People are fuming that ‘American Dirt,’ a book inspired by the Mexican immigration crisis, is written by a woman who isn’t an immigrant or Mexican
Oprah Winfrey’s book club is famous for making books overnight New York Times bestsellers, and their authors, literary celebrities. The media icon recently unveiled her book-of-the-month, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The story is incredibly relevant, as it follows a Mexican woman and her son, who are struggling to leave behind their lives in Mexico, which have been devastated by a drug cartel, and immigrate to the United States. While the overall message is important, a lot of people have a serious problem with Oprah’s literary selection — not because it isn’t a good book, but because it’s being praised as the defining tale about immigration, written by a person who is neither Mexican or an immigrant.
“From the first page, the first sentence, I was in, I was open, I was shook up,” Oprah said when announcing her book choice. “It woke me up, and I feel that everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom.” The book, being touted as “a Grapes of Wrath for our times” and “a new American classic,” was so highly hyped that its author received a “seven figure” advance for it — which is pretty much unheard of in the literary world. Additionally, a script is already in the works to adapt it into a movie.
While this might have gotten a pass a decade ago, we are living in a time when representation finally matters. Even the author herself, who has previously identified as white (though she has a Puerto Rican grandmother) questioned her right to write the book.
“I worried that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have. I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it,” she writes in the author’s forward. “But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge? So I began.”
The hype surrounding the book is offensive to many especially in light of the fact that there are so many fantastic books about the immigrant experience written by actual immigrants that are constantly passed over in favor of ones written by Anglo writers like American Dirt. Actress Salma Hayek had initially been instrumental in promoting the book on her social media account, however, once she was made aware of the issues behind the story, she removed her endorsement and made it clear what side of the controversy she was on.
“Yesterday, I posted a message about a book which I removed from my Instagram,” she started the post, which appeared in both Spanish and English. “I want to say to all of you that I got very excited when Oprah shared with me her pick for book club because in the description of the book I learned that it was the story of a Mexican woman, so I rushed into sharing my excitement with you. I confess, I have not read it and was not aware of any kind of controversy. I thank all of you who caught me in the act of not doing my research, and for setting me straight, because that means you know me and gave me the benefit of the doubt; and I apologize for shouting out something without experiencing it or doing research on it.”
Many others — including members of the media — also voiced their opinion.
I am an immigrant. My family fled El Salvador with death pounding on our door. The terror, the loss, the injustice of this experience shaped everything about me. I see no part of myself reflected in #AmericanDirt, a book white critics are hailing as the great immigrant novel.
— Esmeralda Bermudez (@LATBermudez) January 20, 2020
Because migrants weren’t actually people until Jeanine Cummins made them human.
I just…every piece that comes out in praise of #AmericanDirt is even more offensive than the one before it.
— BurquenaBoricua #AbolishICE (@BurquenaBoricua) January 17, 2020
I am tired of hearing it year after year: WE DON'T KNOW WHERE TO FIND LATINO WRITERS? WHERE ARE THEY? IF ONLY THERE WERE SOME, WE'D HIRE THEM…
Then another #AmericanDirt happens and they tell us to stop complaining. ffs alv ctm !
— Mexican Judge (@laloalcaraz) January 22, 2020
The marketing of the book was also called out, with many finding it offensive. Investigative immigration reporter Aura Bogado even called out Cummins when she got a barbed wire manicure that resembled the book’s cover.
Jeanine Cummins got a barbwire manicure. The fetish here, the vulgar pleasure of proudly wearing this exact symbol of oppression as a fashion statement and claiming it's "pretty," is literally making me nauseous. I wanna throw up. https://t.co/AdOlPwz6mw
— Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) January 23, 2020
So much about #AmericanDirt's marketing & publicity has been disingenuous and hurtful to immigrant communities. It has been marketed as definitive & own voices, when the author's undocumented immigrant husband mentioned in the blurb is….Irish. It's insulting to readers.
— Leah Rachel von Essen – I got my vase! 🌻 (@reading_while) January 21, 2020
While many focused on Cummins inability to truly represent the immigrant experience, journalist David J. Schmidt also points out in a story for the Huffington Post that many of the stories in the book were “cribbed” from actual Latino writers, listing them scene for scene. Additionally, he notes many instances that expose the author as a non-Mexican, inaccurately writing lingo, making “linguistic gaffes,” and portraying what people eat.
“Cummins is not a person familiar with Mexico,” he explains. “She describes an imaginary country where people put sour cream on their street tacos, dress their chicken with BBQ sauce rather than mole, eat black licorice drops rather than mazapán, and fear the Bogeyman rather than El Coco.”
His biggest issue, however, is that so many natives have written well-informed books about the struggle.
“But the central issue here is not that a non-Mexican author wrote a book about Mexico,” he writes. “It is that the publishing industry backed an uninformed Anglo writer rather than a well-informed Latino or Latina writer. That is outrageous, patently unfair, and should make any sensible person queasy.”
— Sara Catherine (@scatfloyd) January 22, 2020
As of now, Oprah has yet to comment on the controversy, though she is a reasonable woman and we hope she understands the impact of what might have only appeared to her as an oversight.
If you are interested in reading a book about immigration and/or the Latinx experience written by a person who is one, some of the favorites on social media include Across a Hundred Mountains, The Affairs of the Falcons, and A Dream Called Home.