Thoughts on American Dirt
Updated: Jun 21
Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
'Fear keeps them alive, hope keeps them running' (American Dirt: Jeanine Cummins).
**Trigger warnings: Murder, gang violence, sexual abuse, rape**
The story follows Lydia and her eight year old son, Luca who following a birthday party in which all their family are murdered by a drug carter must make the journey from Mexico to the United States as asylum seekers. The narrative follows them along their journey as they meet others and have to make choices along their way to survive.
What others have said
Devastating and timely... its hard to imagine there will be a more urgent or politically relevant novel this year - Observer.
Heartstopping...doesn't let up... you will urge them on, fists clenched - The Times.
Stunning... remarkable... an account of love on the run that will never lose steam - Vogue.
'As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented, I can say with authority that this is harmful, stereotypical, damaging representation of our experiences. Please listen to us when we tell you, this book isn't it' - Julissa Arce Raya - author.
As someone who has spent half a lifetime in Mexico and on the border, I can only pray that this book doesn't go down in history as "the great migrant novel"' - David J. Schmidt, author and translator.
What did I think?
There are two things to consider here; is it a good read and are there some things that perhaps should have been done differently? In my opinion the answer is yes to both.
As a book I really enjoyed it, the story was easy to follow, the emotion is evident on the page and there are some really beautiful characters within the story as well. On some occasions, Lydia, the lead character is slightly annoying but its consistent and I suppose all protagonists cant always be the strong, passionate characters we hope them to be.
Now the wider issue of the book itself, its context and its factuality. One criticism that has been directed towards Cummins has been that she is not a Mexican refugee and she has relied on 'lazy stereotypes' to cultivate her novel. Cummins herself has argued that she debated whether to publish this novel on the basis that she had not lived the experience and she explains the research that she has completed. I am not in a position to really discuss how good or bad her research was but the idea that no-one can be an author about a subject we have not experienced one is slightly weak - if this were the case, taking it to the extreme if I were to become an author (don't worry its not on the cards), I would only be able to write a story based in 1988 and onwards about being a white female who has lived in certain areas of the UK.
This leads to the question if authors who have experienced their subject matters are currently not able to get their voices heard and work published, is it better if an author who identifies herself to be 'white' is able to get their voice heard and this will open the dialogue up is it positive that this work is published. I have to be honest that I think it is. If an individual does not feel able to pick up a book from a person of colour for example, I can only hope that by reading a 'best seller' which covers this subject matter this may open up the discussion this has to be positive. There are also positive repercussions with this as well, when we spend money and show an interest in the subject matter publishers will start looking for other books with the same topic, ultimately making room for other authors whom can include asylum seekers and refugees. There is also an additional solution, if we as the population of book readers are concerned about the lack of diversity within the authors we read, start doing the research, start reading the books by authors of colour for example, they are out there but maybe a little more hidden, contact publishing houses and ask them to publish more books from minority groups and if you find a good book - shout about it, post it on your social media and ask a book group you are part of to read it. Every little helps and there is room for other authors in our reading.
Now to add into all the controversy of the book, there are now photos and images circulating of a dinner for the book where centrepieces were made of barbed wire, and the author herself posting of twitter her manicure which replicates the book jacket which as you probably guessed includes barbed wire. I mean, overall it just seems like a slightly silly and naive thing to do, and does feed into this idea that Cummins is enjoying the books controversy and not understanding the symbols of oppression that she is writing about and are prevalent in society today. Does it make the book bad? No but it does suggest the author is not really considering the wider context of her novel which is disappointing.
So in summary, I enjoyed the book and I think it should be read. There is a lot of controversy and I think its important that the matters are being raised. Currently, I think the book is essential reading as it has begun the discussion and placed it within the mainstream. Its a good read and the story, as a story is interesting and enjoyable. When other asylum seekers are able to gain access to the stage and have their voice heard, read their books first and promote those and until that point lets continue to vote with our money and ensure that our reading list is diverse without a focus on white men and women where possible.
Star rating: 4.5* (out of 5)
Will I read it again?: Yes, but I will also be looking for other books of asylum seekers stories.