Review: American Dirt

by afatpurplefig

Kailyn Licari – sourced at

After a bit of a reading drought, I have just finished American Dirt, purchased, off-the-cuff, at Waterstones in Dumfries, along with Wolf Hall, which suffered such extremes of absorption and abandonment on the flight home, it will eventually require a re-start.

I have spent the weekend reading it, then writing about it, instead of doing school work. I will regret this tomorrow. Here are my thoughts:

American Dirt is entertaining, and I use this phrase deliberately. From the first held-breath moments of a mother and son hiding in an open shower stall beside a pissing gunman, the story hurtles along at a cracking pace. I read it with a Spanish-to-English online dictionary and Google Maps at the ready, rolling Spanish phrases off my tongue – chingaderas, mi amor, chingada güey – and charting the pair’s treacherous journey across Mexico, from Acapulco to Hermosillo to Nogales.

American Dirt is sensational, which is again used deliberately. Its protagonist hides special novels amongst the mainstream fodder on the shelves of her bookstore, connecting her to a drug lord who writes poetry and has a ‘real me’. And, before you ask, she didn’t know, ok? He wears nerdy glasses and possibly-just-used-manners when he asked the thugs outside her store to give them some space. Oh, and she is also married to an idealistic, truthful journalist, with whom she has a son who is practically an animated GPS, making him a shoo-in for winning the grand prize in the Geography Bee.

Initially, I am all in.

The problem with American Dirt is that, after the initial setup, the story is based on the journey that thousands of Central Americans take annually, atop the Mexican freight trains known as ‘La Bestia’, en route to the United States. As such, I soon conclude that such a story has no business being either entertaining or sensational. In fact, after watching factual snippets like this one, it becomes increasingly difficult to stomach the novel’s bestselling manoeuvres – a backstory here, incredible beauty there – all of which are designed to contribute to the manufactured tension of a tale (will they reach the golden arches of the saviour-land?) that will undoubtedly produce a satisfying end.

Post-satisfying end, I discover that the author, Jeanine Cummins, is a white (more on that later) American.

Well, fuck me.

As it turns out, American Dirt is controversial, and I use that in a way that I hope doesn’t encourage anyone to buy it. Here is why I wish I hadn’t read it in the first place:

There are two sides to this ‘who gets to tell stories?’ argument. The author summed up hers when she stated, ‘it’s a dangerous sort of slippery fascist slope to start telling people what stories they are allowed to write because frankly what a tremendous detriment that would be.’ It is the same argument used by Sia, in defence of her steaming pile of shit, the movie Music, in which an autistic character is portrayed by a dancer from Dance Moms whose research couldn’t possibly have consisted of anything more than watching Rainman twice.

This is the approach that says, ‘it is I who shall bring this sorry tale to the masses…I who shall share their plight’ when, in fact, these stories do exist, but without the amplification enjoyed by white writers. According to Cummins (in the author’s note that is mysteriously missing from my second edition…lol), she laments, ‘I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it’ (believe me, they did), before adding this doozy;

If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?”

I have given serious thought to this metaphorical bridge, from the following perspective – if someone comes across this Oprah-endorsed bestseller and, as a consequence of reading it, thinks to themselves ‘I once thought desperate migrants were a nameless, faceless mass but, after reading this fictional depiction, I now feel connected to their individual stories’, then who are we to criticise?

Except, what we should then question is why it takes a fictional sort of semi-migrant, who speaks near-perfect English, drives an orange VW bug, and has a genius for a son, to light these fires of empathy. After all, it’s not an issue of awareness. I live in Australia, and I’ve seen the footage of desperate Haitians crossing the Rio Grande, and read articles about missing children at the border, under Trump’s rule. Are those marching over Cummins’ bridge doing anything other than being extra-aware, momentarily, that people are *gasp* people, with feelings and stuff, just like them? Awareness is great – it allows us to fit it in before bemoaning the lack of garlic for dinner, as does American Dirt’s Clayton’s-migrant, Lydia.

(For the record, I’m painfully aware that I don’t DO anything about anything. Awareness, for me, is impotence magnified. I love my family. I give thanks for the sheer luck of my birth. I remain mystified by cruelty.)

The other side of this argument is best expressed in this fabulous review by Myriam Gurba, where she summarises American Dirt as follows:

“Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.”

Gurba also draws attention to Cummins’ recent rebranding as a person of colour. Yes, it appears that, after declaring ‘I really don’t want to write about race…I am 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’ for a New York Times article in 2015, Cummins is now remarkably vocal about her Puerto Rican grandmother. She also claims to ‘have a dog in the fight’ due to her husband’s undocumented status, going so far as to describe a terrifying police encounter over a broken tail light where, presumably, he could have been dragged off and deported at any moment.

This might have some validity, except she fails to add that HER HUSBAND IS IRISH, which gives her about as much right to tell that story as I do to bemoan being racially targeted based on my tendency to pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘congratulations’, thanks to the precise English I adopted from my British-immigrant parents. Dog in the fight, my arse.

If this response is all seeming a bit over-the-top for a lazy weekend read, you should keep in mind that Jeanine Cummins was paid a million dollars for this book. A fucking million dollars. And she literally used a barbed wire theme for the table centrepieces and her manicure (Immigration detention, but make it fashion) at the book’s launch. Imagine profiting that flippantly and extensively from a deft appropriation of the misery of others. It would have been less galling if she had described how much she enjoyed rolling around in all that cash, instead of positing herself as a literary messiah. I can’t believe I bought it.

There is, of course, a benefit to having read American Dirt, in that I intend to wake up tomorrow, unprepared for work and lamenting an early run, being consciously grateful that I have work and am able to run.

To atone for getting sucked into this shit show, I have ordered The Beast by Óscar Martínez, about which I will report back. Also, given how much I loved the novel’s smattering of Spanish (described by Gurba as yielding ‘the same effect as store-bought taco seasoning’), I will endeavour to learn some Spanish phrases, beginning with Gubra’s apt description of American Dirt:

obra de caca