I’m so delighted to be joined by my wonderful friend Katie Hislop to workshop American Dirt in book club this week. Katie is an HR guru who has been a guest on the podcast before when she shared her wisdom about helping women ‘rev up their careers post kids’. Today, Katie is donning her reading hat and helping me workshop this controversial yet powerful book.

American Dirt was written by American author Jeanine Cummins and released in early 2020. The book received accolades from literary gurus including Stephen King and John Grisham and quickly captured the attention of Oprah Winfrey who chose it for her super popular book club. But despite the initial burst of positivity, there has been extensive criticism essentially centering on whether Jeanine Cummins is in fact the right person to tell the story of a migrant woman fleeing Mexico.

What’s American Dirt About?

Lydia Perez lives a happy, middle-class existence in the Mexican city of Acapulco with her journalist husband and 8 year old son Luca. While cracks are beginning to show in Acapulco because of the drug cartels, Lydia’s life is, by and large, fairly comfortable.

A passionate reader, Lydia runs a bookstore. Even though she knows they’ll never sell, Lydia stocks some of her all-time favourite books in her store. One day a man enters her shop and comes up to the register with four books he would like to buy―two of them her favourites. Javier is charming, charismatic and, unbeknownst to Lydia, the head of the newest drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. Los Jardinos

When Sebastian, Lydia’s husband’s publishes a tell-all profile of Javier and his crimes, Javier orders the slaughter of Sebastian and his family. Lydia and Luca escape the massacre but are forced to flee Mexico and soon find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable middle-class existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca take a treacherous trip on la bestia―trains that make their way north toward the United States, with Javier’s men nipping at their heels.

Despite a university degree and her life savings, Lydia has ‘no access to the kind of information that has real currency on this journey’: how to jump onto the roof of La Bestia, the lethal freight trains travelling north, how to find a trustworthy coyote to smuggle them into America, how to avoid notice and keep on running. 

About Jeanine Cummins

Cummins was born in Spain, where her father was stationed in the US Navy. She grew up in Maryland in the United States and studied English and communications at Towson University. After graduating, she spent two years in Belfast, Ireland, where she worked as a bartender and wrote self described ‘terrible poetry’.

After moving back to the United States, she found work in the sales department at Penguin. While she was working there, she published her first book, “A Rip in Heaven,” about a tragedy that struck her family in 1991, when her brother and two female cousins were attacked on a bridge in St. Louis by a group of men. The men raped her cousins and forced them off the bridge, killing them. Her brother, Tom, was also forced to jump off but survived. Cummins found researching and writing about the crimes daunting: ‘there were a lot of details I didn’t want to know’ but she felt it brought some relief and helped her learn how to write about trauma in a way that didn’t feel gratuitous or sensational. These themes, and a desire to ‘take stories away from the perpetrators and give them to the survivors,’ shaped her next two books, which were both fiction: ‘The Outside Boy’ and ‘The Crooked Branch’.

About seven years ago, she began researching a novel about immigration. She envisioned that it would have a diverse set of characters: border patrol agents, American citizens living near the southern border and families that had been separated by deportation and undocumented migrants. But it never really came together and Cummins couldn’t escape the feeling that she was avoiding the crux of the story.

Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, her father died suddenly from a heart attack. She spent months in mourning, unable to write. One day, she pulled out her laptop and wrote the opening of ‘American Dirt’, a scene where Luca and Lydia narrowly survive the gunfire that kills Luca’s father, a journalist who wrote about drug cartels, and 15 other relatives. She finished a draft in less than a year, and sold the novel in the spring of 2018.

The Controversy

In interview after interview, Jeanine Cummins acknowledges that she isn’t sure whether she is the right person to tell this story. But she felt compelled to tell the story despite the fact she also felt unqualified. She was concerned her privilege would make her blind to certain truths and that she may be seen to be opportunistically taking advantage of a humanitarian crisis. However she decided that if she really wanted to help bring about change then the story had to be told.

When the book was launched in early 2020, a book tour was planned however after all the controversy, it was cancelled citing security concerns and specific threats to both the author and booksellers

The novel, which came out Jan. 21 with a hefty first printing of half a million copies, set off a bidding war between nine publishers and sold to Flatiron Books in a seven-figure deal. It received ecstatic advance reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, which called it “intensely suspenseful and deeply humane.” Blockbuster authors like Stephen King and John Grisham praised on the book, and Cummins received support from prominent Mexican American and Latina authors, including Erika Sánchez, Reyna Grande and Julia Alvarez, who predicted the book would “change hearts and transform policies.”

Sandra Cisneros, the author of the best-selling novel The House on Mango Street, said she hoped that American Dirt could help highlight the obstacles migrants face, particularly for American readers who might otherwise be indifferent to the subject.

“It’s written in a form that will engage people, not just the choir, but people who might think differently,” Cisneros said. “We’re always looking for the great American story, and this is the great story of the Americas, at a time in which borders are blurred.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, American Dirt has already been optioned for a movie adaptation by Charles Leavitt, the writer of Blood Diamondand Imperative Entertainment, the production company behind Clint Eastwood’s The Mule

But then there was the criticism

Many say the criticism started with the advance copies that were released in late 2019. The book was called stereotypical, appropriative, opportunistically selfish.

Some questioned whether Cummins, who grew up in Maryland in a working-class family and identifies as white and Latina, succeeded in her effort to write from the perspective of Mexican migrants and accurately convey their experiences.

It was criticised for ‘brownfacing’ – incorporating a nominally Mexican perspective that was written by a woman who as recently as 2016 identified as “white.” In the lead-up to the book’s release, Cummins revealed she has a Puerto Rican grandmother. However the conversations soon centered around who has the right to tell what stories.

Many believe Cummins filled American Dirt with cliches and stereotypes about Mexico, depicting it as a lawless, violent country overrun by drug cartels and corruption. In a withering review on the site Tropics of Meta, poet and writer Myriam Gurba said:

“This is like a Trumpian fantasy of what Mexico is, and we don’t need any more Trumpian fantasies,” Gurba said in an interview. “It’s even more noxious because it’s masquerading as a piece of progressive literature.”

During Oprah’s Book Club on the novel, the LatinX authors on the panel identified that the see the white-washed publishing houses as responsible for the current situation. Author Reyna Grande states:

“I felt hurt and I felt undervalued,” Grande says to Cummins of reading “American Dirt.” “Because the publishing industry does not have the same attitude with our immigrant stories as they did with your story.”

Julissa Arce, LatinX author, said: ‘As a Latina writer, I’m very often asked to make my stories more relevant, and to make them more accessible… When the publishing industry is 80% white, what I’m really being asked to do is to make my stories more relevant to white people.’

What The Girls Thought

Both Alex and Katie thinks the book is a powerful vehicle for change. They appreciate the concerns from the LatinX surrounding the appropriateness of a ‘white woman’ writing about the journey of a LatinX woman and are also very aware of the debate surrounding who has the right to write a story.

Alex believes this book has opened her eyes and educated her about the migrant journey. Despite the controversy, the book is starting a conversation and raise an awareness of such an important issue – which is exactly what Cummins wanted.

If you want to know more about the migrant trail and the current state of Mexican drug cartels, Alex found this overview very useful. Alex also recently watched Stateless – a 6 part show, available on ABV iView and Netflix – which provides a great over on asylum seeker process and Australia’s approach to detention.

You can listen to Alex and Katie’s chat on the podcast via your favourite podcast app, or by clicking on the link below.

Thanks so much for being part of the book club!

Alex xx

PS Our next book is How To Be An Australian by Ashley Kalagian Blunt on October 30.