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Books

‘American Dirt’ and the tradition of the moral parable

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Oprah Winfrey with author Jeanine Cummins, announcing ‘American Dirt’ as her new book club selection on ‘CBS This Morning.’
(John Paul Filo/CBS)

Three years ago, while visiting the University of Alabama to give a lecture, I was browsing at the college bookstore when I heard one of the cashiers saying to another, “I couldn’t stop crying.” They were blond, college-age young women, definitely from the South; it soon became clear they were talking about the hit TV show “This Is Us,” a melodrama about two adult white biological siblings, their black adopted brother and their mother, who raised them alone after their father’s tragic death.

Alabama is one of the most conservative states in the country. “This Is Us” is a show with a distinctly liberal sensibility: disarmingly frank about not only the realities of racism but also class privilege, sexism and fatphobia. These students might not be Trump voters, but it’s likely that many of their neighbors and family members are. Why would they be so caught up in a show so alien from their own lives? What were they getting out of it?

In retrospect, this was a naive and lazy question. Caring about people unlike you is how narrative art works. My favorite TV show is “Friday Night Lights,” set in a fictional small town in Texas that I wouldn’t particularly want to visit, and my favorite novel is “The Story of the Stone,” set in 18th century China. Imaginative projection, the ability to “get inside” a fictional human being or situation, is one of those mysterious human impulses that no critic, neuroscientist or psychoanalyst fully understands.

I thought about this moment in Alabama when I first read about Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt,” which was the subject of a high-profile marketing campaign and an Oprah’s Book Club selection before a flood of backlash forced an apology from its publisher and the cancellation of Cummins’ book tour. “American Dirt” concerns a Mexican mother and child who flee Acapulco for the U.S. after drug traffickers kill the rest of their family. Its publicity materials stressed that this was an “urgent” narrative intended to humanize the border crisis. In an afterword to “American Dirt,” Cummins writes, “At worst, we perceive [Latino migrants] as an invading mob… a faceless brown mass… We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.”

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Take even half a step back from the hype, and a few points become clear: We’re now entering the fourth year of the Trump presidency, and this crisis is nothing new. It began the day Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign in 2015 by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers. Reporters, activists, writers, filmmakers and artists have been working to put a human face on the victims of racist state terrorism since Day 1: Remember the indelible photo of the tiny girl crying as she and her mother are detained?

Cummins’ publicists wanted “American Dirt” to become the story that defines this era, distilling the conflict into a handful of archetypal characters.

Cummins’ publicists were aiming for something quite different. They wanted “American Dirt” to become the story that defines this era, distilling the conflict into a handful of archetypal characters: Tom Joad. Ebenezer Scrooge. Kunta Kinte. Jo March. Uncle Tom. They wanted to create a consensus narrative with the power to shift public opinion toward a new, more compassionate moral order.

Then, unsurprisingly, “American Dirt” became the subject of heated and well-deserved controversy. Myriam Gurba’s scorching review, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck,” has served as a rallying cry for many writers who view the novel as a one-dimensional thriller filled with stereotypes and inaccuracies.

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Recent arguments over books like this one are often summed up as arguments about appropriation — that is, the question of how writers (particularly white writers) can and should exercise caution when creating fictional characters unlike themselves. This is a complex subject, having to do with imaginative projection, representation and power; I’ve written on it at length and so have many others, but to me it’s not the only issue with “American Dirt,” because it’s clear no one involved in publishing this novel was interested in the richness of its psychology or the way it evokes the lived experience of contemporary Mexicans. The novel is supposed to go for the jugular: terror, fear, panic, rage.

Does it work? Maybe. I found it possible to read “American Dirt” and think, “Clearly, terrible events are taking place here,” the same way I respond to other kinds of stories about innocent people in trouble — for example, Liam Neeson’s seemingly endless series of movies about rescuing young women from kidnappers. “American Dirt” has the same Technicolor quality, the same feeling of endless movement and pulse-racing tension and the same clumsy prose as many other thrillers that wind up on the bestseller list. (“Lydia feels like a cracked egg, and she doesn’t know if she’s the shell or the yolk or the white. She’s scrambled.”) Its only distinctive quality, honestly, is its packaging — gift-wrapped in barbed wire, as a capital “S” statement. I’ve been reading about the border region for decades — in Yuri Herrera’s “Signs Preceding the End of the World, Charles Bowden’s “Mezcal” and “Blood Orchid,” Roberto Bolaño’s “2666,” Salvador Plascencia’s “The People of Paper” — and I can attest that in this regard, “American Dirt” is less valuable than, well, a handful of dirt, which properly handled can make things grow.

Sandra Cisneros, who has praised Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt,” is speaking out for the first time as controversy continues to engulf the divisive novel.

I sometimes wonder whether Americans actually love transformational social melodramas as much as they love the idea of them. It’s certainly easier to absorb the history of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — the bestseller that decisively changed Northern public opinion about slavery in the 1850s — than to encounter its cringeworthy stereotypes and mawkish dialogue. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a more maddening case, because it’s still so widely taught: a tissue-thin fantasy about white rectitude and the justice that bears no relation to the actual history of the Jim Crow South. Relying on these books is a kind of prosthetic politics: believing that an emotionally gripping story will do the work that argument or reportage or historical analysis has failed to do by forcing people to care.

Sometimes it works. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Grapes of Wrath” are canonical examples, but consider too “The Birth of a Nation,” which spurred white Americans to join the Ku Klux Klan; “The Turner Diaries,” a hugely popular dystopian fantasy among white nationalists; or “The Camp of the Saints,” a bestselling French novel (beloved by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon) that describes Europe collapsing after an invasion of immigrants. The history of prosthetic politics transacted through melodramatic narratives is no laughing matter. Naive empathy and concern for the innocent, the responses Cummins seems to value most, are exactly the tools that Fox News and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement use to convince uninformed white Americans that immigrants are dangerous and that deportations are necessary — which is why some critics, like Gurba, have labeled the novel “Trumpian,” as much as it’s intended to be the opposite.

“American Dirt” won’t have much political impact, because Americans who have the capacity to be outraged about children in cages on the border already are; it’s arriving too late and isn’t compelling enough to change many minds. In the best-case scenario, it will be like “This Is Us” — popular, gratifying to some, not capable of moving any needles. As a novel, it’s a profoundly missed opportunity, a displacement of attention and resources that should have gone to more worthwhile books and more informed writers. But as a subject for conversation and controversy, even outrage, I hope “American Dirt” reminds American readers that a vibrant literature of the border already exists and deserves their attention. Also, nearly 70,000 migrant children were held in U.S. custody in 2019. No American should need a book packaged in barbed wire to remember that.

Row’s essay collection, “White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination,” was published last summer.


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