I had never heard of this novel or this author before seeing this January 25 Associated Press story:
AP Entertainment (@APEntertainment) January 25, 2020
According to the AP:
“American Dirt,” published Tuesday, tells the story of a Mexican woman and her 8-year-old son fleeing to the U.S. border after numerous family members are murdered in drug cartel-related violence. The heavily publicized book has been praised by Stephen King and Ann Patchett among others and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. On Saturday, it ranked No. 4 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list.
Kidding aside, however, “numerous Mexican-American writers” are not happy about the novel:
But numerous Mexican-American writers have called “American Dirt” an ill-informed narrative about Mexico that reinforces stereotypes. Cummins, a non-Mexican, even acknowledged in an author’s note that she had reservations about writing the novel. She has said she wanted to personalize the issue of immigration and be a “bridge” between different worlds.
“Ill-informed narrative?” Hmm. Just a day later, the AP reported this:
Several hundred feminist activists warm up with chants next to a monument to murdered Mexican women before filling… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
The Associated Press (@AP) January 26, 2020
What actually seems clear is that Mexico has a major problem with violence against women. Presumably even those “numerous” authors know that – or they should. That January 26 AP report immediately above states:
On average, 10 women are murdered every day in Mexico, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. Only one of every 10 reported crimes in Mexico results in jail time.
So a Mexican woman fleeing murderous violence seems an entirely valid subject for a novel. After all, if the novel were to present a Mexico that is not “one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women,” would that NOT perhaps be far more to concoct an “ill-informed narrative?” Regardless, Salma Hayek deleted her Instagram post praising the book and subsequently posted this:
She says there that she had posted her original promo-of-the-novel pic … because Oprah Winfrey had just sung the novel’s praises.
Indeed possibly America’s most well-known reader posted about it to her nearly 18 million followers on Instagram not once…
View this post on Instagram
Hello, fellow book lovers! My next book club selection is “American Dirt” by @jeaninecummins. 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. Tap the link in my bio to grab yourself a copy and follow @oprahsbookclub to join the conversation. We’ll start discussing it soon 📚 #ReadWithUs
…within two days.
And she states in the video that she has read it. She also says she cannot praise the book enough. She even terms it “a magnificent novel.”
As Oprah Winfrey did, no doubt all of the “numerous” writers who have been beating up on the novel, and on its author, have also read the novel cover to cover, so is the underlying issue for those writers actually that the novel’s author is not Mexican or Mexican-American and the main character is Mexican? And surely such writers would not be assailing it because, say, they had written something similar and their book(s) did not attract the attentions of the famous Ms. Hayek and especially the intergalactically-book-reading-influential Ms. Winfrey? Because we all know writers are, err, never, uh, nasty to each other or motivated in the slightest by jealousy over someone else’s authoring success, right?
Promotion has always been a big part of the writing biz. A new need nowadays is getting potential readers even to the book jacket… since many books are now bought online, or as Kindles, and not taken off a bookstore shelf and thumbed through as in “the old days.” Winning social media endorsements from Salma Hayek – even if she didn’t actually read this book – and particularly from Oprah Winfrey are a publisher’s and an author’s dream.
The moral of the story, though, would seem to be this: Don’t promote a book we have NOT read. However, the opposite logically also holds true: Let’s not bash a book we have NOT read. Always read a book fully… and then decide how we feel about it.
Seeing this “controversy” reminded me that every writer must understand that no matter what there are going to be other writers who for a variety of reasons won’t like what you have written. A celebrity – whose reason for being is to seek popularity – backtracking and apologizing in the face of a social media angry mob is almost to be expected. But a writer must have the guts to hold their creative ground in the face of other writers’ onslaught.
For example, an assertion we are seeing made by some writers that writers should not – indeed, cannot – write characters who are “different” from themselves – at least they cannot without an “approval stamp” from someone(s) apparently called a “sensitivity” reader(s) – and must adhere to the narrative of which they as other writers approve, needs to be resisted at every turn by every other writer:
For if a writer is now to be castigated by other writers for being male and fictionalizing an old woman friend and putting himself occasionally behind that woman’s eyes, if the writer is to be told that he is not to write of her also because her character is of another nationality (or, in her case above, two nationalities), and it is somehow deemed “controversial” that he has produced “a narrative” as he sees it, fiction is going to become a pretty bland and less and less human place that expands readers’ earthly horizons not at all as it increasingly consists of little but “safe” tales of sexless orange creatures from the planet “Eurgh”.
I write fiction based on of what I have learned in order to share such in a hopefully well-written and entertaining manner. No “competing” writers (and writing, let’s not kid ourselves, is VERY competitive) have the authority to decree to me what my narrative is to be and how to write my characters… regardless of how “numerous” those writers may be. I DECIDE what the art of my narrative is and who inhabits it, and if another writer, or 100,000 of them, disapproves… my suggestion is six words: go write your own damn book(s).
Just what I think. Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂
UPDATE: More here, February 3: “The ‘Right’ To Write.”