Dirt, Jeannine Cummins’
controversial bestseller about Latin American migrants, human traffickers, and
narco lords, was back in the news recently, thanks to France.
novel was nominated for two prestigious French literary awards, the Prix
Médicis and the Prix Femina étranger, and although it won neither, it generated
renewed discussion about cultural appropriation, exploitation, and mainstream
publishers’ omission of certain writers while glorifying others.
debate will doubtlessly be with us for a long time, as more books with related
themes get released. American Dirt is in fact one of two recent
high-profile novels about migration – the other being the critically acclaimed
and award-nominated Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli.
several critics in the United States also lauded American Dirt, with
Oprah Winfrey praising it on her show. Only after the marketing machine kicked
in, hyping both book and author, did a backlash occur. Latinx writers and
others pointed to “the lack of complexity of this immigration story, and the
harm this book can and will do” - in an open letter to Winfrey (also signed by
Luiselli). At the same time, however, there have been detractors of Luiselli’s
novel, for self-indulgence and off-putting postmodern playfulness.
don’t wish to rehash the public debates, but to examine the differences in the
approach of both novels, especially given the French embrace of American
Dirt, which publisher Philippe Rey calls “a poignant hymn to the dreams of
thousands of migrants who risk their lives every day”. (French literary prizes
too are under the spotlight. The International New York Times recently
reported that in France’s “top four prizes, there is one non-white juror among
Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (Archives des enfants perdus) is
seen in France as the story of “a continent” and “an attempt to document life…
and the present”.
one can appreciate both novels, each is flawed in different ways. Cummins wrote
an afterword, expressing unease at being a non-Mexican author of a novel about
migrants. (In fact, most of the migrants portrayed aren’t Mexican but from
Central America.) At the same time, she felt a degree of identity because her
grandmother was Puerto Rican. In addition, her Irish husband was an
undocumented immigrant for several years. Yet, she has also stated that she
identifies as white.
is of Mexican nationality, but her name reveals her part-Italian heritage. She
comes from a diplomatic family, spent most of her upbringing outside Mexico and
lives in New York City.
the debate and the concerns about the publishing industry’s shortcomings, it is
important to focus on genre when discussing these books. Cummins writes social
melodrama: work that covers a large swathe of society and addresses a topical
social problem, often with considerable research. Unlike the naturalistic
novel, the social melodrama uses the classic archetypes of melodrama: the
plucky heroine, the villainous antagonist, the pathetic victim.
The presiding genius of this genre is Charles Dickens, but in America
the authors who have had the most success at it have included Harriet Beecher
Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Grace Metalious (Peyton Place),
Jacqueline Susann (Valley of the Dolls). The social melodrama can be
hugely successful (as American Dirt is) but is frequently subject to
merciless criticism. Sometimes such works can have a real impact, as Stowe’s
novel did (Lincoln told her only half-jokingly that her novel had caused the
Civil War). Cummins’ novel may have raised additional awareness about the
dangers of migration but not in a way that her critics consider helpful.
some reviewers have compared American Dirt to The Grapes of Wrath,
it’s not an epic but a social melodrama, depicting the flight of innocents from
evil malefactors, in this case drug lords. Immediately after a family massacre
at the start of the novel, Lydia, who has lost her husband, flees with her son
Luca. Realizing they aren’t safe anywhere in Mexico, Lydia decides that they
will head for the US. The conventional way, via airplane, could result in their
being traced, so mother and son join a group of migrants being smuggled across
the border. The anonymity of being part of a poverty-stricken flock provides an
it happens, Cummins is adept at the mechanics of this genre. After opening the
novel with a bang - many bangs in fact, in a scene worthy of Scarface - come
chases, near-misses with bad guys, hair-raising stunts on migrant-ferrying
trains, and a surprisingly calm denouement. The last is the only surprise. The
plot beats are slick and efficient, but we’ve seen it all before. The melodrama
is straightforwardly Victorian. Those who focus on the tropes are judging the
novel as realism, which it isn’t, despite all the well-rendered detail. The
melodramatic plot keeps the reader riveted, as the narrative barrels its way to
language of the novel is off-kilter at first, like a sailor awkwardly treading
land with his sea legs. It does begin as realism, but this isn’t the writer’s
forte. There are phrasing clunkers and mixed metaphors a-plenty, and Spanish
tossed in indiscriminately like chilli flakes. Yet Cummins’ research on life in
Acapulco seems authentic (her acknowledgements seem to bear this out). She appears
to be faking her assured style, but as the narrative progresses, the reader
becomes absorbed in the breakneck plot and engages with the protagonists - Lydia,
the bookstore owner whose journalist husband’s exposé triggered the massacre,
and precocious Luca - but also numerous vividly drawn characters, migrants and
those who aid or exploit them.
a human trafficker is depicted as almost heroic. He’s doing a job but does it
with genuine dedication, and has the interests of his charges (or his cargo) at
heart. Cummins doesn’t imply that the character is typical of his trade, and
he’s not sentimentalized, just humanized. Even the narco-lord who is the chief
baddy is portrayed as having a good side. This seems more facile, contrived
both-sides-ism that reinforces the archetype of the dashing villain who puts
the heroine through an emotional wringer before getting his comeuppance.
heroine is both conventional and unconventional. She’s in the social melodrama
tradition of heroic women with a good heart, able to outwit the (male) villain.
