The Problem with ‘American Dirt’

Published on January 22, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is Oprah’s latest book club selection, and she calls it a “heart-wrenching page-turner.” Others, however, have called it “cringeworthy and problematic.”

Oprah’s book club is known for catapulting books into instant popularity, often putting choices onto the bestseller’s list. Her choice of American Dirt certainly has put the novel into the public view, but maybe not in the way Oprah had originally planned on.

Jeanine Cummins writes about Lydia Quixano Perez, a bookstore owner, and her journey to becoming a migrant on the run with her family.

The problem? Cummins is not Mexican. On Twitter, she calls herself “Irlandaisa/Boricua/Persona”. This means she is part Irish and part Puerto Rican (she has one Puerto Rican grandmother). She has identified as white in the past.

While she may have Latina heritage, she is writing about an experience that is not hers. Many have called that “brownfacing.” In other words, it is a way of exploiting an experience and a culture that does not belong to Cummins in order to make the bestsellers list.

Cummins’s explanations and actions have only proven the critic’s points.

In an interview with The New York Times, Cummins said, “I don’t know if I’m the right person to tell this story.” She knows she’s not, and yet, she wrote it anyway.

Even worse, in the afterword of the book, while Cummins is discussing her writing process, she calls her subjects “the faceless brown mass” and takes it upon herself to humanize them.

Chicana writer Myriam Gurba, who wrote an excellent takedown of this book, posted the following photos on Twitter. The pictures were taken at a party in honor of American Dirt.

It has yet to been seen how the controversy will affect sales. A movie version of American Dirt is already in the works.

Olivia Smith is a Staff Writer at Grit Daily. Based in San Francisco, she covers events, entertainment, fashion, and technology. She also serves as a Voices contributor at PopSugar.

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