Borders and Walls and Flags and Dirt

This year has been one of political strife. One in which immigration is a polarizing topic. One in which a white woman snagged a seven-figure book pub contract, Oprah’s seal of approval, and a movie deal for her novel American Dirt, a story about a Mexican woman and her young son traversing the terrain of Acapulco to el norte, where they can live safely and far away from the drug cartel that murdered their entire family at a Quinceañera. It’s a book that Jeanine Cummins herself wrote at the end that she wished “someone slightly browner than me would write.” It should be noted that one of Cummins’ grandmothers is Puerto Rican. It’s a book that has drawn harsh criticism from Latinx writers for issues of cultural appropriation, and turning the true plight of the immigrant into a page-turning, sensationalistic thriller. Conversely, the likes of Susan Cisneros, Stephen King, and Ann Patchett herald it is a new American Novel, or as Cisneros blurbed on the book jacket: “the great novel of las Americas.” She went on to say in an LA Times article that “it holds the power to educate an audience that hasn’t been previously exposed to migrant stories.”

So where does it stand with us? Let’s dig in.

Lara: I will admit that when I started hearing the controversy, this book that was on my TBR list quickly dropped in popularity. But then I kept hearing that it was actually a good book. And then my book club picked it for our November read and it was settled. I would read this much discussed, maligned, and celebrated book.

Guess what? I loved it.

I can’t tell you if all the research is accurate. I can tell you that the story, the heartbreak, the fear, and the hurdles just to reach this arbitrary line in the sand as a means of safety were enough to keep me reading and have a thoughtful discussion with a diverse group of women (one of which is Mexican-American and was born in the border town of Nogales).

What did you think about it?

Jennifer: Um, well, as you know, I’m sometimes out of the loop on hot new book gossip—and I’m often the last to know. Yes, the “evils” of this book reached me slightly after y’all heard the cultural appropriation stuff. I think I declared that I wouldn’t read it to a few of my book friends. But then my book friends started reading it. And I looked for a good excuse to read it too.

When I did, I loved it as well! Actually, I’ll go so far as to say it’s probably among my favorite books I read this year.

Lara:  Here’s the thing. I think we have become so black-and-white about everything. We are in an all-or-nothing society. If one political party wants to pass legislation, it had better have 100% everything the other side wants, or they are blocking it. If you can’t tell a story perfectly and appease all sides of the situation or argument, then why publish it?

I can’t speak from the experience of an immigrant or a Mexican immigrant. But I can tell you that this story allows us to start having a conversation. It can start opening eyes. And if we want more white people to understand this type of experience, this book got a hell of a lot of publicity and into a lot of white people’s hands.

Jennifer: I have minimal personal experience, as well. But I believe —strongly — reading stories (fiction, specifically) fosters an understanding of differences that can’t quite be communicated elsewhere. I truly believe this. I think reading a book like this makes humans better. Weird to say.

There’s a lot to say about the backlash she received. A white woman writing this story. Should it be told by “real” migrants?

Well, I’ll tell one story from my grad school days that I personally still think a lot about. A writer-friend (she’s Julie Hensley, still my friend!) was talking about the oft-repeated adage to “write what you know.”

Julie said, yes, write what you know. But you can know anything.

Writing is art. It is craft. One learns, imagines, researches even! In my mind, Jennifer Spiegel’s mind, authenticity is critical. I wholeheartedly believe there is artistry and imagination in creating authenticity. I think authenticity can be made up by an artist.

I believed Cummins.

(I should also add that the spectrum varies: some writers stick closely to their own lived experiences, and some stray further.)

Lara:  I want to make one thing very clear, though. American publishers are not doing enough to diversify their catalog. We absolutely DO need to read stories about immigrants written by immigrants. We need to see stories about the Black, Native American, Indian, Asian, LGBTQ experiences written by Black, Native American, Indian, Asian, LGBTQ authors. American publishing is still putting significant dollars behind White men, followed by White women (I don’t have a stat or a source for this, I just know what I see in the bookstores, online, reviewing literary award winners, etc.). Publishers need to spread the wealth. There is plenty of room at the table.

Jennifer: I agree. But I also think we need to have high literary standards. I’m thinking about any James Baldwin book. Valeria Luiselli, who wrote Lost Children Archive may be a more stunning novel on this complicated topic. There is room at the table, but let’s serve the good stuff . . .

Lara: So, let’s get back to American Dirt. It starts with a bang, literally. Bookstore owner Lydia, and her son Luca are hiding in the bathroom of their home as shots ring out across their property and the family barbecue that is underway. When all is said and done, Lydia has lost her entire family of 16. This included her journalist husband Sebastian who had just published a profile of drug cartel leader Javier Fuentes. Complicating matters? Javier is a frequent patron of Lydia’s store and was becoming a friend.

I was immediately sucked in. What was your experience when you started the book?

Jennifer: Sucked in immediately. I can’t even say when. There were times when I felt like I had too much going on to concentrate—and I’d pick it up and be back into it in a second. I know I keep seeing it touted as a “page-turner” and almost thriller-esque. I get it. And I was fully into it. But part of me wants to make sure everyone knows this is literary fiction too. I found the language to be very good. I hear there were Spanish grammatical errors.

Here’s her description of the cartel leader, who “woos” her by patronizing her bookstore:

“He seemed enlightened. But like every drug lord who’s ever risen to such a rank, he was also shrewd, merciless, and ultimately delusional. He was a vicious mass murderer who mistook himself for a gentleman. A thug who fancied himself a poet.”