Classwise, she is neither poor nor a usurped aristocrat, two conventional
archetypes. Instead she’s middle class: a bookstore-owner married to a
journalist, with an Americanized son. The author has been criticized for
creating an unlikely protagonist, but she’s in a distinct tradition found in
various genres, such as the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock: the ordinary person
thrust into an extraordinary situation. It’s one reason for the book’s
popularity with some readers, if not critics.
novel seems at first to be the diametric opposite of Cummins’, in both form and
content. American Dirt is straight-ahead narrative, interrupted by
flashbacks to the protagonist’s relationship with her husband and her
narco-lord friend, and also by news magazine-style tidbits about migration. The
subject of Lost Chldren Archive overlaps that of American Dirt: a
family’s road-trip intersects with the plight of migrants, specifically a group
of children who are lost and wandering the desert. But while Cummins’
middle-class protagonists are plunged into crisis, Luiselli’s remain at a
the novel is a bag (or box) of tricks: the main characters, a couple and their
two children (each by previous relationships), are unnamed. The characters are
based on Luiselli and her family: this used to be called metafiction (now we
might say autofiction, or maybe meta-autofiction). The narrative is organized
around a series of boxes of archives. Some include lists, fragments or quotes
from literary works deemed inspirational to the author. In a nod to Borgesian
intertextuality, there’s a book that eerily parallels the story of the lost
of the tricks are effectively allusive. Perhaps the irritation registered by
some readers comes from not being familiar with works or persons cited. Or it
may be that the playfulness seems trivializing. In the Trumpian age in which
the novel is set, of children separated from parents and held in cages, some
may not be in the mood for literary Ouija games. What’s curious is that
although numerous “archives” are referred to, and the narrative itself is divided
into Boxes (as opposed to Parts), these have to do with the
narrator-protagonist and her family - there’s no sign of any archive dedicated
to the lost children.
language weaving the texture of the novel, and the world that Luiselli creates,
is fluent and poetic. We enjoy the purring language the way we enjoy hearing a
piano playing evocative chamber music, so different from the infelicities at
the beginning of American Dirt. The language redeems the over-deliberate
structure, and makes it seem like the intricacy of certain types of poetry.
aspects of the novel are problematic. First, the narrative is based on a trope
that might be termed the bourgeois saviour. The protagonists are bourgeois of
the type which in France is called “bobo” (bourgeois-bohemian). The couple
lives in Brooklyn with their children by other relationships, one a
“documentalist”, the other a “documentarist”. Snarky fun is made of the
contrasting terms, but each collects anthropological data on indigenous people.
There is nothing wrong with a character who’s bourgeois - an author has the
right to be what she is, to write about what she knows. Luiselli is aware of
this and has her character question her motives, but it feels like a
pre-emptive strategy, not very different from how Cummins deals with the issue
in her afterword.
novel’s bourgeois family elects to drive cross country - a grand tour typical
of certain families with a certain budget - but they also have that edifying
mission of recording data on native peoples. Then there are the “lost children”
who have become caught up in America’s ideological wars. The migrants in American
Dirt, with the narco-lords and law enforcement on their tails, at least had
their trafficker guide, while the lost children are supposedly alone. They are
in need of rescue; enter the bobo saviours.
is another phenomenon in play, that of bourgeois appropriation. The narrator
and her family playfully take the names of Native Americans. Perhaps this is
meant to represent the family embracing their roots, while empathizing with
indigenous people. To an extent it is the initiative of the children and evokes
the role-modelling typical of growing up. The family is Mexican, after all. But
one can’t help thinking of the author’s growing up mostly outside of Mexico,
and residing in Brooklyn’s hipster heaven … or, of French royal Marie-Antoinette
and her entourage playing at being peasants.
there is bourgeois virtue-signalling. As the family drives through the American
West, the reader is treated to a travelogue of flyover communities and a
populace of prairie lumpen, those people left behind and forgotten until Trump
came along. At least the author minutely depicts these areas, which most people
literally fly over to destinations in LA or Vegas or the Colorado ski resorts,
or drive past on the way to the natural parks. But the descriptions tend to be
one-note - a dismal note. Perhaps she simply calls ‘em as she sees ‘em, but
what’s most grating is her unrelievedly contemptuous tone. The shimmering
ambiguity that is her professed credo is lost, replaced by a monolithic sneer.
Even when the point of view shifts to the protagonist’s young son, there’s no
substantive change in perspective.
the end, the bobo family will not save the lost children. The author opts for
the sentimental pathos standard in certain highbrow fiction. The bourgeois saviour
archetype is dashed, yet she does permit herself the comforting resolution of
old-fashioned domestic fiction: the parents find their own children, who had
strayed in the desert, and the couple resolves the tensions they’d been
undergoing. The family is intact and free to deal with the migrant issue
prefer American Dirt’s ending. It’s in the tradition of what has been
called an American favorite: a tragedy with a happy ending. As in Luiselli’s
novel, the family will remain intact, though not wealthy or living in Brooklyn.
Lydia and Luca have settled into a modest middle-class life in Colorado, but
they sleep with the light on, and she occasionally crosses paths with men who
may be linked with the narco-gang. In a final irony for readers in lockdown,
including those in France with translated novels, Lydia finds personal solace reading
Love in the Time of Cholera (L'Amour aux temps du cholera) -
which never won a major French prize.
Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in