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Revisiting American Dirt



Writers inevitably learn bitter lessons, including one about readers who will be wounded, hurt, or at least deeply offended by their work. There is usually more than one group of these, for people become upset for reasons that are many and varied. Such is the case in the reaction to Jeanine Cummins’ fourth book, American Dirt. Cummins has been variously accused of stereotyping, racism, narcissism, and of lacking in empathy.

It is also alleged that she failed to ‘vet’ her book, in that she did not hire a ‘sensitivity reader.’ Some people even consider her book downright harmful and exploitative: the list goes on. When I started reading Cummins’ novel, I had no idea of the controversy, but it wasn’t long before I was instructed via the voluminous amount of material on the Internet.

I usually read at a fairly fast rate, probably too fast on occasion. But not this time. So harrowing was this book that I kept putting it down and picking it up again when I felt I had the strength to cope with the subject matter and the unfolding story. The protagonists are Lydia, resident in Acapulco, and her 8-year-old son, Luca. Lydia’s husband, Luca’s father, is a crusading journalist, who one day writes a newspaper piece about the leader of a cartel, despite being very aware of organised crime and its violent actions against critics. Soon afterwards, journalist Sebastian and fifteen members of the extended family are murdered during a birthday party. Lydia and Luca are the only survivors: the crucial complication is that Lydia has unwittingly formed a friendship with the head of the cartel, and so realises that she and Luca are in deadly danger. There is nothing to do but cope with overwhelming grief and trauma somehow, flee the scene, and try to reach the USA.

It is a nightmare journey, during which mother and son join the thousands thronging the route to America, and fall in with some young people who have already endured terrible experiences: girls are particularly vulnerable, being routinely robbed and raped along the way. Together with their new friends, Lydia and Luca ride on the roof of La Bestia (The Beast), the freight train that travels from southern Mexico to the US border. Getting on and off the train is highly dangerous, and so is much of the company sharing the journey. At the end of the ride, they have little choice but to hire a coyote, a people smuggler, who guides them through the desert, and is skilled in the ways of avoiding border police. The reader heaves a sigh of relief when the novel ends satisfactorily. Well, this reader did.

The much-hyped work took four years to research, with Cummins visiting the relevant places and checking recent findings and developments: she did her grim homework because she had become frustrated by the public discourse on the topic of migration, which concentrated on policy rather than on the fate of fellow human beings, or on moral or humanitarian issues. This seems to be a world-wide governmental trend, and is very obvious in Australia. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Cummins states that in 2017 a migrant died every 90 minutes, and that 40,000 people were missing in Mexico. She adds that these estimates may be conservative.


'American Dirt, even in the controversy it has stirred up, has achieved its aim: it has made readers at least ponder a terrible problem.' 


Despite being praised by the likes of Stephen King, John Grisham, and Tracy Chevalier, the hype bubble did not take long to burst. Cummins’ author tour was cancelled and Oprah Winfrey put together a television special to discuss the book with the author. Of the long list of trenchant criticisms perhaps the most prominent one was that of cultural appropriation: Cummins is not Mexican, so should not have contemplated writing about Mexico or creating Mexican characters. (She had a Puerto Rican grandmother, and her Irish husband was an undocumented immigrant for years.) Cummins herself wondered whether she should attempt the novel, but was encouraged by an academic of Mexican extraction who told her that Mexicans and migrants needed as many people as possible to tell this story.

This criticism of cultural appropriation opens out into broader questions: should writers write only about what they know? Who is allowed to tell whose stories? My own feeling is that writing is about freedom, and that writers should be able to exercise that freedom. Novelist Lionel Shriver is of the opinion that if writers of fiction cannot use their imaginations and deploy their gifts of empathy, then memoir is all that is left. (Not that there is anything wrong with memoir, but it’s a different kind of writing.) I agree with Shriver. I also note novelist Penelope Lively’s recent statement that ‘Writers are always trying to imagine worlds that aren’t theirs.’

Once upon a time, I became a migrant. My moving from Australia to Greece was unexpected, but fairly simple, in that I did not suffer the well-documented hardships. No lack of food, work or shelter for me. And certainly no detention or threat to my life. But it was still hard, which is one reason for my continuing interest in the whole matter of migration. I started writing about my own experience soon after I arrived in Greece, and my first book, A Foreign Wife, was published in 1986. I have to admit now that I never thought about whether or not I was entitled to write about the rural village in which I was living. (My friends tell me I am not very street-wise.) I simply wanted to write the book, and so I did. (All writers are narcissistic, I think, otherwise they would never write a word.) There were mixed reactions: unsurprisingly, Greek men in Australia, resentful of the breaking of their rose-coloured spectacles, were often very critical, the women supportive. And an Athenian woman upbraided me for not being, as she said, ‘tough enough.’

