Digging that American Dirt

Dan Riley
6 min readDec 7, 2020

My original intention was simply to recommend a book I had just finished reading (listening to!), American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. In advance of writing the post, I went looking for a graphic to accompany it and in so doing was surprised to learn that American Dirt had been at the center of a roiling controversy between the publishing world and Latinx activists. Wow! Literate man that I am, how had I missed that?

Well, blame it on too many goddamned controversies to keep up with maybe. I read a lot…an awful lot, but I don’t pretend to know everything that’s going on in the world of literature. I get a regular mailing of New York Times book reviews, but probably look at it once a month and usually only if there’s an author or subject matter that suits me. So, I never heard of American Dirt until an audiobook I had checked out of my local lending library about some big city millennials coping with American life failed to hold my attention. I returned to my library's list of available audiobooks and after perusing about two dozen I settled on American Dirt, totally prepared to return it as quickly as I returned the prior book if it failed to grab me. But grab me it did…

“From the first sentence, I was IN … Like so many of us, I’ve read newspaper articles and watched television news stories and seen movies about the plight of families looking for a better life, but this story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant in a whole new way.”

That’s not my take…that’s Oprah Winfrey, giving voice to my exact reaction in explaining how she chose it for her book club. My book club is slightly smaller…it’s the handful of you out there reading this post. But I feel strongly about passing this book along because I really believe it can help in communicating the migrant experience to unsympathetic or uncomprehending Americans. Why? Because of its sheer storytelling strength. It unfolds like a Netflix series with all the necessary ingredients—identifiable heroes and villains, high stakes gambles and dangers, plot twists, just enough true story elements to make it instructive, and a satisfying payoff. In other words it’s a rare piece of mass entertainment with the potential for changing hearts and minds on a crucial issue of our times.

So why the controversy? In covering it, Vulture summed it up this way:

The conversation surrounding American Dirt’s “ripped from the headlines” approach to telling this migrant story in an American voice for American readers places it within ongoing debates in the lit world about who can tell what stories.

Who can tell what stories is an intellectually dubious concept, driven by activists who want to turn every damn thing into politics. In reporting on the phenomenon as regards the outrage directed at the movie Green Book, The Hollywood Reporter put it in proper perspective this way:

A hot-button question that society — or at least Twitter — has been debating for years enveloped the Oscar race last season: Who is allowed to tell which stories?

The key phrase there—at least Twitter—tells all you need to know about “the controversy” over whether white folks can tell brown folks’ stories or men can tell women’s stories or a fully functioning human can tell the story of the halt, the lame, or the blind. Twitter is where any guttersnipe with a following of at least five equally angry intellectual delinquents and a swaggering hashtag can bully, harass, and mug anyone that crosses them.

Book Twitter reacted to the announcement with swiftness, although perhaps not in the way Oprah’s team would have wanted, citing the recent #OwnVoices movement. American Dirt has been the subject of controversy and criticism since 2019, when early readers first offered their opinions after seeing advance copies. The book has been called “stereotypical,” and “appropriative” for “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically” telling the fictional story of a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders the rest of their family. One of the more common knocks is that the book engages in “brownface,” incorporating a nominally Mexican perspective that was written by a woman who — as recently as 2016 — identified as “white.”

Without Twitter mob rule, it’s hard to imagine an enlightened society founded on freedom of expression seriously debating who gets to tell what stories.

Octavia Spencer, the Oscar-winning actress and a producer of Green Book, who is black, [said]: "When does one get to tell their story? This is actually Nick's family's story. It's bound to someone else's story, but if this white man can't tell his own story, then I don't know where we're headed. Should Asian people only tell Asian stories? Should African Americans only tell African American stories? I don't think we should ever get in the business of saying who should be telling certain stories. It's crazy to me."

Amen, Octavia. It’s crazy to me, too. If “lived experience” is the necessary criteria for who can tell which story, then Donald Trump Jr. has the right to write about his father and Bob Woodward does not. This is the way to Stalinesque diktats like all art extoll the virtues of the socialist state. It mirrors on the left the culture warrior bullshit practiced on the right by the likes of Dinesh deSouza and Newt Gingrich who portray any literary critiques of colonialism and patriarchy as attacks on their Western Civilization.

The critics of American Dirt insist that this is not Jeanine Cummins’ story to tell…that she has appropriated and/or exploited the story of real migrants who risked everything to make their way to the United States. Which is like saying Steinbeck exploited the victims of the Dust Bowl to write Grapes of Wrath.

In a panel discussion Oprah Winfrey hosted on her book club show three Latina critics of the book attacked it for, among other things, not showing that the drugs and guns portrayed in it came from the US, that Mexico was described as a place to escape while the US was a refuge, and that its happy-ever-after ending denied the reality of migrants and their children held indefinitely in border cages. One of the critics fairly well whined, “I’m a real Latina. I’ve written on the same subject. Why aren’t my books elevated like Jeanine Cummins’ book was?”

The panel discussion ultimately revealed that the anger of the critics was more appropriately aimed at the publishing world’s dismal record for employing Latinx editors and publishing Latinx authors. American Dirt had become a lightning rod for decades of pent-up frustration with systemic suppression of non-white voices. That’s all well and good, and Cummins’ publishers promised to do better in the future in addressing those legitimate issues. They also did a good job of both protecting their author and accepting their own blame in creating the humiliating position they had put her in through their insensitive marketing of the book.

But left unsaid after the entire discussion because the publishers, Cummins, and Oprah were all trying hard to accommodate the critics was this basic truth of bookselling: American Dirt succeeded so well because it was a good story well told. A large audience responded to it even if it didn’t explore how the US War on Drugs created the premise of the story. An audience that wanted that could go to Netflix and find it in Narcos. Audiences did not find it objectionable that Mexico was portrayed as a place to escape and the US a place of refuge since the very reality of all those migrants in cages at the border gave witness to that. And the publisher did not “elevate” this book over books by Latinx authors…it bid for a story it liked against eight other publishers who liked it as well and was rewarded for this gamble when a mass audience responded so favorably to it.

Most importantly, contrary to the prediction of a shamelessly elitist critic writing in The Atlantic, American Dirt has and will change hearts and minds. Oprah confirmed this by polling her audience on the question, much to the chagrin of her Latinx panel. And I can attest to this through my "lived experience" as an old, white, suburban born and bred male who can name at least a dozen acquatances who can be positively affected by this book.

And here's my own voice... Now Playing Black Panther



Dan Riley

From the obit desk at the Hartford Courant to the copy desk at Larry Flynt publications to the stage at Long Beach Playhouse to books, blogs & beyond.