We Were Seeds10 Stories to Read to Understand the “American Dirt” Controversy

a Black woman and a white woman sit together on a TV set

Oprah Winfrey with author Jeanine Cummins on CBS This Morning January 21, 2020 (Photo credit: Screenshot from YouTube/CBS This Morning)

Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt has been lauded by some of the biggest names in publishing: Oprah selected it for her coveted book club, which almost singularly guarantees placement on the bestsellers list. John Grisham, Sandra Cisneros, Stephen King, Ann Patchett, and Julia Alvarez have all praised the book, with Don Winslow even comparing it to John Steinbeck’s iconic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. Cummins allegedly earned a seven-figure advance for the book on top of multiple reviews and interviews in the New York Times and glowing reviews in the Washington Post, Time, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR.

Cummin’s book—a bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico is forced to flee to the United States with her son, Luca, after her husband and other relatives are killed by a drug cartel—was posed to be one of the best reviewed and received books of 2020, and that in itself is the problem. In a time where the United States government has purposely created policies that target, isolate, and penalize immigrants from Mexico and Central America, the (extremely white) publishing industry’s choice to throw its full weight behind a white woman’s fictional account of the migrant experience seems misguided at best, and sinister at worst (especially considering that the same Flatiron Books editor who acquired Cummins book also shepherded Kathryn Stockett’s problematic 2011 book The Help.)

While it’s maddening that the fantasy American Dirt presents as reality is being adapted for the big screen and will likely lead to Cummins continuing to be the toast of the town, Latinx writers (and those who support them) are being incredibly vocal about the harm this book has caused, how the whiteness of the industry birthed this book, and what comes next for the book itself and the publishing industry. These are the stories we should all be reading in this moment.

Myriam Gurba
{ Tropics of Meta }

Ms. magazine originally commissioned Myriam Gurba, author of the 2017 memoir Mean, to review American Dirt, but they killed her review because, according to them, she wasn’t well known enough to critically pan a book backed by a major publishing company. Gurba published her now-viral review in Tropics of Meta.

“Unlike the narcos she vilifies, [Jeanine] Cummins exudes neither grace nor flair. Instead, she bumbles with Trumpian tackiness, and a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the “faceless” out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.”

Parul Sehgal
{ The New York Times }

New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal is one of the most respected voices in the literary community, so her analysis of American Dirt’s failures—not only in its supposed mission but in its execution—is worth considering.

“There is a fair amount of action in the book — chases, disguises, one thuddingly obvious betrayal — but if you’re at all sensitive to language, your eye and ear will snag on the sentences. There are so many instances and varieties of awkward syntax I developed a taxonomy. There is subtext announced at booming volume.”

David Bowles
{ Medium }

Poet, author, and translator David Bowles has been vocally opposed to the release of American Dirt since at least January 18, when he wrote a comprehensive article about the book’s myriad issues, including its portrayal of Mexicans.

“People are stereotypes in this novel, participating in stereotypical activities (quinceañeras, for example). They live in a flattened pastiche version of Mexico, a dark hellhole of the sort Trump rails against, geographically and culturally indistinct. Lydia and Luca—despite having money—escape to the precious freedom of the US aboard La Bestia (that dangerous, crime-infested train) because of COURSE they do. But they don’t suffer the maiming, abuse, theft, and rape so common on that gang-controlled artery to the border.”

Alex Zaragoza
{ Vice }

Alex Zaragoza, a senior culture writer at Vice who has also contributed to Bitch, has written extensively about her cross-border experience as a U.S. citizen living on the other side of the border while attending school in California. Her lived experiences in addition to her expertise gives her an understanding and perspective that so few people in media embody, so her piece—about what Cummins’s ascension reveals about publishing’s biases—is unique in its precision and wisdom.

“We don’t get to choose the circumstances of our birth or upbringing, or the pigment of our skin, but we do get to choose the stories we tell. In saying she wishes someone ‘slightly browner’ would write this story, Cummins not only trivializes the shades of our identities and experiences, but also attempts to recuse herself from fault in posturing from a perspective that is not her own. Not only does she lack firsthand knowledge of that impotent rage of racism, but she clearly doesn’t understand the colonialist nature of that racism, and her willing participation in it.”

David J. Schmidt
{ HuffPost }

Cummins is not native to Mexico. Other than vacationing in the country a few times and possibly interviewing some migrants and those familiar with the experience, she has no connection to Mexico. So how did she craft this book? That’s the question at the heart of author and podcastor David J. Schmidt’s article in HuffPost, which accuses her of essentially cribbing pieces from real Mexican authors to write her own fantastical tale.