Various ‘buzz phrases’ (and accompanying attitudes) have evolved since then. Political correctness, virtue-signalling, moral gate-keeping are some of these. Human nature, it seems to me, finds it difficult to achieve a reasonably happy medium. And so we have a Massachusetts university discouraging the use of the word picnic, because picnics have been associated with lynchings. Phrases such as take a shot at and trigger warning also feature on its Oppressive Language List. Statues of now-controversial figures are being dismantled or rolled into rivers.

Such gestures have the effect of creating or exacerbating more divisions in society. One is that between the woke and the unwoke, whatever those terms mean precisely: a presumption of superiority on the part of the former? One group seems to be prescribing how others are to think about various issues, while ignoring the complexity of nuances, doubts and shades of feeling.

American Dirt, even in the controversy it has stirred up, has achieved its aim: it has made readers at least ponder a terrible problem. The novel is a polemic, and the stronger for it.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: American Dirt first editon cover (Macmillan)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, American Dirt, literature, censorship



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Existing comments

Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Gillian. American Dirt was so compelling I read it in practically one sitting, and only learned of its negative reception after I'd finished it. Around a decade ago I interviewed a young man who had made that same trip from Honduras as a teenager, and his story was echoed in Cummin's pages. Perhaps it would have been more graciously received if we lived in an egalitarian society, one that didn't preference white writers over those who might better tell their own stories. I'm grateful this particular story was told, not least since it has been received by people who might have been otherwise impervious to its critical message. But I simultaneously recognise the impetus for the detractors' complaints. It's a precarious line writers tread.

Catherine Marshall | 09 November 2021  

Thank you, Gillian. A powerful and much needed article. If writers cannot write from empathy as well as direct experience, how can readers read at all? How can we claim any understanding of situations we have never experienced directly, if not through literature and other forms of story-telling? Your defence of the writer’s task, like Lionel Shriver’s, is a defence of the role of literature itself, a role that is part of keeping us human and connected.

Joan Seymour | 09 November 2021  

Gillian's argument is sourced in a rich vein of wisdom which witnesses to the power of well crafted words to entertain, challenge and change those gifted with literacy and leisure. It is ironic that the charge of cultural appropriation levelled against Jeanine Cummins would convict the author of one of the 100 best English novels of the twentieth century - as proclaimed by Time magazine - of the same offence: for Graham Greene had the temerity and political insensitivity to immerse himself in Mexican culture and politics and bring forth 'The Power and the Glory.'

Bill Burke | 09 November 2021  

Writing is, partly, about a conversation between author and reader. The writing may greatly interest some people and other people will be less affected. The test of great literature, I would guess, is whether it is a sort of vocation. For some time I've been more attracted to reading non-fiction. However, I won't ever part with my favourite fiction books which have taught me so much and given great pleasure. "American Dirt" sounds like challenging reading and maybe it's worth the risk.

Pam | 09 November 2021  

Hooray for a reviewer who has been prepared to both analyse American Dirt as a book, as well as to put the cultural appropriation issue into a wider context. I feel that Lionel Shriver, who was referred to, has it right when she says that the only book one can write these days without being accused of cultural appropriation, is your memoir. Clearly, even memoirs raise the hackles of some. Writing fiction is about engaging readers in a work that mines the imagination of the writer and the reader. The freedom is currently lost. I have just completed my memoir having freed myself from my unpublished novel, in which a white persona tries to sympathise with issues that he sees engulfing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, by writing a book within a book. I shelved what I think is a good MS because political correctness has begun to tip the boat and it will soon ship water. Jeanine Cummins was lucky to have been published. The polemics are tough, but necessary. I am sorry that I will not live long enough to see the boat righted. Others will look back on this era with curiosity.

