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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Sensationalist Exploitation Is Unnecessary

On the failures of “American Dirt,” the successes of “Lost Children Archive,” and how to write ethically about ongoing crises.

Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt (2020), which the author sold for a seven-figure advance from Flatiron (a division of the Macmillan conglomerate), tells the story of a middle-class Mexican woman and her son who flee to America, running away from the fearsome leader of a drug cartel. Cummins herself is American, and though she has one Puerto-Rican grandmother, she publicly identified as white as late as 2016. But she claimed to have done thorough research and read everything she could find “about contemporary Mexico and by contemporary Mexican writers.” Yet, as many have noticed, the final product is deeply flawed, from the way it caters to “the white gaze” (the idea of white people as a default audience whose literary expectations must be met), to the way it irresponsibly reproduces the “fantasy” narco-imaginary which implicitly justifies the War on Drugs (this, incidentally, is great for sales), to its flirting with plagiarism of Latinx authors. Parodies of Cummins’ cliché-ridden prose trended on Twitter, under the hashtag #MyLatinoNovel. Recognized Mexicanists like Ignacio Sánchez Prado and authors like Myriam Gurba—whose scathing review beat the New York Times’ pan by a month—and David Bowles quickly pointed out why American Dirt epitomizes a self-righteous liberal culture that manages to both pity and condescend to Mexicans without actually knowing much about Mexico beyond piñatas. (Sorry, piñatas). Of course, none of this criticism has prevented Cummins from enjoying a level of success rarely available to Latinx authors. The novel debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and remains, for now, an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

One additional key point, however, has not received much attention: Cummins completely shuns her responsibility, as a powerful author writing about immigration in the midst of an ongoing humanitarian crisis, to treat the subject with political awareness or any sense of ethics.

Besides all the problems inherent in Cummins’ lack of knowledge of Mexico or Mexicans, the novel’s biggest shortfall might be (and this is a big, optimistic might be) that it tries to avoid politics altogether, even though the story’s circumstances are shaped by politics in every single aspect. In the words of journalist Esmeralda Bermudez, American Dirt boils down to a story of “villains and victims”; good guys versus bad guys, a Manichean view of a violent Mexico (to which Cummins reduces the entire country) that misses the circumstances in which such violence is enmeshed. Without politics, there would be no drug-related crime, no need for the characters to flee, and no hell to experience en route to the final destination. Stories about immigration in the American continent are also stories about politics in the American continent. And by omitting the politics of the crisis, Cummins reinforces the idea that the border emergency is merely an immigrants’ problem, as if their plight has no other causes beyond pure misfortune and cartoonish bad hombres

In her long note in the back of the book, Cummins recommends a series of writers for readers who want to know “more about Mexico.” Among them is Valeria Luiselli, whose novel Lost Children Archive was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019 and became an important reference on the topic. Her novel elevates a tale about the refugee crisis into a story about what Latin-Americanist Doris Sommer has called “the ethical conundrum of socially unequal conversation.” Lost Children Archive suggests that the conundrum’s answer is nuanced and complex: We have to see the whole picture. To tell the stories of Central American refugee children, it is not sufficient to expose their suffering as if it occurred in a void. We need to explore the causes; make the connections; name the names, and completely transform, if necessary, common sense thinking about the topic. “No one thinks of the children arriving here now as refugees of a hemispheric war that extends, at least, from these very mountains, down across the country into the southern US and northern Mexican deserts, sweeping across the Mexican sierras, forests, and southern rain forests into Guatemala, into El Salvador, and all the way to the Celaque Mountains in Honduras,” we read in Lost Children Archive. “No one thinks of those children as consequences of a historical war that goes back decades.” 

This novel is so masterfully written, though, that in the context of the narrative it never takes the form of a pamphlet or a diatribe. Its politics are never separate from the story, never artificially removed from the intimate life and personal crisis of the protagonist and her family. While politics traverse Luiselli’s novel organically, just as they traverse the refugee and immigration crises, a series of sensationalist events void of substance or context drive the plot of American Dirt. The violence crisis in Mexico, according to American Dirt, is due to a sort of unlikely overstuffing of bad guys. And the bad guys are defined as such by virtue of being narcotraficantes, as is made clear in the novel’s description of oddly omnipresent roadblocks in Mexican highways: 

“They are manned by gangs or narcotraficantes or police (who may also be narcotraficantes) or soldiers (who may also be narcotraficantes) or, in recent years, by autodefensas—armed militias formed by the inhabitants of certain towns to protect their communities from cartels. And these autodefensas may also, of course, be narcotraficantes.” 