“Anyone who has been to Mexico will find the landscape of American Dirt quite alien. And yet, certain scenes have a strange ring of authenticity―which readers of two Latino authors, in particular, will find familiar. The protagonists’ train trip is strikingly similar to one in Enrique’s Journey. Cummins’ descriptions of a garbage dump in Tijuana and the border itself, as well as the trash truck scene, bear resemblance to passages in Urrea’s By the Lake of Sleeping Children as well as Across the Wire. I don’t believe any of Cummins’ writing meets the legal definition of plagiarism. She was clever enough to sufficiently reword and reframe these elements, and credits these authors as “inspiration” in her epilogue. However, several elements in her novel lean much more heavily on these preexisting works than on any original research. Indeed, Cummins appears to have never visited some of her locations at all.”

Esmeralda Bermudez
{ The Los Angeles Times }

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Esmeralda Bermudez emigrated to the United States from El Salvador when the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military and death squads waged war against civilians in the 1980s. Since then, she has reported on Mexico and Guatemala for a number of different outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, where she now works as a reporter. Though American Dirt has been touted as a stand-in for lived experience, the book doesn’t represent Bermudez’s family’s harrowing journey to the United States.

“Before my third birthday, I lost just about everyone: My grandfather, uncle and aunt were killed. My father was exiled. My mom was forced to leave me behind in El Salvador to come north. It’s a story that repeats itself among the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who fled to the U.S. in the 1980s. Because of greed, a thirst for power and government violence in Central America — a place where the United States has heavily intruded since the 1800s — thousands of families continue to run north. From Honduras. From Guatemala. From El Salvador. This is the immigration story of our times.”

Rose Cahalan
{ Texas Observer }

Flatiron Books has marketed American Dirt as an essential American story that’s required reading for those who want to have more empathy for immigrants. A white woman’s account of a perilous journey to a new land should not be the beginning or the end of our understanding, which the Texas Observer’s managing editor Rose Calahan captured in a list of other books about the border that we should consider reading.

“Racism and gatekeeping in the publishing industry are big, systemic problems; at least American Dirt has started a much-needed conversation on the subject. What can readers do? One small step is to commit to read more books by Latinx authors. In service of that goal—and inspired by the recommendations writers are already trading on Twitter—we’ve put together a by-no-means-exhaustive list of 17 outstanding books on the border and immigration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our list skews toward Texans—but we’ve also included authors from elsewhere, as well as genres ranging from fiction to memoir and poetry. There’s no shortage of talented Latinx writers with all kinds of stories to tell. Let’s make space for them.”

Constance Grady
{ Vox }

Vox is the king of explainers, and staff writer Constance Grady’s analysis of the American Dirt controversy is no exception. Grady’s piece is not only comprehensive, but it provides a lot of context for how such a controversial book even came to be.

“People sometimes flatten critiques like the one American Dirt is facing into a pat declaration that no one is allowed to write about groups of which they are not a member, which opponents can then declare to be nothing but rank censorship and an existential threat to fiction: ‘If we have permission to write only about our own personal experience,” Lionel Shriver declared in the New York Times in 2016, “there is no fiction, but only memoir.’ But the most prominent voices in this debate have tended to say that it is entirely possible to write about a particular group without belonging to it. You just have to do it well—and part of doing it well involves treating your characters as human beings, and not luxuriating in and fetishizing their trauma.”

Brandon Loran Maxwell
{ The Daily Chela }

In the aftermath of the controversy, Cummins’s publisher has been canceling events where they anticipate she’ll receive push back. While this might seem minor, it may also signal the rise of a Chicano movement that forces mainstream publishers to get real with themselves—and to acquire books that challenge rather than coddle readers. In this fantastic piece, essayist and speaker Brandon Loran Maxwell explores what this controversy means moving forward.

“Like the Chicano movement of the 1960s, the movement we are seeing includes activists spanning the United States. Similarly, the movement consists of various writers and thinkers across generations. But most importantly of all, the new movement is organic. It hasn’t been forced. It simply happened when nobody was expecting it. That being said, the fact that it happened at all still shouldn’t come as a shock. For many of us, the question was never if, but when? Now we know the answer: Now.”

David Bowles
{ The New York Times }

There’s no doubt: Publishing is an insulated industry that prides itself on diversity while remaining as white as it has ever been. American Dirt has brought that to the forefront in ways that few recent releases have, but that doesn’t mean it has to remain this way.

“The clumsy, ill-conceived rollout of American Dirt illustrates how broken the system is, how myopic it is to hype one book at the expense of others and how unethical it is to allow a gatekeeper like Oprah’s Book Club to wield such power. Imagine a publishing industry that dispensed with hit-making, that used the millions of dollars poured into American Dirt to invest more into promoting a greater number and panoply of authors.”


by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.