American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The first person who recommended this book to me told me it was brilliant but controversial. The words cultural appropriation were murmured, and the question raised, before I had even read the book, was whether it was appropriate for a Spanish born, white American woman, to tell the story of a migrant woman escaping from a drugs cartel in Mexico?
Before I turn to the book, I should say from the outset that it seems farcical to me to suggest that writers should not tell stories set outside of their own lives and experience. It is what fiction writers do, look outside of their own world to tell a story, to let their imagination take them places where they may never have an opportunity to get to. Think of the books that would never have been written if writers were constrained from writing outside of their own ‘lived experience’. It would preclude historical fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, well pretty much all fiction, unless you were to keep to the autobiographical.
What matters is the research that the writer puts into their work and the empathy he or she is able to evoke for the characters that they have created. Good writers put hours and hours of research into their work, particularly when they are writing outside of their comfort zone. They need to get into the heads of their characters, see through their eyes. I think that Cummins achieves this with American Dirt. She has clearly done her research. And while it is Lydia and Luca’s story, charting their flight following a family tragedy that saw their entire family massacred, it is not so much a story about the migrant experience in Mexico, but a story of a mother and a son trying to survive. It is a story of what it is to be a mother, the depths of maternal love, and the lengths that a mother would take in order to protect her son.
Lydia is a lioness, she is the heart of the story. I have read a lot of angry reviews bemoaning the lack of diversity in the publishing industry, and wailing as to why Cummins’ book has been promoted, perhaps at the expense of other writers who are more authentic because they have lived through the migrant experience. But for me, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the book was a riveting read, with Cummins layering up the tension as the book progresses, with the complexity of Lydia’s relationship with the man who is hunting her being slowly revealed to the reader. The book is challenging, terrifying and forces the reader to confront any preconceived notions of why migrants choose to make such a perilous journey, even if there was no real choice at all.
Attacking the book because of lack of diverse representation within the publishing industry doesn’t sit well with me. I appreciate that there may be flaws and faults with the portrayal of a woman like Lydia, particularly as to some of her language. Some people have also accused Cummins of resorting to cultural stereotypes in her depiction of Lydia and her family life. Again, this is outside of either my knowledge or experience. But for me, Lydia’s nationality or ethnicity is of far less importance than the fact that she is a mother. And this is something that as a woman and a mother I can relate to.
Cummins real skill lies in the pace of the book, and the fact that she builds empathy with Lydia’s story. With each new character that Lydia encounters along the way, the reader, just like Lydia, is mistrustful. We are constantly worried for her, assessing the risk she faces. Should she trust the sisters? Beto? Lorenzo? The reader shares Lydia’s journey, willing her on, wanting her to succeed, desperate for her to survive. It is a story about loss, about grief and about the struggle to survive. Above all, it is a story about love.
I understand the controversy around the book. But for me, it does not detract from the fact that this book is well-written and a heart-stopping read.
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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins