Boy has the world turned against this book. It went from publishing industry’s biggest darling and Oprah’s recommended list, to the recipient of rage from the Latinox community.
“This path is only for people who have no choice, no other option, only violence and misery behind you,” a priest warns the protagonist who is about to set out on a perilous journey. “Many will be maimed or injured. Many will die. Many, many of you will be kidnapped, tortured, trafficked or ransomed … every single one of you will be robbed.”
Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, American Dirt (January 21, 2020), is an action-packed wild ride. A middle-class wife of a Mexican journalist is suddenly forced to flee with her eight-year-old son and find themselves miles and worlds away from their comfortable existence. Instantly transformed into migrants, the mother and son ride la bestia—trains that make their way north toward the United States. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, the mother soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to? Trump’s America.
Cummins researched the background to American Dirt by spending time in the borderlands and listening to the personal stories of migrants and those who support them. But doing the research is not enough anymore. You have to be born into it for readers to allow you to write a story. The debate rages, but the two sides are “No, you can’t write about something that you don’t know about,” “Yes, we should all be able to learn about new topics, then write about them.”
I can understand both sides. White people have treated Mexicans very badly since 2016, why should a white person write this story? Then again, identity politics is a slippery slope. Even Ms. Cummins’ grandmother was Latino, but apparently that does not make her Latino enough.