American Dirt-Jeanine Cummins
This isn’t like my usual book blog entry. I have decided to discuss two books in one blog entry: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and Myriam Gurba’s memoir, Mean.
You may have read about/heard of the controversy surrounding the publication of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. How could I possibly comment or pass judgement without reading it first myself. So I did. I finished it this morning.
American Dirt tells the story of a Mexican woman, Lydia and her son Lucas, living in Acapulco until they have to leave Mexico for the USA by way of “La Bestia”.
Jeanne Cummins was offered a seven figure sum for American Dirt, a book that has been described as “not simply the great American novel, it’s the great novel of Las Américas” or a “Grapes of Wrath for our times.” It has been endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and included in her book club. What is the problem then? One of the first to critique American Dirt was a brilliant writer called Myriam Gurba. In her article, Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature, Gurba takes apart Cummin’s novel and gives her reasons along the way in an impassioned and right-on essay. Gurba states towards the beginning of her article:
Writer Alexander Chee has said that writers interested in exploring the realities of those unlike themselves should answer three questions before proceeding. These are:
“Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?”
“Do you read writers from this community currently?”
“Why do you want to tell this story?”
I would add a fourth question: can you write convincingly enough to make us believe in your characters? Cummins wasn’t able to answer question 4 for me and I don’t think I am alone.
My issue with American Dirt, is that Cummins isn’t a very good writer. I am not the first to think that. In her review of the book, Parul Sehgal observed “I found myself flinching as I read, not from the perils the characters face, but from the mauling the English language receives…..the real failures of the book have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist”. Yes, I sped through the book, it was gripping in ways that trashy literature can be but the characters seemed half-formed in my mind and the book was littered with stereotypes and caricatures. I was discussing the book with a friend,L last night and the issues with it, L pointed out that books like American Dirt, appear to be written by an outsider, looking in and passing judgement. Does that mean non- Mexicans can’t write about the Mexican experience? Of course not. In his article, Yes, Latinx writers are angry about American Dirt – and we will not be silent, Daniel A Olivas points out that “a talented writer who does the hard work can create convincing, powerful works of literature about other cultures. That’s called art. American Dirt is not art.”
American Dirt is littered with Spanish but sometimes there are errors with the Spanish used which irked me.
As I ended the book, I was dumbfounded by Cummin’s comments in the author’s note of the book. She says: at worst, we perceive [migrants] as an invading mob of resource – draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.” Faceless brown mass really?? Isn’t that a rather trite thing to say.
Quotes: these are quotes that just didn’t ring true with me as I read the book.
“Sometimes she read Yeats, rendering the lush green of Ireland in her Mexican accent.”
“That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.”
“Her dreams had been populated by the same whipped current of ocean air, the same bright, liquid colors, the same thrumming beats and aromas of her childhood,”
“Machismo will get you killed.”
“But instead of withdrawing, he persists, and then Rebeca softens, melts into him like a pat of butter on a pan.”
“Perhaps very deep within her, there’s still some smoldering wick that was once the flame of her person, but she cannot feel it there.”
“Tus amigos están en Guadalajara, Patrón.”
“I was appalled at the way Latino migrants, even five years ago – and it has gotten exponentially worse since then – were characterized within that public discourse.”
“When I decided to write this book, I worried that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths, that I’d get things wrong, as I may well have. I worried that, as a non-migrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it. 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.”
Mean isn’t for everyone. There are moments of hilarity, moments of quietly nodding my head in agreement to Gurba’s words and then many moments where I felt deeply uncomfortable. But then isn’t that what literature should do, push and provoke you.
Gurba grew up in California, she describes herself as being half chicana. In the 1990s, as a college student, whilst home visiting her parents, she is sexually assaulted. Her assailant goes on to assault other women, one woman, Sophia Torres, he gruesomly attacks, rapes and kills. The assailant, Gurba and Torres have something in common, they are all Mexican.
Mean is a memoir, in the era of the #MeToo movement, Gurba brings forward her story of abuse and harassment but she she also discusses how race, class and sexuality in sexual violence interconnect.
“Some ghosts listen to the radio through the bodies of the living. They use us to conduct pain, pleasure, music, and meaning. They burden us with feelings that are both ours and theirs.”
“On my first day, yo hablé con mis nursery school maestras usando palabras como éstas because I assumed we all had the same words.”
“It isn’t just greed that’s good. Mean is good too. Being mean makes us feel alive. It’s fun and exciting. Sometimes, it keeps us alive.”
“Sisterhood is powerful, but being a bitch is more exhilarating. Being a bitch is spectacular.”
“It’s good to have someone, especially someone you can communicate with preternaturally, present during the weirdest time of your life.”
“I’ll help build houses. But I’m not going to tell anyone about Jesus. They already know about Jesus. Mexico is filled with them.”
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was originally a kind of rapey song meant to be sung by a guy. Luckily, Cyndi Lauper saved it. She sang it and danced to it and used it to convert girls to feminism.”
“Death does have a gender. She likes to flirt.”
“The white girl looked at something beyond us, at something we couldn’t see. Maybe the white privilege fairy.”
“I meant it when I said Marx made more sense to me than the Bible.”
“Every pretty woman who lives a long life gets to perform an art project called “watch my beauty disintegrate.” It’s not revolutionary. It just happens.”
“Of course an elderly white dude taught anthropology. Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?”
“We share this thing. A man, a Mexican. All three of us, the trinity of us, are Mexican. She and I share a fear of him. We share what it’s like to have him touching us and watching us. Breathing on our faces. We both understood that he wanted us dead. She wound up dead. I mostly didn’t.”
Works cited in this blogpost:
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins