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A hard-hitting novel about Mexican migrants trying to reach the USA is dividing opinion in the literary community. Some accuse the author of American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins, of cultural appropriation; others hail the writer for giving emotional power to a news story – the journey north to a better life – that has slipped off the mainstream agenda.
American Dirt tells the story of a mother and her young son fleeing a murderous drug cartel and attempting to reach the US. It is raw and uncompromising and has ignited a debate that will almost certainly do nothing to harm sales.
Flatiron Books, part of Macmillan, has just published in the US, with Tinder Press, part of Hachette, publishing in the UK. Foreign rights have been sold in 30 territoires, according to Szilvia Molnar, foreign rights director at Cummins’ agent Sterling Lord Literestic in New York. The novel’s Arabic publisher is Syria’s Fawasel
Stephen King praised the book as “an extraordinary piece of work, a perfect balancing act with terror on one side and love on the other. I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it”. John Grisham said: “I strive to write page-turners because I love to read them, and it’s been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with American Dirt.”
But when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club the backlash began. The writer Julissa Arce Raya, author of My (Underground) American Dream, wrote : “As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented, I can say with authority that this book is a harmful, stereotypical, damaging representation of our experiences. Please listen to us when we tell you, this book isn’t it.”
Roxanne Gay, the US writer of Haitian descent, wrote: “It’s frustrating to see a book like this elevated by Oprah because it legitimizes and normalizes flawed and patronizing and wrong-minded thinking about the border and those who cross it.”
The author Celeste Ng drew people’s attention to a powerful piece by the author and translator David Schmidt writing at the Blue Pen site. He says: “Anyone who has spent significant time in Mexico…will find this novel to be laughably inaccurate. It represents nothing more than the fanciful imaginings of its monolingual American author, no more authentic than my poor attempts at affecting a West Country drawl or a Cockney dialect. If English-speaking readers assume that this novel accurately depicts the realities of Mexico and migration, it will only further the cause of disinformation and prejudice. And in this day and age, we can’t afford any more of that.”
But other black, Asian and minority ethnic writers have praised the book. The Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies described it as “riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment. Jeanine Cummins makes us all live and breathe the refugee story. If a book can change hearts and transform policies, this is the one.”
And Erika Sánchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter said: “Cummins writes with such grace, compassion, and precision that I could not stop reading.”
Film rights have been sold to Imperative Entertainment who produced Clint Eastwood’s The Mule about the border drugs trade. Meanwhile, responding to her critics, Cummins told the Guardian Books podcast: “Part of the reason that I wanted to tell this story was because I, like most people in the United States, come from a family of mixed heritage, of mixed background – some immigrants, some who have been in the US for a long time. My grandmother was from Puerto Rico, and she was a woman who came from a really wealthy family, was very well to do, posh and glamorous in Puerto Rico. And then she came to the US and she had a hard landing.
“She was suddenly Puerto Rican, you know …and it had serious ramifications for her eight children, the oldest of whom was my father. And so I understood there was something really damaging about the way white Americans reduce immigrants in their mind, the stereotypes that we place on these people. Her new neighbours were so reductionist in their views of what she was supposed to be as a Puerto Rican. I understood, also, sort of in my DNA, this is what we are doing to migrants at our border right now, that we are painting them with the same brush, that we tend to think of them all as one thing, as this homogenous, rural, illiterate, poor, brown person, and in fact that is not what they are.
“They come from all different kinds of backgrounds, different countries, different languages, different socio-economic situations, different experiences with violence or the cartels or gangs in their home countries and they are all travelling for their own reasons. They’re individuals. So that is a story I really wanted to explore.”