Even before Towson University alum Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt" was published on Tuesday, a cloud of controversy was swirling around the Gaithersburg native and her book.
In recent days, Twitter has exploded with Latino and Latina writers accusing the author of everything from cultural appropriation, to pandering to the tastes of a white audience, to indulging in harmful stereotypes.
And yet, “American Dirt” has been embraced by such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey and a slew of famous novelists — including several Mexican-American scribes.
Some dedicated bookworms will read “American Dirt” before making up their own minds about the dust-up. For the rest of us, the Sun has prepared a brief recap of the plot, the players and their differing perspectives:
What’s “American Dirt” about?
Bookseller Lydia Quixano Pérez and her 8-year-old son, Luca, flee their home in Mexico after Lydia’s journalist husband publishes an expose of the new leader of the drug cartel that has taken over Acapulco. In retaliation, 16 people in Lydia’s family are slaughtered at a quinceanera celebration for Lydia’s 15-year-old niece. Only Lydia and Luca are spared, and they embark on a harrowing dash for the U.S. border. In a flash, mother and son are stripped of their middle-class privilege and transformed into just two other illegal immigrants scrambling to survive.
What’s the reception been?
The early response was glowing. “American Dirt” is Cummins’ fourth book. Though she’d previously enjoyed success with her 2004 memoir, “A Rip in Heaven,” the reaction was nothing like this.
Cummins’ newest book ignited a bidding war between nine publishers that resulted in a seven-figure contract for the author and the announcement of a possible film deal. On Tuesday, Winfrey announced that “American Dirt” was her latest book club selection.
Celebrities piled over one another to endorse the novel.
Mexican-American novelist Sandra Cisernos wrote: “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. ... This is the international story of our times.”
Horror maestro Stephen King wrote: “I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it."
Don Winslow, author of the New York Times-bestselling novel “The Border,” compared Cummins to John Steinbeck, winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. Winslow hailed “American Dirt” as “a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our times.”
So everyone loves it?
Not by a long shot. In fact, the intensity of the backlash against “American Dirt" has rivaled the enthusiasm of the book’s initial reception.
Cummins’ problems began on Dec. 12, when the critic Myriam Gurba published an essay on the online website tropicsofmeta.com with the headline “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.”
Social media has exploded with critics eager to lambaste what they perceive as Cummins’ tone-deaf prose. On Twitter, the phrase “writing my Latino novel" has inspired several parodies, some of which are hilarious — if occasionally explicit:
Now, some of the same publications that previously published glowing reviews of “American Dirt” are filling their pages with a starkly opposing view. On Jan. 13, Polly Rosenwaike, a reviewer for the Washington Post, called it “a vital chronicle of contemporary Latin American migrant experience and a profoundly moving reading experience.”
Two other news articles about the controversy have run in the Post this week. And in a fourth commentary posted earlier today, the author and Washington University professor Ignacio M. Sanchez Prado described the novel’s success as “a slap in the face to the many authors who write about Mexico with knowledge and care.”
So what’s the problem?
Some reviews, such as Prado’s, seem as irritated by the ecstatic response from the mainstream establishment as they are by the novel itself.
It didn’t help that floral centerpieces that sat in the middle of the table at the book publication dinner were wrapped in barbed wire, doubtless meant to invoke the border wall.
Other writers have taken exception to the author’s note in which Cummins describes both her four years of research in the U.S. and Mexico and her own ambivalence about tackling the topic of immigration:
“I wish someone slightly browner than me would write it,” she wrote.
But what seems to anger Cummins’ critics the most is that she seemingly flip-flops about her ethnic heritage. Cummins was born in Spain and lived for a time in Ireland; a grandmother was Puerto Rican. A previous novel deals with the Irish potato famine and plight of the Pavee gypsies.
In a 2015 essay in the New York Times, Cummins writes that despite her mixed cultural heritage, “In every practical way, my family is mostly white. I’ll never know the impotent rage of being profiled, or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name.”
Yet in the 2019 online newsletter “Shelf Awareness” she told an interviewer:
“I was resistant, initially, to writing from the point of view of a Mexican migrant because, no matter how much research I did, regardless of the fact that I’m Latinx, I didn’t feel qualified to write in that voice, because these are not my life experiences.”
(“Latinx” is the gender-neutral term preferred by some Latin American people.)
Is the controversy hurting book sales?
Not in the slightest. As of 3 p.m. Thursday, “American Dirt” was the third best-selling book on Amazon.com.