What struck me most about this paragraph was how, without further contextualization or qualification, Cummins recklessly depicts the autodefensas—self-defense groups, often including children—as little more than potential perpetrators of the very same violence from which they risk their lives to defend their communities. No one is to be trusted; the evil narcotraficantes could be anyone, and might be anywhere.

Cummins’ author’s note reveals anxious anticipation of the coming criticism. Yet, when asked in an interview what gave her the right to tell the story, the best she could come up with was to reduce the issue down to ethnicity.  “I’m in such an uncomfortable position about how to identify myself,” Cummins said, “and how to account for things that are beyond my reckoning.” In the same author’s note, Cummins wrote that she wished someone “slightly browner” had written American Dirt, and that her motivation to write it was her need to give a face to a “brown faceless mass.” But these answers are a disappointing attempt to atone through identity.

The problem isn’t necessarily the author’s recent rebranding as Latina. Ancestry can be fraught, and identity fluid. (However, Cummins, who has published three other books, never emphasized her Puerto Rican heritage prior to the writing of this novel; as the writer Daisy Hernandez said, “You don’t get to bring out your Puerto Rican abuela when it’s convenient.”). It’s also not really a matter of writing outside of one’s lived experience. Like Cummins, Luiselli comes from a privileged background and has never experienced the struggles of the refugee children in Lost Children Archive. For that matter, Luiselli is Mexican, not Central American (unlike the lost migrant children in her novel), and, being the daughter of a diplomat, she has lived outside Mexico for most of her life. Only one of the two authors, however, seems to have been fully aware of the ethical and political questions involved in such imbalance when she wrote her book. Luiselli’s self-awareness spares the reader from an exoticizing or condescending examination of people traditionally perceived as others. Rather, Lost Children Archive questions the socio-political relationships and structures that othering produce, along with the implicit class complicity of the narrator, a documentarist struggling to “tell a meaningful story” of the disappeared refugee children. The narrator’s constant questioning of her place as an authorial voice and her acknowledgment of the class structure framing the immigration experience creates tension in the novel from beginning to end, even as a definite answer to her ethical problem appears to be impossible. “And why,” the narrator asks, “would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering?”

Meanwhile, Cummins fails to seriously question her position in a structurally unequal field, while constricting a complex problem of representation to superficial matters of identity. Whether Cummins really “is” Latina is unrelated to—and does not excuse—her thoughtless reproduction of racist stereotypes or the exploitative marketing strategy for her book, which, with its barbed-wire centerpieces and nail art, has capitalized on the aesthetics of militarized borders, or, as Gruba put it: “border chic.” But Cummins’ approach unintentionally reveals the genre into which American Dirt really falls: “Brownface literature,” a term coined by Abby Rocha, a Chicana illustrator. While on its surface the novel navigates the experience of a mother and child forced to flee Mexico, what Cummins ends up accomplishing is the reproduction of a generic and stereotypical idea of what Mexicans are like, while exploiting a transnational crisis that takes the lives of real people every day. She never asks whether it is appropriate to make art out of someone else’s suffering in the first place, or how to approach such art sensibly and responsibly.

In an NPR interview addressing the intense backlash to her novel, Cummins said: “I felt like there was room … for us to examine the humanity of the people involved.” This is the kind of thing someone says when they assume that such humanity is not granted; that somebody with a certain kind of cultural authority must come to acknowledge it, approve it, and translate it—preferably for gigantic sums of money. This is what novelist Monica Byrne calls the realization porn genre: “stories of white men realizing that other people are human.” With American Dirt, Cummins managed to expand this genre to include white women as well. Despite Cummins’ assumptions, it is not the “brown faceless mass” that needs unpacking, but the imaginary of such mass created through objectification.

Since the critical storm against American Dirt began, Cummins has repeated a very similar response in different forums, becoming notorious for refusing to seriously engage with the thorough and complex concerns of her—mostly Latinx—critics. She has largely dismissed their responses as unfair, and as “vitriolic” demands for her to have gotten every detail exactly right. Simultaneously, she has sought a sort of identitarian legitimation by emphasizing the support she has received from iconic writers like Sandra Cisneros and the “many many many Latinx people” who “love the book.” 

In shunning any acknowledgment of the responsibility of narrative voice, and commenting on a context that she does not fully grasp—not beyond clichés and convoluted similes anyway—while also ignoring the many important arguments advanced by Latinx journalist, academics, and authors, Cummins is not giving faces to the faceless and voices to the voiceless. Instead, her novel follows in a long line of writing that, in its attempt to speak for oppressed groups, manages to exclude them from the conversation, and ignores the political history that lies behind their oppression. No matter Cummins’ intentions in writing American Dirt, this is her legacy: a literary legitimization of the very structures that refuse to see and hear Mexican immigrants.

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