The main topic of discussion in Book World/Twitter this week is American Dirt, a new novel by Jeanine Cummins about a mother and son who undergo great trials and tribulations on their journey from Mexico to the United States. The book’s publisher, Flatiron, paid seven figures for the manuscript and solicited blurbs from the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham, but also prominent Latina authors such as Sandra Cisneros. Don Winslow proclaimed it “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.” The film rights have already been sold.
The reason the book is now a topic of discussion, though, has nothing to do with its greatness. In The New York Times last week, book critic Parul Sehgal wrote that, as a work of literature, it actually wasn’t that good. The language was awkward and the characters were thin. “But does the book’s shallowness paradoxically explain the excitement surrounding it?” Sehgal asks at her conclusion. “The tortured sentences aside, ‘American Dirt’ is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that “these people are people,” while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore—and then congratulating us for caring.”
Sehgal’s review led readers back to another review by Myriam Gurba, initially commissioned by Ms. but spiked, Gurba writes, because her editor told her “I lacked the fame to pen something so ‘negative.’” Instead Gurba published her essay on the website Tropics of Meta. It’s a knockout. If you care about this controversy at all, please take a moment to read it.
But here’s a summary: In her review, Gurba takes Cummins, who is three-quarters white and one-quarter Puerto Rican, to task not just for poor writing, but also for her general cluelessness about Mexico and Mexicans in general. “Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the ‘faceless’ out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.”
There are, Gurba notes, many Latinx writers who have written, both in English and Spanish, about the difficulties immigrants from Mexico and Central America face as they try to enter the United States. Not one of those writers has received the attention, the advance acclaim, or the gigantic paycheck that Cummins has. She helpfully named a few:
The problem, the writer Alisa Valdes Rodriguez wrote on her blog, is not that Cummins is not Mexican. “The problem is the way the American publishing industry not only allows (seemingly?) white people to write about non-white people, but celebrates them for being visionary and sensitive, while simultaneously DISALLOWING people of color to write about anyone other than the group they are perceived to belong to (to do otherwise is to be somehow an ‘inauthentic’ person of color, you see.)”
On Tuesday, the book’s publication day, Oprah anointed American Dirt her new book club pick.
What does this have to do with food, you ask? Well, on Tuesday night, Flatiron threw Cummins a book party and dinner in New York City.
I have not read American Dirt and have nothing to add to the discussion about its literary credibility. Others have said far more than I can and far better. But what I can say is, for the love of God, do not use barbed wire, or anything else that evokes border walls, concentration camps, oppression, and intolerance, as a centerpiece at a fancy dinner. Please note also that the debate over American Dirt was underway long before this dinner, and the hosts had time to reconsider their choice of decoration.