The release of Jeanine Cummins' new novel, American Dirt, on Tuesday was paired with the announcement of it receiving the much-coveted honor of being Oprah Winfrey's book club pick.
But on the internet and beyond, controversy was brewing.
Latinx authors, poets, and more had plenty of criticism to offer regarding Cummins' book, raising questions about identity, representation, and the voices elevated by the publishing industry to speak for marginalized communities.
Circulating on Twitter on Wednesday was a tweet Cummins posted last May depicting a dinner celebrating the book over a photo of the floral arrangements at the event being wrapped in barbed wire. (The book's cover also features crisscrossed barbed wire.)
American Dirt tells the story of Lydia Quixano Pérez, a middle-class Mexican bookseller who flees Acapulco with 8-year-old son, Luca, after a drug cartel violently attacks a quinceañera she's attending, killing her journalist husband who earlier had profiled the cartel leader, Javier. Lydia and her son make the treacherous journey to the US on a freight train, befriending other migrants on their way.
The novel generated a lot of buzz throughout 2019, and its blue and white cover was plastered on many lists of the most anticipated books of 2020.
But as anticipation for American Dirt grew more fervent ahead of its release, so did the criticism.
In a review for USA Today, Barbara VanDenburgh dwelled on the "many bewildering acts committed by otherwise intelligent characters" in the book. She wrote:
Characters make terrible decisions that defy logic to advance the plot along a thriller’s prescribed path. As he’s preparing to publish his profile on Javier, Lydia’s husband asks her in a flashback if they should disappear for a bit, to be on the safe side. “No, I think we’re fine,” Lydia says. They pop a couple of beers and relax.
In mid-December, Chicana author Myriam Gurba wrote a scathing takedown of the novel, taking a broader look at the actions of Cummins' protagonist in the world she decided to write about:
Lydia is incoherent, laughable in her contradictions. In one flashback, Sebastián, Lydia’s husband, a journalist, describes her as one of the "smartest" women he’s ever known. Nonetheless, she behaves in gallingly naïve and stupid ways. Despite being an intellectually engaged woman, and the wife of a reporter whose beat is narcotrafficking, Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of México, realities that would not shock a Mexican.
David Bowles, a Chicano writer and professor, called American Dirt "harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama" in a withering review. He also took issue with the use of Spanish words in the dialogue, writing, "Actual examples of Spanish are wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate and then smoothed slightly by a line editor."
Others focused on Cummins' overall writing. New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal questioned the author's decision to describe skin tones as "berry brown" and "tan as childhood," and then in one scene, as a woman cries into the shoulder of her sister, the "soft brown curve" of skin, as if to remind the reader that these characters are — in case they've forgotten — brown.
Sehgal also pointed to the forced similes and analogies: "[W]hen Lydia finds she is unable to pray, 'she believes it’s a divine kindness. Like a government furlough, God has deferred her nonessential agencies.'"
Were the characters and the writing the sole issues with the book, American Dirt likely wouldn't have been as controversial. But the book also prompted deeper questions regarding race and identity — especially Cummins' own.
In a 2015 essay in the New York Times, Cummins said she identifies as white and urged white people to talk about race:
I am white. The grandmother I shared with Julie and Robin was Puerto Rican, and their father is half Lebanese. But in every practical way, my family is mostly white. I’ll never know the impotent rage of being profiled, or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name. But I care about race and equality. And it’s imperative for white people to join the conversation about racism. Discomfort is the least of our obligations.
In a 2019 interview about the release of her book, however, Cummins identified as Latinx. And while people do go through evolutions in understandings of their racial identity, for some Cummins' words seemed suspicious.
"Yes, the publishing industry will throw shit tons of money at a white woman who has rebranded as Latinx to capitalize off of other white people waking up to the atrocities in our immigration system and at our border," Latina journalist Tina Vasquez tweeted. "But that doesn’t mean we won’t cause a fucking ruckus."
Cummins has said she spent years researching this book and read many Mexican authors' work in the process, which Bowles and others noted was obvious in her writing.
"[T]he novel features scenes / elements from articles, novels and social media posts by Mexicans and Chicanx writers. Sometimes, ironically, Cummins depicts things that no longer exist (because she’s ripped them from older works)," Bowles wrote.
Cummins has also spoken candidly about her husband, who was undocumented, and the fear they both lived with regarding his immigration status. Her husband, however, is Irish, and some have said the reference to her husband as an undocumented immigrant is a dishonest portrayal meant to position herself more closely with the plight of Central American migrants.
Add to that the publisher's note at the beginning of American Dirt. Amy Einhorn, the publisher who in 2009 acquired Kathryn Stockett's The Help (which faced its own scrutiny over its portrayal of black women), wrote that Cummins told her, "migrants at the Mexican border were being portrayed as 'a faceless brown mass.' She said she wanted to give these people a face."
Cummins herself appears to have grappled over whether she's the person most well-positioned or knowledgable to "give these people a face."
"I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants," she wrote in the afterword of the book. "I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it."
The hype around American Dirt's release wasn't a result of readers and book reviewers alone. According to the New York Times, nine publishers had bid on it, with Flatiron Books eventually winning, handing Cummins a seven-figure deal. The book is also slated for a movie adaptation by the writer of Blood Diamond.
American Dirt also garnered effusive praise leading up to its release. Stephen King called it "extraordinary." Don Winslow, the author of a trilogy about the drug war, gushingly compared it to The Grapes of Wrath. Oprah Winfrey chose it as her book club pick (which sparked another wave of criticism), saying that the novel "gutted" her. Several Latinx authors also praised the book; Sandra Cisneros called it "the great novel of las Americas."
Part of the criticism against Cummins and American Dirt centered on the publishing industry's role in promoting works from a selectively narrow point of view. A 2015 study, the most recent one available, showed that white people made up a stunning 79% of the overall industry. Book reviewers were 89% white.
Some have pointed out that people from marginalized communities — including the migrants Cummins writes about — are hardly ever afforded the same opportunities to tell their own stories in these circles, let alone for a seven-figure contract.
Gurba told BuzzFeed News that American Dirt struck such a nerve among many Latinx people because it was the last straw.
"Brown people are pissed. Brown people are scared. And then, a book that HORRIBLY MISREPRESENTS México comes along and adds insult to injury," she said in a text message.
Gurba's hope for the way the publishing industry responds, she said, is "that the whole damn thing will change and be revolutionized so that POC voices are actually empowered."
Cummins is aware of the controversy her book has generated. Her publicist directed BuzzFeed News to the author's comments at an event promoting her book Wednesday, during which she was asked, "What gives you the right to tell the story?"
Acknowledging that it was a hard question to answer, Cummins said:
I know that this book is going to engender a lot of important conversations about own voices about who gets to tell what stories. ... I don’t necessarily know if I’m the person to answer those questions. I wrote a novel. I wrote a work of fiction that I hoped would be a bridge, because I felt that screaming into the echo chamber wasn’t working. I felt I had the capacity to be a bridge, for better or for worse, and this is the result. And I feel glad that I did it.
I think this is an important conversation. I feel like it is a question that needs to be directed more firmly toward publishers than at individual writers. I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write.
I acknowledge that there is tremendous inequity in the industry, about who gets attention for writing what books… I’m aware that in the court of public opinion on my ethnicity at this point I am the white lady. I am also Puerto Rican. I am a Latinx woman. And I’m not a migrant. But I feel like putting that so central to the conversation makes me — I’m in such an uncomfortable position about how to identify myself and how to account for things that are beyond my reckoning.