Novels are powerful.
‘Cheaper than airline tickets,’ is how Lydia, heroine of Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt describes books.
‘But far more dangerous,’ replies Javier.
I think he’s right.
American Dirt is a timely book to discuss in 2020. A novel about the migrant experience at a time when even those fortunate enough to enjoy the luxury of travel for pleasure are grounded. A time when already crowded and under-resourced refugee camps worldwide are beset with illness. And when there is so much unrest on American soil. The latest cry for justice over centuries of inequality and prejudice.
I had to read American Dirt.
As the author of my own novel dealing with immigration, international borders, and human rights, and having spent some time in Mexico and the US before covid put a stop to my travels, it seemed like the perfect book to read during this pandemic.
But I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t add that I was also intrigued by the controversy. So, it was with luck that I found a copy in my local Free Library (the original owner apparently having discarded it a third of the way through, judging by their bookmark).
American Dirt has already been the subject of many well-written, thought-provoking reviews which offer perspectives I cannot. Much of the controversy has focused on the question of who has the right to tell certain stories, and whether the depiction of Mexico and its people in this novel are little more than ‘offensive stereotypes’.
Having visited both countries as an outsider, and being neither a US nor Mexican citizen, I am very likely overstepping the boundaries in offering up my perspective. So rather than attempt to judge to what extent the characters and setting of American Dirt are stereotypes – something I am ill-equipped to do, and something which, perhaps, no novel can escape – I wish to primarily focus on something else: what American Dirt omits.
In this review, I want to address three major themes:
- The ‘flavour’ of the novel, and how Mexico is translated with a US reader in mind
- Its stereotypes of both Mexico and the United States, both by description but more importantly, by omission
- The role of identity in literature.
The ‘flavourless’ flavour of American Dirt
Although the majority of the book is set in Mexico, and involves extensive travel (in some cases, all the way from South America to the United States), American Dirt is by no means a piece of exotic, escapist fiction.
Many of the reviews on Goodreads describe American Dirt as a page-turner. (John Grisham is quoted as saying it’s ‘been a long time’ since he ‘turned pages as fast’).
New York Times reviewer Parul Sehgal attributes the ‘rapturous and demented’ praise the book has received as owing to the fact that it is ‘enviably easy to read’ and ‘determinedly apolitical’. This is a tall order for something so inherently political as migration. The very concept of immigration cannot exist without politics, and as Julissa Arce so eloquently writes, “deciding to be silent on matters of policy is in itself a political stance”.
As Rafia Zakaria summarises, “Readers get to feel the emotional experience of Lydia and Luca without being challenged to think about the political realities or identities that shape what it means in real life to be a migrant.”
After reading American Dirt, I too suspect that at least part of the reason for the book’s popularity is the lack of work required on the part of the reader to understand the characters or relate to their lives.
Easy does it
The protagonist, Lydia, owns a bookshop – specifically an English-language bookshop, where she discusses English-language writers with a dapper gentleman customer. Where cultural events are referred to, they are ones US readers are likely to be familiar with through popular culture depictions – a cousin’s quinceañera, or the Americanized Día de los Muertos.
The chocolates Lydia and her son Luca eat are Hershey’s Kisses, and when they go shopping, it is in Walmart, for backpacks and jeans and hooded sweatshirts and disposable wipes and Band-Aids and Blistex. A more American list, I would struggle to compose. The main characters’ names are even familiar – easy to pronounce, with no accent marks, names more popular in the US than in Mexico.
For a non-US-reader such as myself, the Mexico of American Dirt feels quite US-flavoured. But it is likely that a US reader, due to their familiarity, would read the same book as ‘flavourless’, like water. Neutral. Normal.
At least, were it not for the use of Spanish.
Much of American Dirt’s ‘Mexican flavour’, to me, seems to stem from the way in which the prose is liberally peppered with Spanish vocabulary. Words like ‘mijo’ or ‘mami’ even most non-Spanish-speaking readers will be familiar with, or can easily guess from context. This makes the reader feel as though they are indeed reading something exotic. As I’ve written before, language plays an immensely important role in setting.
Language and translation
Although the novel was not originally written in Spanish, I find it interesting to borrow an approach from Translation Studies, to consider the choices the author has made regarding foreignisation versus domestication.
Foreignisation seeks to preserve the ‘foreign’ quality of a work. A book set in France might refer to a character eating pain au chocolat for breakfast, retaining the French rather than translating it to ‘chocolate bread’ or similar.