Tony London | 09 November 2021  

One of my lecturers on a Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Studies in the early to mid-1980s at the Armidale CAE - just prior to its amalgamation into UNE - was Dr Margaret Sharpe. A sociolinguistics expert, engaged in an early Bundjalung language teaching program on the NSW north coast, Margaret wrote a beautifully nuanced junior high level novel called The Traeger Kid about a little First Nations girl from Alice Springs. We follow her school days - days with family "on country" - there's a trip to family in Brisbane at the time of "the Ekka" - and south to northern NSW at Coraki (Gurigay) for a family funeral. As readers we follow the girl's life and learn about the cultural aspects of her life. Dr Sharpe visited my Year 9 class following their reading of her book and their letters to her and specifically spoke to the point that she had NOT written the story from her lead character's viewpoint or through her eyes. Rather she had written as from an observer perspective of that character - because as she explained to the class - she was not herself an Aboriginal person (this was in the latter 1980s). Long before the Lionel Shriver and Yassmin Abdel-Magied controversy. There are stories to be told by the writer - but there are issues of how that story is to be told. On Martha's Vineyard some nine years ago - tracking Geraldine's Brooks' stunning book and story "Caleb's Crossing" of the first Wampanoag graduate (for which he had to study Greek and Latin) of Harvard (set up with an express missionary purpose to the First peoples of the American colonies). Visiting the western-most village of the island - Aquinnah - home of the island's Wampanoag people - I engaged in conversation with a younger woman of knowledge - mentioning the Brooks' book and finding that she and others had a similar feeling of grievance - that it was their story to tell. While on one level I was left thinking - Well, yes... - but on another plane I was left thinking - Well, tell it! - or Well, why haven't you? In the time since - no book that I can find has yet emerged. In the interim I thank Geraldine Brooks for having written Caleb's Crossing - it enriched immensely my visit to Martha's Vineyard in late 2012.

Jim KABLE | 09 November 2021  

There are three things I hate: 1. Criticism 2. Irony 3. Lists. and 4. Meta-things. Cummins strayed into the American Anything* title franchise which is preceded by Graffiti, Gangster, Gigolo, Psycho, Pie(s) and too many more; there was bound to be a vocal cancel-culture ready to criticize the work because it may reflect on "America" poorly; the work is a criticism in itself. Perhaps what escapes the stereotypical Northern USA patriotic mindset is that Central (Latin?) America is encompassed in the novel; it's not all just about "them". Facebook's new name "Meta" is an example of a Meta-thing; an imagined extension of something beyond what it probably really just is; nuanced value. Being metacritical is a criticism of a criticism, I have some experience and exposure to this. I anticipate much of the "Dirt" denunciation is purely because critics seem to be compelled to find fault even if it must now extend to the bona fides of the writer of a work of fiction, irrespective of the competence of the work. The world has changed since celebrating Linda Hunt for her portrayal of the Asian male Billy Kwan in Year of Living Dangerously (awarded an Oscar for best supporting actress).

ray | 09 November 2021  

We are taught not to rush to judgement until we have learnt to “walk a mile in another’s shoes”. We must imagine another’s story and attempt to walk beside them on their journey. Imagination forms the basis of empathy and consequently of moral judgement. We need writers and artist of all sorts to foster that imagination in us. I speak as the writer of Struggle of Memory, an historical novel about a German immigrant and his Australian family during WW1, when immigrants were subjected to appalling treatment by the Federal Government and locked up in concentration camps for the duration of the war, after which many were stripped of their Australian citizenship and deported. It was a little known and shameful passage of Australia history but I was vilified by some for “stealing” the story of the family on whom the novel was based. I am reminded of Savonarola and
Thomas Cromwell and Herman Goering and Isis when I contemplate the consequences of such a shutting down of literary imagination. We must resist that, and narrow ideological fundamentalism of all stripes.

Joan Dugdale | 10 November 2021  

Publish ... and be damned.

roy chen yee | 10 November 2021  

Our society has ruined everything of value. It is no surprise that literature is also a victim. It is interesting that non-fiction has assumed ascendancy over creative fiction that characterised the reading preferences of earlier generations who seemed to enjoy being engulfed by make believe worlds. Creative non-fiction with some literary licence seems to be the most favoured genre {a positively awful word!] by today's readers.

john frawley | 10 November 2021  

A wonderful review, thank you. Though it's sad to hear that even imagination is being censored by the Thought Police of this supposedly "woke" society, one that is becoming less and less tolerant of another's ideas unless, of course, it conforms to their own.

Wayne | 12 November 2021  

An interesting article,Gillian. I’m not sure whether it makes me want to read or feel grateful that you’ve done so.
As a child of war time migrants who settled comfortably in Australia it was not until I was in my 20s that I realised how brave my parents had been.

Juliet | 12 November 2021  

I have not read ‘American Dirt ’ but it joins a long list of American novels which tackle terrible injustices and I shall certainly add it to my reading list. Thank you Gillian.
It is not just writers who are accused of holding unacceptable opinions which differ from the cultural norms of a completely unknown situation. How else can we understand if not by the story being told by someone who cares. We are being encouraged to feel rather than think and find something to be offended about . The anonymity of criticism on the internet could be seen as an attempt to police freedom of thought and censorship. i think there is a danger in the rancour that is expressed without a thought for what others knew, believed or intended..Rather than stirring up hate and blame it might be better to examine things with kindness and empathy. However it is not a solution to blame the messenger.

Maggie | 15 November 2021  


roy chen yee | 17 November 2021  

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