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Who has the right to tell certain stories? ‘American Dirt’ sparks conversations about the politics of fiction

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Jeanine Cummins, the author of “American Dirt.”
(Joe Kennedy)

What led Jeanine Cummins to finally decide to write “American Dirt” was her desire to change the public discourse around immigration in the United States — though from the beginning, she wondered whether she could.

“I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it,” she wrote in an unusually long author’s note at the end of the novel. “But then I thought, if you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge? So I began.”

“American Dirt” is the story of Lydia and her 8-year-old son, Luca, who are fleeing from their home in Acapulco, Mexico, after a drug cartel kills more than a dozen of their family members during a quinceañera. They flee north on a treacherous, 2,645-mile journey, disguising themselves as migrants in an effort to cross the border.

Slated to hit shelves Jan. 21, Cummins’ novel about the border crisis has already sparked a cacophony of reactions from writers across the United States. Some have praised Cummins for humanizing the migrant tale, and for sending a timely and important message to the world about the United States’ failing immigration policies. Others have said the book is riddled with stereotypes and clichés, that it’s inaccurate and an act of appropriation. (In The Times, Rigoberto Gonzalez falls somewhere in between.) In sum, the book has raised divisive questions about censorship, representation and the politics of fiction, homing in on a single dilemma: Who has the right to tell certain stories?

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Pam Houston reviews Jeanine Cummins’ ‘American Dirt.’ The novel digs into the Mexican border crisis and a mother’s dangerous journey to a better life.

“None of us have the right or not the right to write about it,” said Norma Iglesias-Prieto, professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at San Diego State University, whom Cummins consulted and cited in her author’s note. “I think everyone has the right to write about a particular topic even if you are not part of this community,” Iglesias-Prieto added.

Not everyone agrees. On the other end of these conversations are arguments that only writers from minority and marginalized backgrounds truly own stories about those communities. “Jeanine Cummins’ narco-novel, ‘American Dirt,’ is a literary licuado [smoothie] that tastes like its title,” writes Myriam Gurba in a scathing review of the book on the website Tropics of Meta. Later, she asserts that “‘American Dirt’ fails to convey any Mexican sensibility. It aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it instead embodies Halloween.”

For some critics of “American Dirt,” the problem is Cummins herself. Born in Spain and raised in a working-class family in Maryland, Cummins is not a Mexican national. She’s of mixed ethnicity and has family roots in Puerto Rico; she identifies as Latina and white. Critics have questioned whether she was able to accurately convey the experience of Mexican migrants.

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Mexican American poet David Bowles contends that Cummins’ effort to write about Mexican culture as a woman of Puerto Rican heritage was presumptuous. He took to Twitter on Monday to express his frustration and called “American Dirt” “appropriating, inaccurate, torture-porn about Mexico” that was “deliberately written with white folks in mind.”

Gurba had similar thoughts. In her withering critique, she claims the book teems with “overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes” about “the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild” while painting Mexico as a country awash in violence, drug cartels and corruption.

In a phone interview, Gurba recalled reading the book’s opening murder scene and thinking: “This is absolutely a Trumpian fantasy of Mexico.” Gurba, who is of Mexican heritage, added, “We’re perfectly competent and perfectly capable of telling stories” but “gatekeepers do not allow us inside, but they will let in somebody who wants to usurp our voice.”

In response to the negative reviews, publisher and executive vice president of Flatiron Books Amy Einhorn issued a statement to The Times that emphasized the novel’s broad support, saying in part, “We are extremely proud to be publishing ‘American Dirt’ and are thrilled that some of the biggest names in Latinx literature are championing the novel.”

Notable Latinas and Mexican American writers have endorsed the novel. Sandra Cisneros, esteemed author of “The House on Mango Street,” called it “masterful,” “the great novel of las Americas” and “the international story of our times.” Julia Alvarez (“How the García Girls Lost Their Accents”) hailed it as “riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment” and said it had the power to “change hearts and transform policies.”

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A book jacket for “American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins.
(Flatiron Books )

Cummins has repeatedly expressed her reluctance to write about Mexico and the immigrant experience. She writes in the author’s note that she worried her privilege would make her “blind to certain truths,” that she might get things wrong. And in a New York Times profile last Monday, she told an interviewer, “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.”

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Cummins researched and wrote the book over a span of four years. She drew on the work of Valeria Luiselli, Luis Alberto Urrea and others to learn about Mexico and the struggles of migrants. She took trips to Mexico and interviewed people on both sides of the border. She spoke to scholars and lawyers, activists and migrants in shelters, and families separated at the border.

Those who have commended Cummins’ book have praised its gripping prose and plot, its timeliness and character development. Author Don Winslow compared “American Dirt” to John Steinbeck’s 1930s magnum opus about the Great Depression, calling Cummins’ novel “a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our times.”

Stephen King called it “marvelous” and “one hell of a novel.” His son, writer Joe Hill, recommended the “relentless thriller” to his Twitter followers.

In a phone interview, Iglesias-Prieto argued that “American Dirt” humanizes the lives of people who are typically “invisible” and “treated as facts.” From her perspective, Cummins’ rich, multidimensional characters help shatter stereotypes that have existed for decades: that Latinos are criminals, rapists or unintelligent. “I think she’s contributing to [breaking stereotypes] by developing very complex characters with real dilemmas, with history, with names, with family, with dreams.”

Some writers won’t take the risk of telling sensitive stories for fear of getting it wrong. Jonathan Franzen has said that he won’t write about race because he doesn’t have “firsthand experience” with it. Yet others contend that being a member of a certain community or having had direct involvement with it shouldn’t be a prerequisite to writing about it.

Novelist Colson Whitehead, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad,” came to a more complicated conclusion. He urged the audience at a writers conference in Portland last year to write what they didn’t know. “Tackle a story that you’re scared to begin, that you don’t know if you can pull off.” But he warned them to proceed with care: “You can write about anything,” Whitehead said, “just don’t f— it up.”

With that major caveat in mind, Cummins and others are considering it a risk worth taking. Because sometimes, as Iglesias-Prieto put it, “It’s better to speak with a more human perspective than not speak at all.”


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