Thursday, January 30, 2020

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, RANT


American Dirt
Jeanine Cummins
Published 2020

In truth, I have not read this book. I knew nothing of it or its author until this morning. But now I am really irritated and disturbed by the irate controversy surrounding it. 

Oprah Winfrey raved about it and added it to her book club, and Stephen King hailed it as an "extraordinary piece of work." It is being compared to The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. 

However, since the negative up roar, Oprah is being pressured to erase its existence from her list, and she has decided to have a roundtable discussion about the controversy, providing critics an opportunity to air their anxiety over it. 

Here's a quick overview, if you have not been following: 

A white author -- Jeanine Cummins -- wrote a story from the perspective of a Mexican immigrant mother who seeks freedom and a better life for her son and herself, in America.

Critical reviews labeled American Dirt as "brown face," "appropriating," inaccurate," "repackaged for mass racially colorblind consumption," "stereotypical," and on and on. 

Cummins' publisher Flatiron Books decided (and probably were bullied, given the circumstances) to cancel the book tour. I have read that they were concerned about safety. To those who criticized Cummins portrayal of Mexico as "dangerous" (because "so is America") -- you are making the point. I can see how enraged the public has become over this emotional issue, and I completely understand why Flatiron would have to make such an unfortunate decision. 

So, here is my personal testiness about the circumstances:

Who said and since when are authors expected only to write about the shoes they have walked in? Therefore, if American Dirt is being hailed as the new Grapes of Wrath, I can argue Steinbeck had no business writing about the migrant American farmer, and in my opinion, in such a pathetic and disparaging light. 

From what I have read, American Dirt exposes the journey of a women seeking freedom, a better life; tired of running, tired of fear, scared for her life and her son's future. When readers read books...what is most important? That they can associate and understand? Yes, they read so that they CAN walk in someone else's shoes. If a book is poorly written, the reader will have learned nothing. But if it is written completely and thoroughly, the story will stay with its reader forever. 

Readers share the human condition. They know pain, disappointment, and struggle; they recognize hatred and injustice; they experience sorrow and angst. If Cummins wanted to expose the struggle of a Mexican immigrant...so what?! Again, I have not read the book, but what I have read, I am certain she did not mean to be offensive, elitist, or arrogant. I think she thought she was doing her duty to expose a popular modern day human issue - the story of the "ill-treated immigrant trying to come to America."

If her story was not believable, did not garner compassion for the migrant, did not open the eyes of the reader, did not influence his or her thinking, then that is the fault of the author's writing You are not required to agree with the author. Judge her in that manner. But if the author brings attention to the immigrant issue, to a reader who otherwise would have never considered it, is that not worthy? 

Some critics said she gave an incorrect, stereotypical view of a violent Mexico...uh...I'm speechless. Research it. I kinda have to agree with the author on this one.

Other critics are annoyed that Cummins labeled herself white, but now Latinx, because she has a Puerto Rican grandmother (and was born in Spain). Someone determined that is not Hispanic enough to write about Hispanics or to use typical Spanish terms throughout the story. It's too...typically white, I guess.

And a few critics argued that publishers have far too long ignored Hispanic women authors and do not pay equivalently as they do white female writers. Unfortunately, that sounds like an entirely different issue that is not Cummins' fault. 

I'm sorry for Jeanine Cummins. She is writing in a very hostile, censorious, intolerant time in America. Hysterical forms of racism are big business here, which keep people in line and controls the masses, and we continuously need fuel to keep it burning. Bullies thrive on it. By the way, racism is also a form of pride, a self-centered victimhood mentality. It is so over used!

The Slippery Slope Effect:

This is social training: authors of specific races are learning what they can and cannot write about, and it is only a matter of time before most [white] authors will no longer write about anyone other than their own race because they will be terrified to do otherwise. Surely publishers will find them too risky. So, I wonder how long before a public book review is disqualified simply because the reader/reviewer is of a different race than the author? This will affect you, Book Blogger.

But how much more confusing will this become as more and more Americans mix races, as we ARE! No one will be just Hispanic or white or black or Asian. What is to become of RACISM in America? Those whose job it is to maintain racism will have to find another reason to throw a tantrum. 