Domestication seeks to make a work more relatable, more culturally neutral. The same book translated differently might remove the reference to pain au chocolat, and simply state that the character ate breakfast, inviting the reader to use their imagination. Or, it might be changed to something the target audience would more readily relate to – a bowl of cornflakes, for instance.
While some readers may find this approach less ‘authentic’, there are arguments to be made for both. A novel designed to transport readers to France should describe French foods as accurately as possible. But a book designed to explore the workaday lives of the middle classes would lose much of that quality if, in the reader’s world, only the wealthy eat French pastries.
In American Dirt, Cummins has blended these approaches to her translation of Mexico. The sheer volume of Spanish vocabulary suggests a foreignising approach. But that’s just window dressing. The references to products and brands and locations and situations the typical American consumer would be familiar with, covered with this Spanish-language veneer, is what allows the reader to feel as if they are expanding their horizons, while doing very little work to get there.
Stereotypes of Mexico
“On the trains, a uniform seldom represents what it purports to represent. Half the people pretending to be migrants or coyotes or train engineers or police or la migra are working for the cartel. Everybody’s on the take.”– American Dirt
In spite of all the good, kind, wonderful, generous, and brave people Luca and Lydia meet along the way, this paragraph paints almost everyone on the trains as a criminal of some sort, with ‘everybody’ on the take – especially those in uniform, and especially those ‘pretending’ to be migrants.
The idea that some – or even most – migrants are just pretending to be migrants, sneaking into the US for nefarious purposes, is nothing new. When I read these lines, I couldn’t help but hear Trump’s words echoing in my mind: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Since American Dirt is written in a close third-person perspective, alternating between a focus on Luca and a focus on Lydia (and later, other characters) it is difficult to know whose viewpoint this is. Is it Lucas’ childish fears? Lydia’s maternal worries? The perspective of someone they’ve met on their journey? Or Cummins’ commentary on the state of reality?
Fiction versus reality
The reality is, most illegal immigrants to the US do work – but for industries like construction, not the cartel. And immigrants (both ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’) are less likely to commit crimes in the US than their US-born counterparts.
Texas, the only state in the US to keep track of the immigration status of those convicted, provides a fascinating case study. The data shows that crime along the Mexican border is actually much lower than in the rest of the US. Further, homicide rates in Mexican states are not correlated with homicide rates in their US neighbours – meaning that Mexico does not, as some claim, “send their bad guys” over the border.
Illegal immigrants have lower incarceration rates than native-born Americans, are less likely to be arrested for homicide, and according to research carried out by a group of sociologists, areas with large illegal immigrant populations have significantly fewer drug arrests than the rest of the US.
That being said, it is also true that there are reports of hundreds of replica Mexican military uniforms being seized, and cartels controlling around 20% of the country. Three thousand police and soldiers, Business Insider reported almost a decade ago, died in the war against the drug cartels – equal to the number of coalition soldiers who had died in Afghanistan since 2001 (and in under half the time). In 2018, the BBC reports, 421 police officers were killed in Mexico (compared to 55 in the US). Little wonder that few are willing to sign up for a job that pays just $600-$760 per month and carries with it such danger. And no wonder Business Insider concluded, that some of America’s closest South American allies have called for an end on the war on drugs, with even top US cops calling for the same.
Silence is a political stance
For a book which focuses on US-Mexico relations, which crosses both countries, and which specifically details one family’s escape from one country and equally importantly, their fleeing to the other, American Dirt is oddly silent on the state of the USA.
One of the reasons I, like Javier, believe books are so dangerous – and so powerful – is because an author has the liberty of constructing a narrative that is entirely one-sided. It is not just what an author puts in which impacts the reader, but what they choose to leave out.
Take, for instance, the statistic presented right at the beginning of the book: ‘The unsolved crime rate in Mexico is well north of 90 per cent. The costumed existence of la policía provides the necessary counterillusion to the fact of the cartel’s actual impunity.’ This is undeniably shocking, sad, and very troubling. And, it appears to be true – at least, in part.
It takes very little digging for a curious reader to find news reports that back up this figure – the headline of this 2016 DW article reads “Unsolved crime rate in Mexico climbs to 93 percent”. This report from last year quotes an activist’s claim that the impunity rate for regular crimes is 90%, and for lethal crimes against reporters (the subject of Cummins’ book) it’s almost 100%. Older, but more reliable, statistics from the Latin American Herald Tribune suggest that, at least back in 2010, 98.5% of crimes went unpunished, due to a combination of corruption, underresourcing, and a lack of reporting.
