Review: Vivien Horler
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins (Tinder Press)
Reviewing the novel American Dirt has been made marginally more difficult by “the firestorm” – according to the US’s National Public Radio – that erupted when it was published in the United States in January.
It’s the story of a middle-class, bookshop-owning Mexican woman named Lydia whose family is gunned down by a drug cartel in Acapulco. She believes the cartel will come after her and her surviving son, eight-year-old Luca, and so they flee northwards, facing many dangers, towards the assumed safety of the US.
But critics, particularly Latino critics living in the US, have excoriated the book, saying it does not reflect the truth of the immigrant experience and that it uses harmful stereotypes,
One of the most uncompromising critics is Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez, who wrote: “In 17 years of journalism, in interviewing thousands of immigrants, I’ve never come across anyone like American Dirt’s main character.”
She goes on scathingly: “This is a wonderful, melodramatic telenovela, something I would love watching for cheap entertainment, like a narco-thriller on Netflix. But this should not be called by anyone ‘the great immigrant novel, the story of our time, The Grapes of Wrath’.” (Which American crime writer Don Winslow has done.)
In essence it seems that one of the main objections of Latino critics to American Dirt is the fact that Jeanine Cummins, by all accounts a middle-class American, albeit with a Puerto Rican grandmother, has had the effrontery to write about the migrant experience. Who or what gives her the right to tell that story?
My own feeling is that, provided she can do so compellingly – and I believe she has – she has every right. It may be unPC to support what is occasionally referred to as cultural appropriation, but surely the point about fiction is that it is made up. If writers can explore only their own world, their own experience, how do we accept historical novels, how do we accept fantasy, how can a man write about a woman’s experience, or any adult about a child’s?
American Dirt opens with a family barbecue on a sunny Saturday in the tourist city of Acapulco. Lydia’s niece is celebrating her 15th birthday, her quinceanera, at her grandmother’s house, and the whole family is there: the grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins – 18 of them in all, including Lydia’s journalist husband Sebastian.
Lydia and Luca go indoors briefly and in those moments three gunmen appear on the patio and mow the family down. The police come, but Lydia knows that the chances of justice are slight. So many people are in the pay of the cartels that she can’t expect protection from anyone.
We discover Sebastian, that week, had published an article about the leader of Acapulco’s ruling cartel, a man who, it emerges, Lydia has become friendly with through her bookshop while having no idea of who he really is.
But she knows, as she looks at her slain family on the patio, that when Javier Crespo Fuentes realises she and Luca have evaded his gunmen, he will send them after her.
And so they flee.
Their car will be too easily traced, and without proper documentation they can’t fly. Lydia and Luca eventually join the tide of migrants heading north, and they make friends with some of them. Most of these are not middle class like Lydia and Luca, but they are infinitely more knowledgeable about the hows of the journey and its dangers, and Lydia is grateful for their advice and their company.
They travel north by train – but not comfortably in a seat: taking the terrifyingly hazardous method of riding on the train roofs.
After appalling encounters – and some kindnesses – they reach a border town where they see, tantalisingly, the Stars and Stripes fluttering on the far side of a wall. But now comes the toughest part of the journey – going into the desert to cross the border.
In her author’s note at the end of the book Cummins says living in the US she was aware of “the worst stereotypes” about Mexico.
“So I saw an opening for a novel that would press a little more intimately into those stories, to imagine the people on the flip side of that prevailing narrative. Regular people like me. How would I manage if I lived in a place that began to collapse around me? If my children were in danger, how far would I go to save them? I wanted to write about women, whose stories are often overlooked.”
She began researching the novel in 2014, “long before talk about migrant caravans and building a wall entered the national zeitgeist”.
She says the prevailing Western discourse about migrants represents them “at worst… as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings. People with the agency to make their own decisions, people who can contribute to their own bright future, and to ours, as so many generations of oft-reviled immigrants have done before them.”
All this talk of cultural appropriation and the worldwide plight of migrants is a burdensome weight on this book. They are important issues, but should not overwhelm what Cummins has achieved in American Dirt – a cracking good story.