Poor Jeanine Cummins,
now the target of her own Beliefs

So I have more questions:

Have you read this book? What did you think?
Are you interested in reading it?
Are you uncomfortable reading a fictional story written by an author who never personally experienced her book's subject or topic, or is of a different race, gender, nationality, class, or other label than her protagonist? 

Personally, I'm really not interested in the subject, and I probably won't read the book...or maybe I will years from now, after I read my unread books. But I'm not uptight about the discrepancies between an author and his protagonist. I don't think authors need to show their race card to justify their qualifications for writing a story.  Just write a good story. Then I'll read it and tell you after what I really think about it. 

17 comments:

  1. Ruth. I'm so with you. Where are we heading to with this?
    I was born and lived in Spain 26 years, almost 1 in Mexico, and 22 in Texas.

    I never heard the word Hispanic until I came to the American continent. But I am not white. As far as I know, we call Puerto Ricans Hispanic. It's ridiculous.

    I'm also not interested in the book but find this controversy sad and narrow minded.

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  2. Although in Spain we never thought of us non white. But here, I don't know what I am.

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  3. Excellent rant!!! But not just a rant, COMMON SENSE for this seemingly senseless society that is so scared of the mere appearance of incorrectness or exclusion that we may soon cease to function at all. I fear art and literature, in every form is already suffering from this machine. In trying to become so forward, I feel we are becoming so nothing.

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  4. Silvia...that's me using the Hispanic label. I really don't know what is proper bc some people call themselves Hispanic, which is what our government uses; some people prefer Latino/Latina, and some only want Chicano/Chicana, which may be a Spanish-Native American thing (don't quote me on that.) Oh, and then some (like my husband's family) would refer to themselves as Mexican, which they are not bc they were born here in America. They are American. Also, the US government considers all those labels as White-Hispanic, although I bet that's going to change bc White is becoming such a horrid label.

    All of my grandparents are from Italy, and we always considered ourselves white, although I have been mistaken for black and Mexican bc I don't look white. I'm even darker than my husband! But I would say, since you were born in Spain, you would be considered by the US government as White-Hispanic. I've even seen labels for Mediterranean, which is what we would also be. I would be White, non-Hispanic. That's just how our government wanted to label people. Make sense?

    But for the last 20 years, I have been leaving the race question blank on everything I fill out, even the US census bc i really wish we didn't focus on race anymore and it is only for quotas. Unfortunately, bc of my last name, Hispanic always gets filled in on the applications that I leave blank. (mad face)

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    1. I understand. My husband from Malta also leaves the race question blank.

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  5. Hey, Shan...good points! Sadly, everyone is hypersensitive about everything and highly critical, to the point that everyone is going to be afraid to do anything. It's like self-imposed fascism.

    P.S. Do you remember...it was you who taught me at SBDC that the government referred to Hispanics as white! I had no idea.

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  6. So it's a novel? I haven't read it but the response seems a bit over the top. So men shouldn't write about a female character or vice-versa?
    I understand you wanting to rant.

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  7. Carol...yes, it is a novel. I was thinking about that, too. What do we do about men who write from the perspective of a woman, and vice versa? Where do we draw the line?

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  8. And who gets to decide who gets to write what? This is such a subversive power trip and I'd like to know just how far this will go (like transgenderism) before there's finally push back.

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  9. Sharon...I wonder! It seems that no one is pushing back, yet. Not in literary circles, nor in education, entertainment, sports, government, media. We're all going along with the demands of those throwing the most violent tantrum without logically countering it.

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  10. This seems to be a no-win situation. I remember reading a blog about a year ago, in which the blogger said that novels were "too white", and that white authors should incorporate people of different races in their novels. When I replied that possibly they didn't because they were worried about causing offence by getting details wrong, I was told this was no excuse!

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  11. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this controversy. I will be reading this book. I've been deeply interested in reading it since I first heard about it.

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  12. MICHELLE ANN...Excellent point. I see this all around, in different media. You can't incorporate enough, and if you do, it is never sufficient or accurate. Then you are dangerously close to appropriating or being stereotypical.

    DEB...I am so curious to see what your opinion is of the book, now that I know a blogger who is going to read it.

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