How the ‘American Dirt’ Author Got This Far Out on a Cultural Limb - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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The story that compelled Jeanine Cummins to pen her first book was her own. Her 2004 memoir, A Rip in Heaven, brings to life the rape and murder of her cousins — and attempted murder of her brother — in St. Louis when Cummins was 16.

It was a launching pad for a literary career, which saw Cummins crawl further out onto a creative limb. In 2010, The Outside Boy explored a coming-of-age story of an Irish gypsy boy in the 1950s, informed by her own time living in Ireland. Her 2013 novel, The Crooked Branch, reached back to the 19th-century Irish potato famine, but again largely within her cultural bailiwick.

The limb snapped with American Dirt.

By plumbing a Mexican immigrant tale, the novelist has drawn ire for writing about trauma beyond her own experience — and clumsily so, her critics argue. At a supercharged political moment for immigration, the question rages: Who ought to be a vessel for complex stories about identity?

In some ways, Cummins became an unintended target of her own marketing campaign.

Cummins’ own story began on a U.S. naval base in Rota, Spain, to a family of Irish and Puerto Rican descent. Her family moved to Maryland, where she spent the childhood years that would be interrupted by tragedy in 1991. Four strangers killed her cousins and attacked her brother. The incident would reorient Cummins’ personal and professional trajectory, shaping the stories she’d later pen. The Towson University graduate went off to Belfast, Ireland, where she worked as a bartender. After returning to the U.S., she began working in publishing at Penguin.  

Cummins wanted to find a home for her family’s story — and this was originally supposed to be a joint undertaking with her brother. But he backed out, leaving Cummins to author A Rip in Heaven solo. After publication, she began giving public speeches and meeting with students to discuss victims’ rights, processing trauma and using art as a means to heal. A gravitation toward survivor-centered narratives has guided her literary work.

American Dirt, which hit bookshelves on Jan. 21, unspools the narrative of a mother and bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who tries to escape to the U.S. alongside her son in order to flee violence from a drug cartel. Cummins has said that her motivation in writing the book was to shift dialogue about immigrants and highlight America’s flawed border policies.

But she seemed to know her branch was bending, even before the book was published. “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it,” she wrote in an author’s note. That same note drew criticism for other reasons as well: Cummins highlights the challenges she and her partner — whom she describes as undocumented — faced, yet she didn’t mention that he is an Irish immigrant or delve into how America’s reception of White European migrants differs from Latino migrants.

At a time when Latinos comprise just 6 percent of the publishing industry, according to Lee and Low, the pushback came well before the novel hit shelves. A scathing review of American Dirt by Myriam Gurba was published in December with the headline, “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca With Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.” Critics say tropes and Mexican stereotypes permeate the text, arguing that Cummins’ rendering not only lacks nuanced understanding of her characters’ lived experiences, but also that it’s inaccurate. On Jan. 30, Cummins’ publisher, Flatiron, canceled her book tour for safety reasons.

In some ways, Cummins became an unintended target of her own marketing campaign. After earning a seven-figure advance for the book, the prepublication plaudits rolled in. Novelist Don Winslow called it “The Grapes of Wrath of our time,” hence Gurba’s reference to John Steinbeck. Oprah Winfrey made American Dirt her book club’s first selection of the year.

As a result, the book became a much bigger — and juicier — punching bag for critics. The problem isn’t Cummins’ background, writes León Krauze in Slate. Instead, it’s “the decision to package and sell American Dirt not as candy, but as fiction that should be interpreted as emblematic.” Cummins’ work can’t be transformational without characters immigrants can relate to, Krauze writes.

So for the reading public, the wait continues for a Great American Novel that properly meets the moment. As for Cummins, even though nothing sells books like controversy, there’s a good chance her storytelling future will stick closer to home.

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