How ‘American Dirt’ Went From One of the Most Anticipated Novels of the Year to the Most Controversial

Everyone's got dirt on 'American Dirt'

American Dirt
#canceled.
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By Kayla Kibbe / January 22, 2020 10:34 am

According to Jeanine Cummings, she had good intentions in penning American Dirt. One of the most highly-anticipated books of the year, the novel tells the story of a mother and son fleeing Mexico for America after the cartel kingpin-ordered slaughter of their family, which Cummings says she felt compelled to write in order to humanize “the faceless brown mass” that is, she believes, many people’s perception of immigrants.

Unsurprisingly, the book has sparked its share of controversy, largely to the tune of what Slate has called “the increasingly pro forma conversation about who’s allowed to tell whose story.” In other words, while Cummings herself admitted in the book’s afterword that she “wish[es] someone slightly browner than me would write it,” her critics agrees that someone browner definitely should have written the story, and probably could have done so more convincingly.

In the review Slate credits with launching the public debate surrounding American Dirt, Myriam Gurba calls out the novel’s apparent ignorance of the country and people it seeks to represent, saying the heroine falls short of a “credible Mexican” and seems to “perceive her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.”

After Parul Sehgal followed Gurba with a critical review for the New York Times’ daily Books of the Times section, the literary drama quickly spread to Twitter and beyond. Poet David Bowles panned the book as “trauma porn” in an op-ed for Medium titled “Cummins’ Non-Mexican Crap,” while LA Times staffer Esmeralda Bermudez tweeted that the book is far from the “great immigrant novel” white critics have hailed it as.

“The terror, the loss, the injustice of this experience shaped everything about me,” Bermudez wrote in a tweet Monday. “I see no part of myself reflected in #AmericanDirt, a book white critics are hailing as the great immigrant novel.”

Also adding fuel to the fire is Lauren Groff’s review for the Times, which takes a noticeably softer approach to the novel than Sehgal’s did just two days earlier. Groff, however, maintains that her review of the book isn’t nearly as favorable as the Times Book Review ‘s Twitter account made it out to be when they tweeted a link to the article along with a quote more glowing than any that appears in the review in which Groff calls American Dirt “one of the most wrenching books I have read in the past few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser’s novels.”

The quote had reportedly been pulled from an earlier draft, prompting Groff to respond, “Please take this down and post my actual review.”

Meanwhile, in another recent development, Gurba has recently brought it to Twitter’s attention that guests at Cummins’ American Dirt book party in May dined at tables decked out with barbed wire center pieces, “You know, to evoke border chic.”

Suffice to say, not a great look!

Oh, and because every drama needs a big name draw, Oprah is involved now. Having apparently decided that border chic is, in fact, IN for 2020, the media mogul has just named American Dirt her latest Book Club pick.

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