This is the second part of my review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. This part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.
Authors under attack
Author Jeanine Cummins was attacked by a cohort of women of central and northern American backgrounds, on the basis that Jeanine Cummins should not have written American Dirt because she is not Mexican. And?
In the case of Jeanine Cummins the controversy kicked off when American Dirt was selected by Oprah Winfrey, a big name USA celeb, as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick. Accusers say that as a white American woman Ms Cummins should not have written a novel about a brown Mexican woman. She had no right to the story, even though it’s a work of fiction based on creative thinking, research, hard work and peer reviews. The charge is not unlike that levelled at Edna O’Brien for Girl a novel that follows a group of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and one girl in particular. Both authors have been attacked for their work, despite the fact that their books illuminated otherwise very dark and unseen places. Besides vilification, the two writers also share another rather more important quality: imagination and dedication. But for that they get no credit.
Half empty, half full, twice the size it needs to be, or a glass in need of topping up?
Why can these half-empty types not just appreciate American Dirt for the wonderful writing, the strong characterisations and the insight into what thousands of people face every day just to survive, baffles. When are we going to get over this proprietariness when it comes to ideas, characters and stories? It seems that it’s more important to discourage and block, to put people off their work, to prevent them expressing the stories and ideas in their heads, to stop them sharing what they see, how they see it and why they think it matters. Does imagination and commitment to the work of getting it onto the page need permission? And if so, why? Is it because people don’t want to be offended? If so there are plenty of intensely offensive books out there. Don’t buy them if you think you may be offended. But also don’t whinge because someone else told the story first.
That American Dirt had massive support from a powerful publishing machine (Headline, a Hachette imprint) makes matters worse for the antis. It makes it better for readers and the author, because it means more people are exposed to the book and the ugly realities it describes. The antis overlook that the deal to publish followed a three day bidding war involving nine publishers. They believe, probably correctly, that another author might not have received the seven figure advance, the promotions and publicity that Cummins got. But the original book proposal was instantly resonant for so many publishers because of its timeliness and relevance, plus its commercial potential. Cummins was signed to a major publisher and got the ginormous advance not because she is white but because her work sells. Cummins has already published three other books which sold well so she’s got solid track record of delivering the goods. A known quantity. In commercial terms the subject matter and the author of American Dirt are low risk. Publication of American Dirt isn’t about exploiting underrepresented authors, being insensitive to cultural fragilities or not supporting emerging talent. It’s about commercial risk and sales. That’s the reality.
In 1890 Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray “To define is to limit.” Perhaps we should all stop trying to limit the imaginations of creative people, and should instead put aside envy and jealousy. We should stop letting life’s unfairness get in the way of appreciating what others create, whoever they are. Let’s stop the creeping censorship, let’s stop seeking out people to criticise and condemn, and let’s think about the real implications of the whole concept of individual cancellation. It’s been tried many times in the course of history and it always ends badly.
Book club pick
I came to this book because it was required reading for our book club. I knew nothing about it or the fuss, but was hooked from the first page. The insights and perspective and horror for Lydia, Luca and the two sisters is impossible to step away from. They cling and invade with increasing tenacity as the reader moves along through the story alongside these people who exert such a pull. They’re with me still. American Dirt helps us to gradually understand that all of us are vulnerable to this awfulness, but for a few twists of fate and luck. The migrant’s desperate trek is not an abstract, distant, elsewhere problem. It is here and now, it is part of our humanity and inhumanity. In her details and the reality she creates, with imagination, research and dogged hard work, Jeanine Cummins sustains excitement and tension throughout the 454 pages of American Dirt. When you put it down you may be surprised to find yourself shaking and your blood pressure up. Prose like breathing, intense and rapid from start to finish.