Image by Joe Kennedy

American Dirty Tricks

When white American author Jeanine Cummins wrote a novel about Mexican refugees a critical firestorm erupted

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Jeanine Cummins presumably knew she was heading into trouble. She also, presumably, believed that she was taking all necessary steps to head that trouble off. Her novel, American Dirt, started 2020 as one of the year’s most talked-about books. It was anointed a title to look out for by the New York Times, Esquire, Vogue and a litany of others. It was selected for Oprah’s book club, more or less guaranteeing it bestseller status, and justifying the alleged seven-figure advance that Cummins’s publisher paid out. This is all the stuff of unimaginable success for novelists, who generally scrape away below minimum wage, propped up by second jobs (often teaching other aspiring novelists) as they release their work to basic indifference.

But American Dirt was a novel arriving at exactly the right time, a story about migration venturing into a world where migration is one of the most urgent stories going. In it, a Mexican mother and her son — sole survivors of a cartel massacre  — must surrender their middle-class lives and make the dangerous journey from Acapulco to the glimmer of sanctuary in the US, riding on the back of the freight train nicknamed La Bestia and dodging robbery, violence and predatory traffickers as they travel.

Writing about real-life trauma is perilous for authors in a literary culture that is consumingly vigilant to concepts such as “cultural appropriation” and “white supremacy”. What right do you have to tell this story? Why should it be you who tells it, rather than somebody else? These are the kinds of questions that writers have to pre-empt if they are to get a hearing at all, but Cummins understood this. In an afterword to the novel, she explains that she initially wished that “someone slightly browner” would write her book, but then she decided that she could be a “bridge” between experiences. And so she lays out her qualifications.

First, she has performed extensive research. Second, she has personal experience of migration: her husband, she writes, was an undocumented migrant when they met. Third, she has direct experience of tragedy (previously recounted in a memoir). Fourth, she wanted to rectify a wrong in the public perception of migrants from Latin America: “At worst, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep.” Fifth, she has a Puerto Rican grandmother, and so feels “in [her] spine, in [her] DNA” the individuality of the migrant experience. And finally, she looked to Latino friends and peers (thanked in the acknowledgements) to check her work for infractions.

None of this came close to stopping what came next.

Eight days after what should have been the triumphant launch of American Dirt, Cummins’s US publisher announced that her tour to promote the novel was cancelled owing to “safety concerns”. Cummins had become a hate figure; there had been specific threats against both her and the venues. The initially positive verdict on the book had been replaced by a new consensus: Cummins was an appropriator, an exploiter, a trafficker in torture porn.

At a launch dinner for the book, the centrepiece — based on the cover of the novel — had incorporated barbed wire. This was ultimate tastelessness. That “undocumented immigrant husband” Cummins referred to? Not Mexican, but Irish. And as for Cummins herself, she was unforgivably, irrevocably, a white woman: any success for her could only be interpreted as a theft from the voices of the oppressed.

Bad faith seems to seep into every critique

All this considered, the defenders of human dignity regarded Cummins as a fair target for violence. One might hope that such open intimidation against an author would at least activate a sense of self-preservation among people who write for a living. It did not, and there is a sour irony in this happening to a book that so insistently refers to the execution of Mexican journalists.

After the cancellation of the tour (to be replaced with a penitentiary-sounding “series of town hall meetings” including “some of the groups who have raised objections to the book”), the condemnatory op-eds continued to accumulate, with the Guardian alone publishing three of them. A depressingly hefty list of writers signed an open letter requesting that Oprah Winfrey rescind American Dirt’s place in the book club.

In the letter, despite lurid claims of the novel’s capacity to cause harm, there are no specific examples from the text: instead, the evidence for the prosecution consists of that centrepiece, the line about the “faceless brown mass” (something which, remember, Cummins intended to rectify, not endorse) and an insinuation of plagiarism despite Cummins’s careful acknowledgement of her literary debts in her text (the main character, Lydia, is a bookstore owner before the breach in her life that turns her into a migrant, meaning that Cummins has plenty of excuses to name-drop favourite Latino authors).

