This is a novel by Jeanine Cummings about a middle-class woman from Acapulco in Mexico fleeing a drug cartel king pin with her young son, to America.
You have most likely heard of it recently because of the massive controversy it has caused in America – critics say it’s an exploitative story about 2D “Latin” characters that Cummings has no right to tell because she only has one Puerto Rican grandparent and self-identifies as white; moreover why is she getting a 7-figure advance for this when many echt writers from that area are given $500 and a golf clap for whatever they produce?
Lots of people hated the barbed-wire centre-pieces at the book party, they hated Cumming’s barbed-wire “publication day” manicure, they really really hated Cummings saying that she wished that someone “browner” than her had written the book. There’s a lot of rage and hate going on. And I completely get it. Were I not terrified that it came from a place of deep insecurity and crabbed-in envy there are some very visible books I’d go on the verbal rampage about, too.
But not this one. I’ve just finished American Dirt and, look, I’m not going to get into who is allowed to tell what story and I have got absolutely no idea about the nuanced debate around the migrant issue in America.
What I can tell you is that American Dirt is a good book, it’s basically a thriller, an epic race against time. It has all of the things that publishers insist that you have in any book that isn’t a modern literary masterpiece; it must grab you from the first sentence, it must be pacey; it must, above all things, make you desperate to keep reading. Unless you are writing the equivalent of crystal meth, publishers broadly don’t want to know. Who can blame them! The bottom line is right there.
Despite all that, the book reminds me of Kim, and also of Dickens, who sensationalised everything far more and patronised everyone far worse in order to make perfectly legitimate wider social points.
American Dirt also reminds me of the Babylon books. Did you read those? Air Babylon and Hotel Babylon? The author Imogen Edwards-Jones, who is a journalist, extensively interviewed people in an industry and then used their inside knowledge to write a broad and fictional but very accurate factovel.
(I’ve just invented the word “factovel” and I hope it’s going to catch on, it’s, like, a novel that’s based on facts? Use it in a sentence today!)
Cummings spent 7 years researching this book and I suppose it must be highly likely that all of these experiences in the book are someone’s true experience, tweaked to fit a narrative. Concatina’ed together, hell yeah – they make Mexico out to be a dangerous, cartel-ridden hellhole. I see where the critics are coming from. But, please see above; publishers are often not that interested in nuance.
Some utterly furious person in USA Today wrote that American Dirt is probably the one book that people read about immigration this year and it’s a shame. Why? Isn’t it a good thing that we are reading about immigration at all, rather than about bondage fetishists and boy wizards?
And the book and the controversy around it are bound up in one, to avoid the conversation around it would be almost impossible – this book comes automatically with the pinch of salt that, say, Memoirs of a Geisha didn’t come with. I mean, if you want to talk about cultural appropriation let’s start with that book.
I’m sure there’s loads wrong with American Dirt but what it has done is put the conversation about immigration smack down in the middle of Sunday lunch. And as for the other writers who are immensely pissed off with the whole thing – man alive, I sympathise. On the plus side, every single American publisher will be looking for books on immigration now and if you’re a writer with that authentic story to tell, this is surely your moment!
Shucks. I will just have to wait until everyone is looking for books by white middle-aged women with a white wine problem and Morton’s neuroma. Then I’ll be laughing.