Literary Quote of the Month

"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies," said Jojen. "The man who never reads lives only one." - George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Sunday Salon... and Should we Read American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Good morning! It's a beautiful sunny day in the Upstate. Upstate is how where I live is refered to in South Carolina. Not to be confused with the Low Country, which is the lower part of the state and I would say the more "popular" vacation destinations of Myrtle Beach and Charleston. It took me a while to really grasp  why the distinction, but it is a lot easier to tell people I live in the Upstate when talking to someone from South Carolina, because they just understand. In any case, today is a beautiful, but cold day in the Upstate. Winter is popping its head in and out and now that I'm retired, when it's really cold outside I tend to stay inside... and either play with some yarn and/or read!

This week I received a pre-order of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins in the mail. I had read a lot of great press about the book and decided to pre-order and have it arrive at the house the day it came out... so I could avoid having to go out in that cold. It came! Yay! I opened the package and then I was struck by a little yellow circle blazing on my front cover like a beam of light from a freight train... and one of my pet peeves in book jacket designs. I HATE, let me repeat, I HATE those little "advertisements" on the front covers of books."Now made into a major motion picture", "So and so says blah, blah, blah", and this week, "Oprah's Book Club 2020". And that little Oprah blurb I can't even remove because it's actually part of the design. Something I didn't realize was happening when I ordered the book. I had no idea it was an Oprah pick. So, this week I was going to talk about that... Bookish Pet Peeves, but after getting American Dirt in the mail and starting to read it, the internet exploded with so much controversy over this book, I thought we'd touch on that this week... 

Do you care who writes your book?

The controversy surrounding American Dirt is simply this, Jeannine Cummins, who herself has said, is a White, Priviledged person. Because of this can she write this book? The book is about a Mexican Mother and her son who must flee Mexico after her whole family is murdered by a drug kingpin's gang. This story is about the migrant experience, the horrors of the journey to a better life. Can extensive research, and 7 years of research in Jeannine Cummins' case, trump the actual experience? 

So, now there is a raging argument that American Dirt is full of stereotypes and incorrect information on Mexican culture. In an online article for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jane Henderson writes: 

Latinx writers argue that their more authentic depictions in fiction and nonfiction have not gotten as much support from American publishers as books by white authors, and they pointed to elements in "American Dirt" they felt were stereotypes or errors regarding Mexican culture. Much of the criticism on social media was based on a review by Myriam Gurba.

There is also controversy over the LARGE amount of money for the author received for the book from the publisher, and how if it was a Latinx writer the amount would not have been as significant. 

On the flip side of the controversy, with publishers and reviewers who have praised the book, but now feel as though they need to take a step back, there is the thought that even if there are things "wrong" with the depictions and the story, this book will open the eyes of many to the horrors of these migrants who travel the dangerous road to a better life. 

What do you think? Personally I rarely discount an author's work just based on what I hear, although it does happen. Recently after I purchased The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes I discoverd a whole slew of controversy over plagerism and publisher favoritism. Supposedly the publisher helped the book along by pulling ideas from another book that they were publishing, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson. At that point I did a bit of research on the latter book and decided after reading how much book clubs loved Kim's book to choose that one for my book club's January read. I still have the Jojo Moyes book, but it really irks me that the publisher might have done that. When I do read it, I will judge for myself if there are too many similarities in the story. 

I'm still going to read American Dirt. The beginning of the book was absolutely terrifying and just sucked me in. And no matter what the critisism's are, I was really enjoying her writing. Maybe we can all enjoy it as a story of a Mother's love for her son and be happy with that? Or maybe I can treat it as a book of FICTION and keep that in the back of my head as I read the story for what it is. It's not as though Jeannine Cummins stole the idea from another author either. And if you do a google search for American Dirt controversy, you'll have pages of links, some of which give you alternative reads. Why can't I just read this one? I think I will...

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was published by Flatiron books and released january 21st. It is an Oprah Book Club pick, The #1 Indie Next Choice, and Editors Choice of the New York Times Book Review. It has been praised by many, many authors. Share your thoughts on this in the comments below! I would love to hear what you think!

Happy Reading... Suzanne


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

The first I heard about the controversy over American Dirt was late this week. I'm not sure what I think about the controversy. A good writer is a good writer. Can we only write stories about our own cultures? I think people write best about stories they are interested in. I think stories can be researched. Will there be errors in what is written? Of course. That always happens, even in the best books. I know that I get annoyed with all the controversy in our world over every little thing. Should we really be fighting about everything that arises?