An unsolved crime rate of 90-100% is truly worrying.
But out of context, it is also a fairly meaningless statistic.
For starters, we need to look very carefully at what this figure means. An unsolved crime rate of, say 93%, might lead us to believe that the police in Mexico only solve 7% of the crimes reported to them. But the figures paint a very different picture. One only needs to look beyond the headline and read the very first line of the body of that DW article to see that the 93% figure refers to both uninvestigated and unreported crimes.
Personally, I have no interest in defending policing in Mexico or indeed anywhere in the world. And a reluctance on the part of the public to report crimes is far from a good sign. But even the most efficient police force in the world is unable to solve crimes that have not been reported to them (at least, without massive surveillance).
And more vitally: if these crimes are unreported, how do we know they happened? How did the statisticians or journalists come up with the ‘actual’ number of crimes going on that are not reported to the authorities?
Reports vs. estimates
The original study on which this rate was based began with an estimate of the crimes, both federal and common, committed in Mexico that year, landing on the number 7.48 million crimes. Reported crimes, however, numbered just 64,000.
Which is less than one percent of their estimate.
In fact, the report goes on to add, about 15% of reported crimes are investigated, and about 4% are solved. And 1.75% of suspects are convicted.
Again, all of this sounds – and is – abysmal. But again, we need context to understand just how bad it is.
Murder clearance rates in the USA
A more recent (2018) report claims that US murder clearance rates are among the lowest in the (Western) world. Just one eighth of burglaries, one third of rapes, and two thirds of murders are reportedly solved (although, as the report notes, even these figures appear wildly inflated). While the prevalence of TV shows like CSI might lead us to believe that the US is a world leader in solving crime, and that the police and investigators there ‘always get their guy’, the country currently has a 66% unsolved murder rate. While this truth is undeniably disappointing compared to fiction, it’s massive progress over the 91% unsolved murder rate the US had just 50 years ago.
Troublingly though, the way official statistics are reported tends to distort and exaggerate murder clearance rates in the US. And, rates vary substantially by state. In Flint, Michigan, for example, just 17.5% of reported murders are solved. Put another way, close to 90% are unsolved.
Crime in Mexico, too, is unevenly distributed. As the BBC reports, much of the violence is concentrated in hotspots where gangs are active or fighting over territory. Other areas are relatively untouched – like Yucatán, where the homicide rate is just 3 per 100,000 people – lower than in 32 of America’s 50 states. What causes crime in Mexico? According to the BBC, the country’s location, sandwiched between South America, and the US, in other words, between one of the largest producers of, and the world’s largest market for illicit drugs.
US crime solve rates also vary enormously depending on the ‘race’ of the victim. In Chicago, Illinois, for example, reported murders were solved 47% of the time when the victim was white, but just 33% of the time for Hispanic victims, and a dismal 22% of the time for African American victims. Unsurprisingly, socioeconomics comes into play too. In some of the worst-off communities, the clearance rates for murder are in the single digits, according to criminologist David Kennedy. In other words, more than 90% of murders in the United States’ poorest communities go unsolved.
We are, of course, looking just at murders here – the most serious of crimes, which are given the most attention by both police and the media. The Mexican figures are for all crimes. So let’s take a look at how the US police perform in general.
In the US, PEW estimates that fewer than half of all crimes are reported, and fewer than half are solved. Which crimes are reported and which are solved has a lot to do with the type of crime (as well as the circumstances of the victim, as we’ve seen). Close to 70% of motor vehicle thefts are reported, but just 13% are solved. Only one third of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to police, and simple assaults were also reported less than half the time.
This has dangerous consequences, says Vox, contributing to what scholars call “legal cynicism”: “When crimes go unpunished, people are more likely to think that the government — and particularly the police and criminal justice system — aren’t taking such acts very seriously. And that makes people distrust the police and justice system.” This is true not just of Mexico and the US, but every country on the planet.
Cleared vs. solved
It’s also important to note that a ‘cleared’ crime in the US does not necessarily mean a solved one. Cases where the suspect dies or a victim refuses to cooperate with prosecution are also listed as ‘cleared’ even though nobody was arrested, tried, and punished for the crime, and it may not have been conclusively ‘solved’.
