American Dirt and the Complicated Question of Testimony

by Katie Poore

Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt is a string pulled so tightly it is on the verge, always, of snapping. It is like this from the first sentence, when our protagonist Lydia Quixano Alvarez’s 8-year-old son, Luca, finds himself in a rain of bullets while he uses the bathroom. By the second page, sixteen members of Lydia and Luca’s family are dead, murdered by the reigning drug cartel of Acapulco, Mexico.

I found American Dirt gripping, unrelentingly so. Every fifty pages I had to stop, breathe, do something else. It isn’t a book I could devour, mostly because I couldn’t stomach some of the endless grief it contained for more than an hour or two at a time. It felt grueling, and riveting, and so utterly foreign.

But American Dirt has, since before its release in January, been the subject of controversy and scrutiny, precisely because it is so utterly foreign, and because Cummins could not and has not undergone the traumas and trials of her protagonists. Cummins’ publisher, Flatiron Books, canceled her book tour due to the backlash.

When Oprah Winfrey chose the book as her January book club selection, numerous writers signed an open letter requesting she select a different title. Instead, she invited three Latina writers—Esther Cepeda, Julissa Arce, and Reyna Grande—who were critical of the novel to her television series, “Oprah’s Book Club,” and featured them in conversation with Cummins herself.

Other reviewers grappled with questions of appropriation. “I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book,” writes The New York Times’ Lauren Groff in her ambivalent review.  “I have never been Mexican or a migrant.” She goes on to point out that Cummins herself is not Mexican nor migrant, and that she, until recently, has identified as white.

The controversy surrounding this novel points to an increasingly pressing question: what stories do we have the right to reasonably tell? Who gets to testify, and for whom?

Critics of American Dirt would largely posit that Cummins is in no position to testify. Myriam Gurba goes so far as to say that “Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it.” And it is true that there are numerous books, memoirs, and works published by Latinx authors each year that arrive with curiously little fanfare and precious little critical acclaim, particularly when compared to Cummins’. These are works by writers who make their way into Cummins’ acknowledgments: Luis Alberto Urrea. Óscar Martinez. Valeria Luiselli. Reyna Grande.

But I disagree with Gurba’s suggestion that Cummins writes into a hunger for Mexican pain, and that she egregiously oversteps the boundaries of responsible storytelling in writing from a perspective and life that is not her own. Because if fiction is only permissible within the confines of what we know, are, and have lived, then what can fiction possibly be?

It would be a fair response to suggest that the Mexican border crisis need not be fictionalized at all, that telling this sort of story requires no imagination, if only because there are people who have experienced the crisis at the border and who are already telling their story.

But the presence of fact does not negate the need for fiction, or the need for amplification and advocation. Gurba says the novel might serve a Trumpian agenda, that, in watching American Dirt’s inevitable film adaptation, he might yell at the screen: “This! This is why we must invade.” This is to say that Cummins writes Mexico as a unilaterally evil nation—a lost cause. An irredeemable narco state, whose glittering opposite sits just northward. And while her depiction of life as an undocumented immigrant in the promised land of United States did stoke my cynicism, her depiction of Mexico left room for complexity. Mexico is a country of good and bad like any other, with villains and heroes. Lydia and Luca are the antithesis of Trump’s immigrants, those that are  “bringing crime” and are “rapists.” They are sympathetic characters in the throes of unimaginable grief, loss, and fear. They are intelligent (Luca is, in fact, a geography prodigy, spouting off facts at opportune times to disarm threats and gain allies). They endure a harrowing journey, yes, but it is one populated by peripheral characters who are far from nefarious.

And Cummins’ purpose is clear, and political: to contribute to the continually raging and polemical dialogue surrounding U.S. immigration policies, and to insist on a political posture that affords human dignity to those seeking asylum.

Whether she has achieved this purpose effectively is another discussion entirely, and her narration lapses at moments into the cliché. The bookish, borderline-sexy drug lord Javier of Acapulco can feel overwrought (although his belief in his fundamental goodness—and choicelessness—are chilling in their own way). And Lydia’s video call with him in the novel’s final pages seems like an impossible catharsis, and one that grasps brazenly for a satisfying conclusion to an ordeal that is far from over.

But ultimately, I was swept away by this novel. Cummins’ prose is excellent, and her portrait of a mother’s love moving. And isn’t it, ultimately, the work of fiction to strive toward empathy, to outline characters and experiences and then fill them with a living breath? Cummins’ aim is not iniquitous and is in fact keenly cognizant of its potential for appropriation. Groff phrases it this way: “American Dirt seems deeply aware of the discrepancies in power between the desperate people it describes, and both the writer who created it and the reader intended to receive it; the book offers itself as testament to the fact Cummins has worked to decrease this power differential.”

And I agree that this is the work the novel sets out to achieve. It inserts itself into the rigorous political debate surrounding U.S. border policies and gestures toward those whose voices are so often excluded from this debate: ironically, the voices of the very migrants whose livelihoods and families are subject to the whim of the wealthy and (largely) white politicians who decide their fates.

So, while I cannot speak to the book’s accuracy—I’ll only mention that Cummins claims to have done scrupulous research for this novel, for years on end—its effectiveness as an empathy-building tool is tremendous. The novel made me feel deeply uncomfortable with my own privilege: to sit on a couch in my home, sipping the coffee Lydia so often longed for, and then to walk away when the book’s tension became too excruciating. To leave behind a world of experiences and uncertainties that does not resemble mine, and to feel both disturbed and relieved that this is the case. It’s a novel I will think about often, and always with a sense of the breathless pain and trauma wrought upon the lives of Lydia and Luca.

In short, my gripe is less with Cummins’ American Dirt than it is with a publishing industry that has not amplified and lauded Latinx works with the same fervor that it did Cummins’. It is a shame that hers is the first novel related to the migrant experience to have found its way onto my bookshelf when there have been other qualified voices waiting and wanting to be heard for years. Its commercial success reminds us again of the publishing industry’s frequent failure to give disenfranchised and minority voices the platform they deserve. American Dirt is a moving work of fiction, but I hope it will serve as just one step in the process of educating oneself on the topic of migration, and that it will act as a springboard for its readers to delve into the works Cummins acknowledges in her final pages, and more.

As a novel, American Dirt is haunting, and it achieves what it sets out to do. Perhaps it is true that Cummins relies on dangerous stereotypes—stereotypes that could work against her purported goal. But I read this book as deeply sympathetic and challenging, an invitation to its United States readers to interrogate their place and role in the global human network with greater attention.

These are real lives, the novel reminds us. The migrants who have become the subject of such vitriolic rhetoric, of such intractable controversy, have real lives, brimming with the same pain and joy and fear as anyone else’s. And when U.S. citizens talk about migration, they are talking about them: the Lydias and Lucas, the Rebecas and Soledads, the innumerable perspectives and experiences and fears and tragedies that bring someone—anyone—to that U.S.-Mexico border.