There. I said it. From one well-meaning white lady to another, I feel bad for you, Jeanine.
It’s saying a lot that I feel bad for Cummins, given that in general when I see an author with a runaway, smash hit, all I feel is writerly envy and a sincere wish that my own books could find such success. In this case, though, I’m happy not to be in Ms. Cummins’s shoes.
I first heard about Cummins’s new novel, “American Dirt,” from some magazine or other, where it was on the hot new books list. It sounded interesting. I hopped on the waiting list at my local library — a waiting list of many months, clearly everyone had heard about this book — and thought, “Well, here’s something to look forward to.”
And then I saw this incredible evisceration by Myriam Gurba, which was circulating in a Facebook book group I’m a part of. I haven’t read “American Dirt” yet, but Gurba’s takedown is enough to convince me to remove myself from the library’s waiting list. Gurba finds the characters flat, stereotypical, incoherent, and tainted by the white gaze. Here’s a sampling of her review:
“As a protagonist, Lydia is incoherent, laughable in her contradictions. In one flashback, Sebastián, Lydia’s husband, a journalist, describes her as one of the “smartest” women he’s ever known. Nonetheless, she behaves in gallingly naïve and stupid ways. Despite being an intellectually engaged woman, and the wife of a reporter whose beat is narcotrafficking, Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of México, realities that would not shock a Mexican.”
Gurba is not alone. The internet has exploded with criticisms of Cummins, with detractors accusing her at best of a lack of awareness of her own cultural blindspots and cashing on tired tropes and at worst of plain old racism.
Reading Gurba’s review, I was highly entertained. Indeed, I had a good laugh. It wasn’t until this morning when I was driving to work and listening to NPR that I started to feel bad for Cummins.
Apparently, Rachel Martin of “All Things Considered” recorded an interview with Cummins before the shit storm kicked up. Before NPR aired it, the critics started their attack. In light of the fact that so many in the Latinx community have rejected the book, Martin had another conversation with Cummins to discuss the controversy.
Cummins claimed she had tried to ignore the criticisms, especially things being shared on Twitter. Martin read some of the criticisms to Cummins, who was clearly at a loss for words about how to respond. Actually, the grace and calm with which she responded were impressive. It seems Cummins genuinely had good intentions in “American Dirt,” but she fell into the trap of implicit bias. The thing about implicit biases is that we aren’t aware we have them until someone tells us. Oops. Now she knows.
Still, I felt bad for Cummins as she patiently responded to Martin’s questions and listened to the criticisms leveled at her. I certainly wouldn’t want to respond to criticisms of my books on a national news show, and the criticisms of books are very tame by comparison (at least they have none of the political charge).
So the situation is simple: Cummins wrote a book she believed it about a subject matter that she cared about. According to people more intimately aware of the communities and situations about which she wrote, she got it wrong. That’s not a capital crime.
The bigger fault here is not Cummins’s, but that of her agent, editor, publisher — the whole team behind the book who read it and never saw its flaws before publishing it. Did they have any beta readers who were Mexican? That might have been a step in the right direction.
What the team behind “American Dirt” saw were dollar signs. A novel about a hot button topic by an established author. They knew how to sell that. They knew how to get it on all the lists. How much easier to push a flawed narrative by a known author than to take a gamble on a new voice who might be able to add more authentic insight to our understanding of the border crisis. And the sales of this book would surely boost Cummins’s backlist. More dollar signs.
In some ways, the “American Dirt” debacle reminds me of the fallout from Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help.”
Full disclosure, this well-meaning white lady loved that book. And when I learned that the Association of Black Women Historians had condemned it, I was devastated. What a great book! So compelling! So touching! What do you mean it’s all stereotypes and white savior complex nonsense? And if I like it, does that make me racist? I’m not racist!
It took me a while to get over my shock. Once I did, I could only accept that the Association of Black Women Historians know a lot more about the actual history of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement than I do. With fresh eyes, I could see that Stockett, for all her good intentions, had relied on some well-worn tropes that mask the complexity of the situation, and that, in her framing device of Skeeter’s perspective, she was very much presenting a story familiar to and comfortable for white readers. I get it. It’s a problematic story.
Despite the criticism, “The Help” has sold more than 10 million copies and was a giant box office hit. Stockett hasn’t published anything since, but, then again, I guess she doesn’t have to. She’s made her fortune. She can retire.
Similarly, I suspect that, in spite of or perhaps because of the controversy, “American Dirt” will keep selling. It’ll probably be turned into a movie. And when I think about it that way, I don’t feel so bad for Cummins after all.