor Mexican criminals. Lydia is solidly middle class. She is a well-educated and successful owner of a bookshop in Acapulco. Up until the tragedy, she has led a peaceful life, with a happy and stable marriage. Her existence is upended by an unspeakable act of violence that is, in itself, extreme—the killing of 16 members of a single family would be national news in Mexico. It is not an everyday occurrence, contrary to what Cummins, in her demonization of the country (a useful but cynical narrative ploy to present Lydia as completely alone in a hellish world from the very first page, to get readers rooting for her to escape to the United States) would want the reader to believe.

Over the past decade I have interviewed hundreds of immigrant women for Univision and other media outlets. I have done so in Mexico and the United States; in shelters, places of worship, and on random corners across California. It has been an enlightening experience. They share Lydia’s devotion to their children, but not much else. They are escaping poverty, not financially stable family lives. They do not run bookshops with a hidden section of favorite authors, but work in the fields, often struggling to feed their families. They are often fleeing drunk, abusive, or absent husbands, not an awkward love triangle with a smitten narco dandy. Yes, there are surely immigrant women like Lydia Quixano Pérez, but Lydia Quixano Pérez is far from a worthy emblem of immigrant women.

Her antagonist is even less convincing. Gangster Javier is a debonair, book-loving Latin lover. He playfully quotes Gabriel García Márquez and seems to enjoy Sebastian Barry, to Lydia’s infinite delight. A (mediocre) poet and a romantic, Cummins’ drug lord is sophisticated to the point of parody. “In another life, he could’ve been Bill Gates,” Lydia’s husband tells her, just as proto-Gates tries to seduce his wife with a box of chocolates from Jacques Genin, straight from the 7th arrondissement in Paris.

Again: This doesn’t mean that Javier is not an amusing and often terrifying character. He is. But he is certainly not emblematic. Mexican drug lords are not aspiring poets who read Irish fiction or enjoy delicate French cocoa bites. Rather, they resemble people like Juan Ulises Laredo, known as “the Virus,” leader of one of the dominant gangs in the region that Cummins depicts. Or Nemesio Oseguera, “El Mencho,” who runs the CJNG cartel, Mexico’s most dangerous and violent criminal organization. None of these guys could have been Bill Gates, in this or any other life. Cummins might have created an interesting drug lord, but Javier is pure fiction. He is not an accurate representation of Mexico’s criminals.

Which leads to the real problem here: the decision to package and sell American Dirt not as candy, but as fiction that should be interpreted as emblematic. Flatiron Books, the otherwise remarkable writers who offered blurbs, and those who have promoted the book as if Cummins truly were the reincarnation of John Steinbeck have all insisted American Dirt is a transformational work of art, aimed to inspire a deeper debate about violence, immigration, and American nativism. That cannot happen with characters whom immigrants themselves could never relate to. The Great American Novel and the great novel of the Americas about violence, loss, and immigration is still waiting to be written. I honestly don’t care who does it.