I do plan to read the book later in February. I am eager to read this story.

Thanks for sharing information about the controversy.

Have a lovely week.

Literary Feline said...

American Dirt had been getting so much praise the beginning of the month, and then wham! Suddenly it's been nothing but negative as of late. I hadn't really been considering reading the book, although it does sound like something I would gravitate towards.

I have such mixed feelings about the controversy. I am all for #ownvoice narratives and feel we not only need more of them, but also that they deserve to be promoted more than they are. I do feel systematic racism is real and has worked against marginalized writers for too long in not allowing their voices to be heard. Should the publisher have put more money and time into promoting an #ownvoices author? Yes. I want to see them do that overall in general. It's long overdue.

I haven't read American Dirt and cannot speak for the book itself. Every book will have its detractors. It sounds like an action packed and emotional read. Perhaps Cummins could have used a sensitivity reader to work through some of the stereotypes or inaccuracies critics are pointing out. I don't know. Maybe she had one. Do I think authors should be limited in the perspective they write from based on their identity and experiences? Not really, no. When I think of all the great books I've read that wouldn't have been written if that were the case. And as a genre reader, I think it would be quite stifling. Not to mention limit the audiences such stories might reach. It's a very slippery slope. Where would we draw the line? And if a book like Cummins does open up someone's eyes to the horrors migrants face then isn't it a good thing? Maybe it will open someone up to exploring other literature on the subject and lead them to books by authors with more intimate experience or a more direct cultural or identity connection to the subject matter.

As you pointed out, it is fiction. And even within one culture, there are many different perspectives and lifestyles and stories that can be told, not to mention dialects, slang, and behaviors. I do think there is more pressure on authors to be more conscientious and sensitive to certain cultural and identity nuances today--and rightfully so. But in the end, it mostly will depend on what you want and expect to get out of your reading as the reader, won't it?

Anyway, just my two cents, which is about all it's worth, if that. Haha

Emma at Words And Peace / France Book Tours said...

For me, in fiction, the quality of the writing is the most important thing. In nonfiction, it can make a big difference who is writing!

Harvee said...

Truly, I prefer authors who have first hand knowledge about sensitive topics they write about, either through their background and/or personal experience. So I might pass on American Dirt. I am reading now a book about Jamaican immigrants in the US, written by a Jamaican who is a university prof in the U.S. So it seems closer to being authentic. The book is Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn. The book also has LGBT themes and the author made big news on the island when she married her partner there. (Jamaica is well known for being anti LGBT).

pussreboots said...

I have chosen to pass on American Dirt. I don't want to contribute to a broken aspect of publishing. My weekly update

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Athira said...

Personally, I don't think we should feel guilty about the books we read. Even if we wanted to read more #ownvoices books, they are not as easy to find. At the end of the day, reading is supposed to be fun and not work. We also all have our comfort zones. No matter how much I'm pushed, I may not want to experiment with my comfort zones, when it comes to my hobby.

That said, I agree with Literary Feline and pussreboots that #ownvoices books are not getting promoted as much. Would the same book under a Mexican author's name have been promoted just as well and sold just as well? Many who have read American Dirt have actually loved it so who the author is should not matter, by that argument. Except it seems to. I think that's what all the controversy is aiming at. We see this happening with movies too. Why not cast an Asian/LGBTQ/physically challenged person for an Asian/LGBTQ/physically challenged role than have someone else pretend to be that?

To me, this is a very new but liberating mindset. It's also a challenging one because now there's more work involved. As a non-white non-American, I love it when I see more of me represented in books and movies. I also detest it when I see those classic stereotypes, whether in accent, behavior, or beliefs. A bulk of the books I read have no one like me in there and when I do recommend books that feature characters like me, I don't see a lot of interest. I don't take it personally, it's just reality - we're all complex humans after all with clear interests at the end of day.

Thank you for this great post! I enjoyed reading everyone's opinions (which in itself is very diverse). :-)

Girl Who Reads said...

A friend is reading American Dirt for their book club and posted a story about possible plagiarism in the book on her Facebook page. It seems like every month some book is being charged with plagiarism. I feel a little bad if I read the book and enjoyed it but at the same time is it really my fault? How much "due diligence" do I need to do before reading for enjoyment? Great discussion!

Donna at Girl Who Reads

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