We must also consider the crimes police are accused of – not just those they are tasked with solving.
As the Mapping Police Violence report shows, 98.3% of killings by police in the US between 2013 and 2020 have not resulted in officers being charged with a crime.
Of course, the law enforcement Lydia and Luca are most likely to run into trouble with are ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents. In 2018, the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy resulted in nearly 3,000 minors being from their caregivers while crossing the US-Mexico border, and placed in detention centres likened to prisons, concentration camps, and wartime internment camps by prominent figures across the political spectrum. Almost half of these centres in Texas were cited for health violations, and the former head of ICE, critical of child separation, told NBC News ‘You could easily end up in a situation where the gap between a parent’s deportation and a child’s deportation is years… many children might never see their parents again.’
Indeed, some detained children were adopted out to new families without notifying their parents. One adoption agency under fire for promoting adoption rather than attempting to reunite children with their families even advertised a special on Facebook, waiving their usual $550 international adoption fee.
It is not only illegal immigrants who have reason to be fearful of ICE for their and their children’s safety. Between 2012 and 2018, ICE wrongfully arrested and detailed close to 1,500 US citizens – many of whom subsequently spent months or even years in immigration detention due to the use of error prone databases and lax investigations. Some were even arrested more than once on the same inaccurate data, spending up to three years in detention. In 2019, it was reported that one US citizen who was detained lost 26 pounds from the horrendous conditions in the centre.
Complaints of sexual abuse while in immigration custody are also common. Between 2010 and 2017, more than 1,200 such complaints were received, reports the DHS Office of Inspector General, and yet, contrary to ICE’s claims, only 2% of these complaints were investigated.
In other words, 98% of the reports of sexual abuse committed by US immigration officials go uninvestigated.
“She doesn’t want to think about [the possibility of being deported from the US]. The dream of getting to Estados Unidos is the only thing sustaining them right now. She’s not prepared to begin considering all the horrible things that might happen after, if they’re lucky enough to achieve that first, most fundamental goal.”– American Dirt
Like her heroine Lydia, who is understandably desperate to keep her dream alive, Cummins seems unwilling to fully engage with the horrible things that occur on the other side of the border.
While American Dirt takes aim at crime and systemic issues in Mexico, it turns a blind eye to similar issues in the US. While by no means equivalent, this omission reinforces stereotypes not only of Mexico, but of the US.
Stereotypes of the US
Stereotypes aren’t always negative. The notion that Japanese people are always polite is a stereotype, even if it is a ‘nice’ one. As is the notion that women are gentle and kind.
“Mexico is terrible, el norte will be terrible” thinks Rebeca, one of the girls Luca and Lydia meet along the way. But for the most part, the US (el norte) is a promised land. Soledad (another fellow traveller) fancies she can smell the US, which of course has the scent of “McNuggets and fresh Nikes”.
But it was Cummin’s comparison of the Mexican and American flags towards the end of the novel that I found particularly poignant: “‘See,’ Beto says, pointing to the Mexican flag. ‘This is the whole problem, right? Look at that American flag over there – you see it? All bright and shiny; it looks brand-new. And then look at ours. It’s all busted up and raggedy. The red doesn’t even look red anymore. It’s pink.’”
There are two reasons this description stood out to me. Firstly, because it is so different to what I saw, just a little further along the border. When I stayed close to the border in Tijuana in 2018, everyday I saw an enormous, vibrant, silky Mexican flag from my apartment block. I had never seen such a huge, majestic flag, nor have I since. The US flag on the other side of the border looked paltry, faded and slightly tattered by comparison. Of course, the size of a flag is no measure of a country. More than anything, I was reminded of my visit to the border between the two Koreas, where North and South competed over who could build the highest flagpole. Such displays of patriotic pride tell us nothing about the actual conditions of life in a country. But in American Dirt, such symbols are metaphors.
Secondly, I believe this is another example of a passage which may not read the same to a non-US reader as it does to an American: “she sees, not half a block from where they’re standing with their toes pointing north, flapping against the stark sunshine, the red and white stripes, the blue starfield of the American flag”. I imagine that, for those raised on a steady diet of flag-waving American exceptionalism, pledging allegiance to that very flag, and chorusing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, these lines are a good deal more stirring than for those of us who have a slightly different relationship to the US flag.