Did you pause over any generalizations or stereotypes? Were you surprised by any of the lifestyles portrayed?

Lara: I am not sure I can answer that. I know that Cummins researched and wrote this book over a four-year period. I know that my best friend, born in Nogales, also read it and felt it was accurate. I can say that I didn’t think negatively of the characters and their attempts to escape the violence and danger they were experiencing. Some of my fellow book clubbers felt Lydia seemed to be living in her own perfect middle-class life in Acapulco, oblivious to the realities of the impacts of the environment being run by a drug cartel. But my bestie, who has family members in even more violent parts of Mexico attested that sporadic violence, while harrowing to experience, becomes part of the backdrop and something many come to live with or become complacent about. Who’s opinions about this book are right? Who’s are wrong?

As Lydia and Luca make their way to el norte, they encounter Soledad and Rebeca, sisters also seeking safety and a better life, and I was struck by this passage:

“As Rebeca reveals what scraps of story she does have to Luca, he starts to understand that this is the one thing all migrants have in common, this is the solidarity that exists among them, though they all come from different places and different circumstances, some urban, some rural, some middle-class, some poor, some well educated, some illiterate, Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, Mexican, Indian, each of them carries some story of suffering on top of that train and into el norte beyond. Some, like Rebeca, share their stories carefully, selectively, finding a faithful ear and then chanting their words like prayers. Other migrants are like blown-open grenades, telling their anguish compulsively to everyone they meet, dispensing their pain like shrapnel so they might one day wake to find their burdens have grown lighter. Luca wonders what it would feel like to blow up like that. But for now he remains undetonated, his horrors sealed tightly inside, his pin fixed snugly in place.”

With passages like this, I could really connect with Cummins’ writing and stay engaged with the story.

Jennifer: Actually, I learned a lot too. I think it moved away from stereotypes. I saw Acapulco as something different than an American part post. I saw a bank, a Walmart. I’m not sure I previously understood the danger of the cartels, the risk of the trains, the migrant life . . . Cummins brought to life hard issues.

Just this simple quote lets me see things anew:

“Acapulco always had a heart for extravagance, so when at last she made her fall from grace, she did so with all the spectacular pageantry the world had come to expect of her. The cartels painted the town red.”

Lara: I think it’s interesting to see the variety of characters Cummins has amassed for the journey. There are families, men, sisters, and parentless children — some with money, some without. They are all running from something, but they don’t really know what they are running to. They can only hope that the other side is better. Cummins commentary on their journey is a sobering one:

“That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.”

Jennifer: Yeah, and I think it’s worth noting that she doesn’t issue a great big political attack (Luiselli, for example, is a bit more pointed in her political critique—for the record, I loved Luiselli’s book.)

Lara: I loved Luiselli’s book too. That said, the obstacles Lydia and Luca and their newfound family of Soledad and Rebeca are horrifying, politicized or not. At one point, they are with a group of migrants getting insight in how the journey will work. They are told:

“Everything is working against you, to thwart you. Some of you will fall from the trains. Many will be maimed or injured. Many will die. Many, many of you will be kidnapped, tortured, trafficked, or ransomed. Some will be lucky enough to survive all of that and make it as far as Estados Unidos only to experience the privilege of dying alone in the desert beneath the sun, abandoned by a corrupt coyote, or shot by a narco who doesn’t like the look of you. Every single one of you will be robbed. Every one. If you make it to el norte, you will arrive penniless, that’s a guarantee. Look around you. Go ahead—look at each other. Only one out of three will make it to your destination alive. Will it be you?”

As a mother, there’s a lot of untapped reserve you can muster to protect your child.  I don’t know that I could watch my son jump from a bridge to a train and follow suit. It really speaks to the idea of resilience and the fear of the act being smaller than the potential positive outcome. I guess that’s my privilege and that I haven’t had to even consider something like that.

Jennifer: I think that our motherhood connection was key here, though. The do-whatever-it-takes mode struck a nerve:

“She loved that boy with her whole heart, but my God, there were days when she couldn’t fully breathe until she’d left him at the schoolyard gate. That’s all over now; she would staple him to her, sew him into her skin, affix her body permanently to his now, if she could. She’d grow her hair into his scalp, would become his conjoined twin-mother. She would forgo a private thought in her head for the rest of her life, if she could keep him safe.”

Other things resonated in universal ways. This was a story that inevitably hits humanity. It’s eye-opening, and my hope is that it doesn’t get cast aside with a lot of the wreckage of 2020.

What else have you been reading?

Lara: I have been starting and stopping more than anything. And not because the books aren’t good, but because current events continue to make it hard to focus. I did read and love The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. I got sucked into Lisa Jewel’s creepy thriller, Then She Was Gone. I listened to Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body Is Not an Apology, a great manifesto that goes deeper than self-confidence and self-acceptance. A little breezy, but engaging enough was Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah, a book that has a dreamy cover.

In progress, I have Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs, the buzz-generating Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, One Day in December by Josie Silver, and The Undocumented Americans by Carla Cornejo Villavicencio and Intimations by Zadie Smith. These are all for various book clubs. It’s ridiculous, truly.


Jennifer: It continues to be a slow reading year . . . My head is spinning from Covid and the election and kids and work. I did listen to Bob Woodward’s Rage. I think it was great journalism, and the end was pretty brilliant. I’m also reading The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. She persists in excellence and authenticity, though I wish she’d cut back a tad on sexual portrayals because I’m a prude. I’ve got Marilynne Robinson’s Jack on the table next.

Next Up!

If you can believe it, we are weeks away from posting our year in review! We hope you’ll join us. Until then, happy reading!


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