It would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the subject of white privilege and the controversy surrounding the Oprah’s Book Club novel American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins as a part of my review. I borrowed the book from my neighbour without initially knowing much about the dispute. A lot of the controversy came from advanced reader copies of the novel in 2019, and then blew up when Oprah announced it would be her latest book club pick. Winfrey tweeted: “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.”
This spurred conversation. It continued the #OwnVoices movement, as well as the hashtag #DignidadLiteraria as a “call to politico-literary action” and better representation. Oprah listened in advance of her conversation with the author and changed the direction of her Apple TV talk with her. Conversations and petitions were (and still are) had around this book and how the fictional Mexican protagonists perspective was written by a white female author.
I feel as though I cannot say much more since I am not a minority who has tried to have my own cultural novel published, only to have seen a similar story published by a white person. I am a white person who has white privilege, so what I can do is support and promote authors of color and minorities moving forward. It has been pointed out for years that publishing is an industry that is predominantly white. I hope that the conversations around American Dirt change the publishing industry for the better. The world that American Dirt was written about was terrifying and captivating to me, and I can only hope to read more stories about this world from a Mexican author’s perspective in the future.
So, this is all to say that my review of the actual book will be short. I do have to say: I was entertained and thoroughly captivated by this book; I was on the edge of my seat through each chapter. I can’t say much without giving away spoilers, but I will say that the characters felt so real to me and each step of the way I was learning about the tragic struggles being a migrant endure (in an arguably stereotypical way, based on my research since reading the book). The mother-son relationship gripped me, and some of the other relationships that blossomed on the migrant journey warmed my heart, while others chilled me to the bone. I found the prose well-written, detailed, emotional and exceptionally thoughtful.
As previously mentioned, I really haven’t read much literature that takes place in Mexico, so it was a new territory for me and it opened my eyes to a new category of storytelling. And while I think it is important for authors to be able to express their imaginative narrative around many different cultures and locations, I also understand the importance of representation surrounding the #ownvoices movement. This book caused me to think inward while reading it, and think even more after reading the controversy around it.
Did you read American Dirt? What did you think of it? And can we talk about the devastating ending for one character in particular? Send me a note!
Eva Longoria, strongly opposed to American Dirt, suggests two other novels that depict similar stories but written by Latinx authors: Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, and The Beast by Óscar Martínez.
Check out this article on Vulture if you are interested in reading about the controversy around the book: https://www.vulture.com/2020/02/american-dirt-book-controversy-explained.html