American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a story of a mother (Lydia) and her child (Luca) fleeing from a Mexican drug cartel. The two have survived a horrific massacre that saw 17 members of their family murdered in retaliation for a newspaper article on the local cartel leader written by Lydia’s husband.
Convinced that she and her son will continue to be targeted, Lydia flees the scene and determines to make her way to America via ‘la bestia’, a long and dangerous train journey north. Along the way they meet other migrants fleeing violence and despair in the hope of a better future.
This book attempts to explore the violent and corrupt drug culture of Mexico, the unrelenting and unfathomable depth of love a mother feels for her child, and bring to light the humanity and personal horror of migrants seeking asylum in the US. It tries. Sort of. Not really.
This book has sparked controversy around Cummins’s appropriation of Mexican narratives and superficial and clichéd depictions of migrants. Don’t get me started on the glowing wonder that is America in this book.
Let’s set aside the myriad issues with Cummins’s decision to write this book in the first place and start with the writing itself. It’s boring. Overburdened with indulgent flashbacks and constant explanations of Lydia’s feelings, this book really drags. It’s a long 459 pages despite the blurb spruiking it as an action-packed thriller. I mean, ‘For him, she will leap onto the roof of a high-speed train’ has Hollywood blockbuster written all over it (and I believe there’s one in the pipeline). Yet, the reading experience is slow and tedious. I found myself skimming this book just to get through it.
The characters are two-dimensional and overwritten. Luca is the perfect survivor child who stoically comes of age as their journey progresses. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good. Lydia is wholly unsympathetic in her naivety, stupidity and stupid luck.
Then there’s the lack of authenticity and depth in Cummins’s representation of Mexico and of migrants. This is not the place for me to weigh in, but I can direct you to a swathe of excellent resources that will highlight how damaging books like this can be (marketed as must reads for those who want to know about the plight of Mexican migrants).
Here’s my favourite summary of American Dirt by Myriam Gurba:
“Unfortunately, Jeanine Cummins’s narco-novel, American Dirt, is a literary licuado that tastes like its title. 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.”
Here a few sources to help you get a handle on why this book is controversial:
I suggest you read Gurba’s full article to get a true sense of why she found American Dirt a difficult book.
I don’t have an issue with the fact that Jeanine Cummins isn’t Mexican. It doesn’t mean she can’t write a book that deftly tackles social, political and economic issues in another country. The problem is, she didn’t write deftly. She didn’t write well, and she didn’t write with care. She wrote a book that would sell millions of copies and be made into a movie. I take issue with the fact that she wrote a bad book that played on stereotypes and cliché.
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