|January 21, 2020|
|Media type||Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audio CD|
|Pages||400 pages (hardcover)|
American Dirt is a 2020 novel by American author Jeanine Cummins, about the ordeal of a Mexican woman who had to leave behind her life and escape as an undocumented immigrant to the United States with her son.
Lydia Quixano Pérez lives a comfortable life in Acapulco, Mexico, with her journalist husband, Sebastián, and her eight-year-old son, Luca. Lydia runs a bookstore and one day befriends a charming customer, Javier, who appears to have similar interests in books. However, Javier is revealed to be the kingpin of a drug cartel.
Sebastián publishes a profile exposing Javier's crimes, who then orders the slaughter of Sebastián and his family. Lydia and Luca escape the massacre, but are forced to flee Mexico, becoming two of the countless undocumented immigrants from Latin America who undertake the dangerous journey to the United States, taking a treacherous trip on La Bestia north of Mexico City.
Production and marketing
The book was subject to a bidding war from publishers in 2018. The winner, Flatiron Books, paid Cummins a seven-figure advance. Flatiron engaged in a massive publicity campaign, including sending boxes of copies to libraries near the Mexican border, holding a release party, and obtaining blurbs from Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, Don Winslow and John Grisham. On January 20, 2020, the day before the book's release, Oprah Winfrey announced that she had selected American Dirt for her book club.
American Dirt debuted on New York Times best sellers list as the #1 on the list for the week of February 9, 2020. In an unusual decision, the New York Times ran separate reviews of the book both in the daily paper and in the weekly book review section, as well as publishing an excerpt.
American Dirt received a mixed reception. Despite initial positive reviews and its status as one of the best-selling books of 2020, it has also been widely criticized for its inaccurate portrayal of Mexico and Mexicans.
Oprah Winfrey, in selecting American Dirt for her book club, said, "Jeanine Cummins accomplished a remarkable feat, literally putting us in the shoes of migrants and making us feel their anguish and desperation to live in freedom." The book also received glowing reviews from Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros, who called it "the great novel of las Americas" and "the international story of our time" and Washington Post critic Polly Rosenwaike, who wrote that it "offers both a vital chronicle of contemporary Latin American migrant experience and a profoundly moving reading experience." NPR's Maureen Corrigan was equally positive, writing that "Cummins' novel brings to life the ordeal of individual migrants, who risk everything to try to cross into the U.S." Jacob M. Appel, in New York Journal of Books wrote, "American Dirt is going to be the defining book of 2020."
Myriam Gurba was one of the first reviewers to give a negative review. Originally requested by Ms. magazine, her review was considered too negative, and she instead posted it to the academic blog Tropics of Meta. She says of the protagonist, "That Lydia is so shocked by her own country’s day-to-day realities [...] gives the impression that Lydia might not be…a credible Mexican. In fact, she perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist." In Medium, writer David Bowles called the book "harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama."
On January 30, 2020, The Guardian published an op-ed by author and critic Daniel Olivas, who explained why Latinx writers were so angry about the circumstances behind both the publication and promotion of American Dirt: "American Dirt is an insult to Latinx writers who have toiled – some of us for decades – to little notice of major publishers and book reviewers, while building a vast collection of breathtaking, authentic literature often published by university and independent presses on shoestring budgets. And while the folks who run Flatiron Books have every right to pay seven figures to buy and publish a book like American Dirt, they have no immunity from bad reviews and valid criticism." He noted that "it’s not that we think only Latinx writers should write Latinx-themed books. No, this is not about censorship. 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." Olivas concluded: "Perhaps American Dirt will be remembered not as a great novel, but as a key pivot-point for an industry that desperately needs to change."
A group of Latino writers formed a movement in response to the publication and initial mainstream praise of American Dirt called "#DignidadLiteraria" (English: Literary Dignity). On February 3, 2020, the group met with Macmillan, the owner of Flatiron Books, to demand greater representation of Latinx writers under the publication house. Macmillan agreed to these terms. The group is also demanding "investigation into discriminatory practices in the publishing industry at large."
