Tuesday, January 21, 2020

American Dirt: The Plight of the Migrant

A roiling, contentious debate is swirling around Jeanine Cummins' new novel, American Dirt, about a group of migrants struggling to make it to the U.S.

On one hand, a majority of readers, me included, have loved it. It's a spectacular read — as pulse-pounding, affecting, devastating, and simply unputdownable as anything I've read in awhile. At least two readers I've talked to have said, pausing to point out they're not exaggerating, that it's one of the best books they've ever read. It has a preposterously high rating on Goodreads, and it is certainly poised to be a huge bestseller. So yes, the consensus so far is that this is a fantastic novel.

On the other hand, a small but growing cadre of readers, led mainly by critics and other writers, are denouncing it, often ferociously and scathingly, for two main reasons.

The first and most important reason is that the book is inauthentic, and therefore fatally flawed, say these critics. They claim that Cummins, who is white, has mis-rendered Mexican and migrant culture. They have called the novel everything from "non-mexican crap" to accusing it of cultural appropriation. One writer even said the intent of the novel is "to make white people feel good for having read it."

Regarding the charge of inaccuracy in how it portrays Mexican culture and language, I'm certainly not qualified to comment. Lauren Groff also makes this point in her review of the novel. But it's massively important to understand that if Mexican and Latinx people feel they've been rendered wrongly, they absolutely deserve to have their voices heard and considered when readers are determining whether to read this novel.

Regarding the intent of the novel making white people feel good, well, that and sentiments like it, are just obviously not true. I know what this writer meant, approximately, and I'm sure she is exaggerating a bit out of frustration, but comments like that aren't helpful to the discussion. While I  enjoyed reading the novel, I certainly didn't "feel good" for having read it. I felt awful. Embarrassed. Despaired. How is it possible that I live in a country that treats people this way? What can I do to help? (On her website, Cummins includes a list of charities and organizations to which you can donate to help migrants, if you so choose. Please do, if you can.)

Cummins actually makes clear her intent in an author note at the end. She says her goal is to give voice to migrants, to remind us that "these people are people" rather than a "helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass." The psychology theory of the "identifiable victim effect" tells us that when we view individual people and their trauma, we're more likely to be willing to help, than if we just hear about nameless, faceless "masses" in news stories. I think this book does give migrants a face, even if the identifiable victims here are fictional. So shouldn't there be value in that? Shouldn't we allow the good in place of the perfect?

The second and probably less important reason the novel is drawing some ire is that it's just not a well-written book, and therefore doesn't deserve it's soon-to-be popularity. This was essentially the argument in this review by critic Parul Sehgal in the NY Times. Speaking of intentions, Sehgal contends the novel has good ones ("the motives may be unimpeachable"), but that doesn't save it from Cummins' poor execution. "The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist." Ouch! Reasonable minds can disagree here, but this charge is again coming mostly from critics and other writers. You know how people often call an author "a writer's writer" as a way of complimenting her/him for, I don't know, doing things with prose we plebeian readers couldn't possibly understand? Cummins is accused here of the opposite. This happened when The Goldfinch blew up, too — there was a vocal minority who claimed it was complete crap. Personally, I was enjoying American Dirt way too much to stop and parse the effectiveness and beauty of every metaphor.

But so, that's a very long introduction to the novel itself. What actually is this book? American Dirt is about the journey of a Mexican woman named Lydia, and her 8-year-old son, Luca, from Acapulco to el norte. In the heart-stopping opening scene, Lydia and Luca flee their home after 16 members of their family are murdered by a drug cartel during a quinceaƱera party. They escape by hiding in the bathtub and then going on the lam, first to Mexico City and then, when they realize they have no other options that don't put them in danger, as migrants. Along the way, they meet a cast of characters, some become friends and companions, like the teenage sisters Soledad and Rebeca, who are escaping their own hell in Honduras. But some are pure evil. Lydia never knows who'll help — and some people do at their own risk, allowing her to hide in their sheds or giving her money and food — and who'll try to kidnap or kill them, or worse.

American Dirt is a thriller with the heart of literary fiction...or maybe vice versa. It's a mesmerizing, propulsive read from which I simply couldn't look away. Cummins is a master here at building and releasing tension. Even Sehgal begrudgingly admits the novel is pretty good as a thriller, even as she can't resist another quick shot at Cummins: "The tortured sentences aside, 'American Dirt' is enviably easy to read." She's right, I flew through this, and maybe that's why I didn't notice her so-called tortured sentences. I was riveted, horrified, saddened, but I couldn't stop reading. I loved it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading a novel now by a Jamaican author, living in the U.S., who writes about a woman Jamaican immigrant and her motivations, methods, and problem getting and staying in the U.S. I assume it's an authentic portrayal of the island and people culture. The book is Patsy.