“American Dirt”, the new and much anticipated novel by Jeanine Cummins, has caused a huge kerfluffle in leftist literary circles and amongst a number of writers of Mexican heritage, amongst others. The novel itself may be getting lost in the swirls of controversy. Cummins, who is a mostly white woman (her father was Puerto Rican), having studied the horrors of mainly Mexicans fleeing their country for any number of reasons, decided to write this novel, which focuses mainly on one woman and her son, escaping the violence of a specific drug cartel in Mexico; her husband has been a well respected journalist exposing the violence of one particular cartel in Acapulco (which many may remember as an international resort of sorts back in the ’60s and ’70s). The novel’s first chapter is one of the finest in recent contemporary fiction; the author know how to get the reader’s adrenaline going–and that adrenaline will sustain most readers throughout this often excellent, occasionally flawed novel of the migrant experience. Lydia and her son Luca are hiding in the shower stall in the bathroom of her house; all her family are outside on the terrace celebrating a version of a l6th birthday party for Lydia’s niece. 16 of Lydia’s family members, including both her journalist husband and her mother , are murdered by a vindictive cartel boss, who, it also happens, has rather fallen in love with Lydia in her bookstore; Lydia is not aware of who this man is who comes to her store to discuss books, to read his poetry, and to discuss his daughter, the saving grace of his life. This reader had some difficulty with this plot device, but this cartel boss has felt betrayed by Lydia’s husband’s—and also by Lydia– recent expose of him for various reasons and suddenly, Lydia and son Luca are on the run to save their lives. Lydia has no time to grieve or mourn or even think; she flees with Luca, and her flight/their escape is the core of the novel. Cummins states in her afterward that she is attempting to put some human faces on the vast number of migrants fleeing for their lives, and I think she mostly succeeds in doing so.
The fugitives’ middle class lives vanish nearly at once; Lydia , who keeps reminding herself not to think, is determined to save her 8 year old son, Luca, and their journey on buses and on top of The Bestia (those trains going north wherein migrants who survive jump on top of those train cars to escape) and through deserts and big cities is written with great passion and that constant pumping of adrenaline. Along the way, Lydia and Luca meet people good and bad; Cummins has a great belief in hope and in the goodness of people (food and water are given to migrants along the way by random strangers as well as in occasional migrant shelters); Cummins adds two beautiful teenaged sisters to the journey, who’ve escaped Honduras; these two sisters bond with Luca, and the four of them begin to seem a family in the making. The sisters are both repeatedly raped; everyone on these migrant journeys is robbed of virtually any money or valuables they took with them). Lydia may or may not be shadowed by a teenaged boy who may or may not be working for the cartel; Cummins’ writes superbly about the paranoia and fear of trusting strangers on this journey to the north. Most of the novel is the journey itself from Acapulco to, eventually, Tuscon. And a terrifying journey it is, tho Lydia’s original middle class background will help her along the way, which may be part of the reason for the complaints about the novel from Mexican/”Latinx” writers and survivors in this country. (The coyote that the two teenaged Honduran girls have hired will eventually agree to take Luca and Lydia, who’ve paid their ransom earlier to allow them to escape together from a random time when they’re all prisoners along the way). It is entirely probable that thousands of other migrants don’t make it to America; they die in the dessert, they get lost, they are trafficked, etc.: Cummins does mention all these possibilities/probabilities in this fast-paced and exceptionally well written book.
The kerfluffle mentioned above seems to question the authenticity of Cummins as the writer/chronicler of this migrant story, and the large advance she received for the novel; Cummins herself attempts to address these issues at the end of the novel, which some have written off as an Oprah-blessed novel (Oprah has since removed said blessing) written for suburban Americans. But what if it is? If awareness of the lives and journeys of migrants can only be written by those who have personally experienced it, what on earth is fiction, then, for? The accusations seem to question Cummins’ motives and her credentials as a mostly white woman to write about the experience of a Mexican migrant; this then presumes that only, say, white men can write about white men, only women about women, only gays about gays and the like. The arguments against Cummins’ novel (her book tour has been canceled and death threats abound) are arguments against what fiction is and who the politically correct crowd deem appropriate to write about whose experience; that tricky word “authenticity” keeps popping up in the rants against this author. It seems a self-limiting argument, and it’s the kind of far leftist discussion that actually leads to censorship and book burning, if taken to its illogical logical ending. Write your own novels, those of you complaining about Cummins’ efforts; that Cummins apparently has called herself, once, a “latinx” deeply offends the purity brigade. If race and gender and class and power are going to be reduced to only “the authentic experience”, then what need/what purpose empathy? Isn’t empathy something fiction has always strived for in its various ways? Isn’t fiction supposed to put us into someone else’s shoes? Where, then, is the place for imagination in helping to create empathy?
“American Dirt” is well worth reading; it’s fast paced and full of horrors and desperate people and good and bad folks along the way. Perhaps the novel’s detractors expected too much of the novel; perhaps there’s a jealousy factor because of the book’s huge advance and its massive publicity, but I fear that the attackers are those who end up creating Mao Tse-Tung’s “Reeducation Camps” in their wish for purity and the “authentic” experience. (Oprah, too, has whimped out and removed her recommendation of this novel). The arguments against “American Dirt” are really political correctness run amok.