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“American Dirt” Was Written for White People and it Shows

Book cover of American Dirt.

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I didn’t intend on reading or reviewing this book until it was picked for a book club I attend. I felt very apprehensive about reading it because I had read so many articles from Latinx and Chicanx authors, reviews, and journalists who had already detailed all the issues with the book.

When I have spoken to people who read the book, they felt angry and frustrated that the author, Jeanine Cummins, was being ‘attacked’ for writing the book. It was a work of fiction, one person told me. Does that mean authors cannot write about things outside what they know?! Asked another person. Some have even questioned if challenging Cummins’ writing is a violation of freedom of speech.

It can be easy to write a sassy comment and move on, but I also want to take the time to address the complexities raised in the publication of this book. I do this, not to speak for Latinx and Chicanx people, but to use the privileges I have in a way to speak to the people who possibly don’t understand why so many people are upset about the book, but are open to learning more.

The first issue I want to address is authorial intent. Now more than ever people are questioning the intentions of authors. Statements that surround discussions of American Dirt are usually centred on the question: Did Cummins mean to be racist/tactless/tone-deaf/cliche? This question is closely linked with authorial intentions and it centres the author’s motivations. Generally, in most justice systems the severity of the crime is also linked to intent. One only has to think of the differences between premeditated murder charges and man slaughter to see that the difference of intention matters greatly. This example, by the way, is not meant to compare Cummins to murderers, but to highlight that as a society we are often looking for motivations and intentions behind the things we do.

When we solely think on intentions and motivations, we lose something valuable in the discussion: the importance of impact. Let me use another analogy: I hit my friend in the face and they receive a black eye and a broken nose. If we ask what my intentions were behind this – was I trying to open a jar that was stuck tight, so the force of my whole body was behind the hit when I accidentally slipped? Or did I deliberately walk up to them look them square in the face and punch them? None of these questions address the impact I had on the person who is injured. It doesn’t matter what my intentions were, the fact of the matter is my friend is injured and needs care and support. If I stand there saying “I didn’t mean to!” I am not actually helping my friend. I am centring myself and ignoring the impact my actions have had on those around me.

Now, if we think about this with authorial intent my concerns are not whether Cummins is a flaming racist. I don’t care if she loves Mexicans and wanted to write a story about them. That only centres her intentions rather than addressing the larger impact her actions have had on the Mexican community. Impact is often forgotten because we are so busy defending ourselves and centring ourselves in stories that we forget that our actions and words have real impact on people and communities.

Impact over intent.

The fact of the matter is, Cummins hurt a lot of people with American Dirt. I don’t care if she wanted to highlight immigration stories. It isn’t about her.

Secondly, if you are going to write about a culture that is foreign to you. Do. You. Research. Let me repeat that: DO YOUR RESEARCH. Now, some of you might think to yourselves, But Hope! Did you not read the ending of the book where she talks about her time spent on the boarder talking to immigrants? To that, I would say: Yes, I did read it and I am even more shocked by how cliche her characters are and how HORRIBLE her Spanish is.

A note on the Spanish in the book.

Disclaimer: at home, my husband and I use a blend of three languages: English, German, and Portuguese. We sometimes throw in some Italian. My husband speaks Spanish, I have passive Spanish from learning Italian, French, and Portuguese.

From a mono-linguist it might seem that when my husband and me speak a blend of languages that we are just making it up as we go. Throw in a word here and word there. And Ta-da! You have a multilingual conversation. But no, though this be madness, it hath method. Grammar rules are blended, but strangely function in this hybrid space. There are certain words you are more likely to mix between – prepositions, interrogative words like who, what, why are some examples. It flows and makes sense. Any multi-lingual person will feel this and sense this when they mix languages. The Spanish in American Dirt is terrible. Sure, the words are grammatically correct, but this could not be more forced if Cummins tried. It is clunky, there is no flow. The unspoken rules of multi-lingual dialogues are not followed at all, and it shows.

Lastly, the most important observation for me after reading American Dirt and talking to Western white people about the book is that they loved it. They thought it was powerful, thought provoking, sad, and heroic. They couldn’t understand why so many people were against the book, myself included. It opened their eyes to some of the horrors that people in Central and South America face. They allowed themselves to be open to that story because it was written by someone who looks and acts like them. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of Spanish and Portuguese authors writing about their home countries. These stories are being translated in multiple languages all over the world. But main stream publishing along with the white Western readership do not want to engage with these texts.

I genuinely had someone tell me, You don’t see Mexican authors writing about this! They are just jealous of Cummins’ success.

American Dirt was never written for a Latinx or Chicanx audience. It was always written with other white people in mind. And it shows.

Just like Tex Mex, American Dirt is only sorta maybe a bit Mexican if you squint.

There are so many amazing reviews and writers on Goodreads that have done an amazing job talking about the issues with American Dirt. I have written this review taking a leaf out of Cummins’ book. Namely, this is written for white people to learn a bit more about their place and privilege in the literary world. As always, share the reading love.

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