USA Today's Barbara VanDenburgh called the book "problematic". She wrote, "American Dirt positions itself as the great sociopolitical novel of our era. Instead, it reeks of opportunism, substituting characters arc for mere trauma ... These character, story and style missteps would be problematic no matter the source. But it matters in this case that the source is a European-born woman in the U.S. without ties to the Mexican migrant experience." VanDenburgh also criticized Cummins' choice to position the main character as "forced" to illegally cross the border "by an all-powerful villain" which, she argues, makes it easier for sheltered, white American readers to sympathize with the plot. VanDenburgh calls this construct "a cunning calculation, and also a deeply cynical one."
I initially was drawn in by the book, but realized later how it was constructed and that turned me off. The book, written over 5 years, appears to have been based on newspaper and Utube snippets, that were arranged by the author into a single narrative. Gruesome news were preferably incorporated. This is not how competent authors write.
The New York Times published conflicting reviews of the book. On January 17, 2020, Parul Sehgal wrote on the daily Books of the Times section, "this peculiar book flounders and fails." Two days later, The New York Times Book Review published a review from Lauren Groff that said the book "was written with good intentions, and like all deeply felt books, it calls its imagined ghost into the reader's real flesh." Still, Groff questions herself, writing, "I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book." On Twitter, later the same day of publication, Groff called her review "deeply inadequate" and called the situation a nightmare.
Controversy and fallout
Due to widespread criticism, several bookstores cancelled appearances with Cummins to promote her book. On January 29, 2020, Flatiron Books cancelled Cummins's book tour, citing threats to Cummins. In the same statement, they apologized for using barbed wire decorations at the launch of the book. On February 10, 2020, Dignidad Literaria confirmed from Flatiron Books that Jeanine had received no death threats.
That same day, 82 writers signed an open letter to Oprah Winfrey, asking her to reconsider her endorsement of the book. A further 60 writers endorsed the letter after publication, bringing the total to 142. The signatories included Valeria Luiselli, Daniel Olivas, Tommy Orange and Rebecca Solnit.
Winfrey took a stand amidst the controversy and carried on with her show by posting two one-hour Apple TV plus episodes that focused on American Dirt. She acknowledged the criticisms and cancellation of the book tour. However, she felt moved by the book and decided, “If one author, one artist is silenced, we’re all in danger of the same. I believe that we can do this without having to cancel, to dismiss or to silence anyone.”
Participants on the show included a panel of writers, as well as the author, Cummins, and Oprah. Representatives from the book’s publisher also participated in the show: Don Weisberg, Macmillan Publishing’s president, and Amy Einhorn, a Flatiron (the book's imprint) editor and publisher. "Weisberg readily acknowledged that the industry is too white, and he said he and others are working hard to diversify his company. Einhorn said she loved American Dirt, but she took full responsibility for the clumsy and sometimes tasteless way the novel had been marketed."
At the end of 2020, numerous news sources covered American Dirt in their end-of-year articles about publishing and the publishing industry. For example, it was listed as one of the "Biggest Literary Scandals of 2020" in a HuffPost article written by culture and literary critic Claire Fallon. And New York Magazine's Vulture referred to it as the "most controversial" book of the year.
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- January 21, CBS News; 2020; Am, 8:46. "Oprah reveals "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins as new book club pick". www.cbsnews.com. Retrieved 2020-01-22.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
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- Olivas, Daniel. "Yes, Latinx writers are angry about American Dirt – and we will not be silent". The Guardian. Retrieved 2020-02-02.
- "Publisher Agrees to Boost Latinx Representation After Backlash to Whitewashed Novel "American Dirt"". Democracy Now!. Retrieved 2020-02-07.
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- What's so controversial about 'American Dirt'?. The Stream, Al Jazeera English, 30 January 2020 (video, 25 mins)