Identity and Politics
American Dirt is an outstandingly readable book. But more than an outstanding book, I believe American Dirt is an example of outstanding book marketing.
Research suggests that the typical reader of a traditionally-published English-language novel is a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman, who generally reads romance or suspense – genres American Dirt has hints of, and the blurb certainly alludes to.
The entire package of American Dirt is perfectly tailored for this audience. The pull quotes all come from well-known, mainstream American authors (at least on my copy). The title includes the word ‘American’, for crying out loud. And best of all, it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, and boasts her shiny gold sticker.
All of this results in a slick and thoroughly uncontroversial book the typical browser will happily pick up to read on vacation, or recommend for their book club discussion.
But the marketing surrounding the novel is something else entirely.
Photographs the author posted to Twitter depict a launch party at a fancy restaurant featuring floral centrepieces with barbed wire. Her nails with a ‘book manicure’ depicting the same. But it is the advertising claims Krauze so eloquently describes, that this book is emblematic of *the* immigrant experience that have fanned the flames of debate and outrage. Earlier this year, Cummins’ publisher even cancelled her planned book tour, citing fear for her safety (although, as #DignidadLiteraria confirmed with the publisher, no death threats had been received).
American Dirt has thus become the recipient of a sort of holy grail of publicity: all of the online and literary journal critique and debate and controversy you can shake a stick at, which will draw in anyone ‘in the know’, and a squeaky-clean, pretty, Oprah-endorsed cover with no mention of anything problematic at all displayed at the front of your local Barnes and Noble for the more casual consumer.
Who has the right to write?
Both in interviews, and in the book itself, Cummins, displays an awareness of the debate over who can tell certain stories. Her use of Spanish in the novel, and in her acknowledgements, perhaps represents a certain linguistic effort to this end.
As Myriam Gurba points out, in 2015, Cummins wrote in a NYT op-ed “I really don’t want to write about race… I am white… I’ll never know the impotent rage of being profiled or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name.”
Some editions of American Dirt (not the one I read though) reportedly contained an author’s note justifying her decision to write the book: “I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants… I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”
While an argument could be made that writing about immigration does not always entail writing about race, in the specific context Cummins has chosen for American Dirt (namely the Mexico-US border), race is an enormous factor. And the author and her publishing team clearly understand this fact. Here’s what the publisher had to say in a letter quoted by Gurba: “The first time Jeanine and I ever talked on the phone, she said migrants at the Mexican border were being portrayed as a ‘faceless brown mass’. She said she wanted to give these people a face’.
There is a paragraph, close to the end of the novel, in which I believe we most clearly glimpse this intent: to help those whose hearts are hardened to immigrants gain that flare of recognition, that spark of familiarity, that might thaw their hearts. Even if their familiarity will, necessarily, be flawed, translated as it is through this imperfect medium:
“Lydia knows a little about las colonias of Tijuana because she’s read the books, because Luis Alberto Urrea is one of her favorite writers, and he’s written about the dumps, about kids like Beto who live there. That flare of recognition makes her feel like she knows him already, at least slightly, but that feeling is half-hollow, a shadow puppet. Because though she may understand something of this boy’s circumstances, she doesn’t know him. Still, the familiarity has the effect of thawing the part of her that would have remained hardened to him.”– American Dirt
And here we come to the crux of my response:
American Dirt is by no means a perfect description of Mexico – nor, for that matter, America.
Nor is it an account of trauma, immigration, and reinvention by someone who has had these experiences.
As the reviews describing American Dirt as a ‘page-turner’ attest, the novel requires very little of its readers, meeting them more than halfway. One need not dwell on a page to try and extract meaning or understand why something occurs. Nor close the book to pause and reflect for a moment. And certainly, one need not delve further to understand the narrative. It is only when the reader wishes to gain a more complete picture of Mexican-US relations than Cummins presents that research is required.
The danger is that many readers may come away with the impression that they don’t need to put in any further effort, because they believe that all the necessary research has already been delivered to them in a pretty package with a barbed wire bow.
Although, as Lydia herself rightly points out, we may never entirely know someone by reading, the act of reading can undoubtedly help us to glimpse the world through the eyes of other people.
When done well, as readers and writers, we can share insights we may never have been able to access otherwise. Reading is, for many of us readers, a much more intimate act than viewing, as we imagine the thoughts of another in our head.
But this power is a double-edged sword.