In fact, it’s very hard to glimpse Cummins’s novel at all within the ferocity of the reaction to it, or to know what she could have done to forestall the reaction, other than not write the book at all. Bad faith seems to seep into every critique. The New York Times review of the novel (one of the first heavyweight pieces to pick up the critique) somehow manages to claim that “if you’re at all sensitive to language, your eye and ear will snag on the sentences” while also deploring American Dirt for being “enviably easy to read”. Is it possible that Cummins’s mortal crime was not any of the things that have been (somewhat shakily) adduced to her, but rather her the fact that she was enviable?

Having been primed to expect an orgy of incompetence and sensationalism, reading American Dirt itself is disappointing. Some of its plot elements are silly, and the characters devised to convey them broadly sketched. Some of the lines are a little ripe. I confess I did not feel pleasure when I read: “Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She is scrambled.”

But I have read worse crimes against the English language. Torture porn is also wide of the mark for a novel that conspicuously puts its violence off the page, focusing instead on the effects of trauma (hence that bizarre egg metaphor). American Dirt is, in other words, a decent work of popular fiction. And yet, it is impossible to defend it on those terms — because in the process of writing the novel, Cummins accepted entirely the logic that her critics later brought to bear in trashing the book. All of her assertions about her right to write are founded in exactly the same terms that would later be used against her.

The problem with Cummins’s allusion to her husband being an undocumented migrant is not that, being Irish, his experiences are unrelated to those of Latina migrants: there is, surely, an underlying insecurity held in common. The problem is that she felt she had to obscure his Irishness to make him a convincing part of her defence, because she had accepted that only Mexicans can imagine Mexico. American Dirt even includes a distancing caricature of the well-meaning white woman, which (had more of Cummins’s critics bothered to read the novel) could have been effectively turned back on the author. Lydia and her son are sheltered by a friend of her husband and his American missionary wife, who makes a “proprietary” show of her grief and then objects to giving any practical help. She is the definition of the “drive-by Samaritan” that Cummins so feared being taken for.

What breaks American Dirt isn’t a carelessness for identity politics but a clumsy hypersensitivity to them. It is a novel that struggles under its author’s lack of confidence in her medium. Observation and experience are fundamental to the craft of fiction, but ultimately the job of the novelist is to make stuff up, and American Dirt is best in the set pieces that rely on pure literary invention, like Cummins describing the death-grazing lurch of boarding a moving train, or her depiction of the gradual processes by which Lydia and her son psychologically transition from being “normal people” to being migrants. Where she heavily trails her research or layers on the moral lessons, it creaks.

There is a case that Latino authors are underrepresented in American publishing, but that is not the same as a case that American Dirt should not exist. Because the case against American Dirt existing is a case against fiction in total: it says we cannot write what we ourselves are not. A while ago, I interviewed an author who had written about something that closely matched my own background: had he grown up somewhere similar? No, he said gently, he had investigated the details and imagined the rest. I took this as a blessing rather than an intrusion. The miracle of fiction is, precisely, that it allows reader and author to experience things beyond their own vicinity by conjuring them in words.

As a reader, I have murdered a baby and felt only relief; I have wandered broken post-apocalyptic landscapes; I have lived, briefly, in Carricklea. Without confidence in fiction’s ability to perform these transports, there is no reason for fiction to exist. It is, ultimately, an attack on empathy itself to say that writing must be constrained by identity. Cummins undermines the world she creates with her fits of fussy deference to the critics she hoped to defuse. Her critics, perhaps without realising this, have set fire to any case they might have for venturing beyond the bounds of their own skin when they write: if it’s not allowable for Cummins, why should it be allowable to anyone? American Dirt’s explicit aim was to create empathy; instead, it has become a case study in empathy’s demise.

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