When done badly, as readers and writers, we can perpetuate stereotypes while coming to believe that we understand things we really have no idea about.
Should I read American Dirt?
Those who wish to better understand the experiences of immigrants to the US would perhaps be best advised to avoid American Dirt. And certainly, there are many lists of books by Latinx authors to read instead of (or in addition to) American Dirt. (USA Today, Texas Observer, The Guardian, The Young Folks)
None of this is to say that I take issue with Cummins’ book based on her identity. As Krauze, disagreeing with those questioning her right to write about Mexico ‘simply because she long identified as white’ states, ‘There is no reason, literary or otherwise, to challenge an author’s legitimacy to tackle any topic, much less based on her ethnicity or nationality. In both literature and journalism, examples abound of brilliant authors who have illuminated countries and themes that were, initially, outside their familiar milieu.’
‘Brownness’ and writing
I find Cummins’ wish for someone ‘slightly browner’ to have written this book problematic not only because skin colour does not denote immigration status, but because I find debates about who is ‘brown enough’ or ‘female enough’ or ‘gay enough’ to write supremely unhelpful.
That being said, it is simultaneously true that there are many ‘browner’ authors who have already written about immigration experiences but have found the road to publication far more difficult, or even more impossible to traverse, rather than the paved-with-flowers-and-manicures-and-a-seven-figure-advance experience Cummins has enjoyed.
‘Whiteness’ and publishing
The institutionalized hurdles to success because of one’s skin or hair or name that Cummin’s mentions are indeed alive and well in the publishing industry, with white women massively overrepresented as agents and editors, selecting works that resonate with their own life experiences. This excludes great swathes of writers – and readers.
It’s worth bearing in mind, as Under the Cover points out, the arena of agents is saturated with white female literary agents who, often unintentionally, wind up privileging manuscripts which explore white female experiences, or which translate ‘exotic’ experiences through a lens accessible to white (often upper-middle-class American) females. In contrast to the almost eight hundred literary agents fitting this description, a black male author in 2015, however, had only two black male literary agents to send their manuscript to in the US, in the hopes of one connecting with the manuscript due to their shared experience (or perception of a shared experience) of being a black male in the United States.– Frugal and effective book promotion
Translating culture, place, and people
Writing about one culture for consumption by another necessarily involves a process of translation, and compromise. Own voices works may provide far more in the way of authenticity – not only in terms of factual descriptions, which can be researched, but in the way of emotional resonance, which cannot. But readers from other backgrounds may have a more difficult time relating to the characters’ experiences. Authors whose backgrounds more closely resemble the audiences they are writing for may more successfully ‘translate’ new concepts for this audience. However, they may do so with only a surface-level, incomplete, or worse, erroneous level of accuracy.
When we write about a culture we are not a member of, we’re in danger of missing (and misinterpreting) many aspects of that culture. By the same token, when we write about the worlds we inhabit, we often lack the necessary distance to evaluate what is going on, and may miss connections that an outsider would have picked up.
Even an author who straddles two (or more) worlds, who is fluent in more than one language, who has lived in both the place they are writing about and the culture they are writing for, will encounter challenges when it comes to translating this experience for someone who has never left their home state, doesn’t speak a word of any language other than English, and has never met anyone outside their own immediate circle.
We need books that make us think, that make us work, and that make us feel. We need books that explain things to us, and that make us explain ourselves. We all need books we can relate to, that we can see ourselves in. And we also need books that show us who we could be if our circumstances were different.
American Dirt is not *the* great American novel, nor the great novel of the Americas. And no book ever will be. The great American novel is as much of a myth as America itself. We cannot expect a single book to be all things to all people. If America, or indeed any country, is great, it is because of its diversity, and the same is true of books.
Cummins said that she hoped to be a ‘bridge’. While it is difficult for any author to act as a bridge between peoples – especially an author who does not have extensive experience of both cultures – I hope that American Dirt will act as a bridge for readers who might not have picked up a book by an author with a more ‘foreign-sounding’ name. With a ‘browner’ author photo. Or simply, without Oprah’s seal of approval, or prominent positioning on a B&N stand.
I think it’s too much to ask that American Dirt give readers ‘that flare of recognition, that spark of familiarity, that might thaw their hearts’. But it might spark a curiosity in readers that encourages them to look for other voices on the topic, and that is vastly important.
More than anything though, I hope that American Dirt will be the beginning, not the end, of readers’ journeys.