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Fiction, Narrative, and Whiteness: Thoughts on Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt

If you are not familiar with the controversy around American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, here’s a quick recap. The author, who has identified as white, but also as Latinx, has been accused of racism and stereotyping Mexican culture. She has been accused of cashing in on her Puerto Rican heritage to boost sales. She did four years of research for her book, and was inspired, evidently, by a brief moment crossing the border into Mexico and being detained.

She had to cancel her book tour due to death threats.

One of the big problems leading to this controversy has been promotion. The book has been touted as the definitive great tale of the migrant experience. She received an enormous advance and exceptional blurbs. Her book is an Oprah book club pick. Most Latinx authors do not receive this sort of attention. The publishing industry is notoriously white.

Obviously, I had to read this book immediately.

The book, you may be surprised to learn, that has inspired all of this controversy about authenticity and representation and truth, and who can tell a narrative and who can’t, and who gets promoted and who doesn’t, is a work of fiction.

What is fiction?

Google tells me that fiction is “literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.” Fiction, then, is a creative work of imagination, a written work, a work that tells some sort of story. We used to know fiction when we saw it. We knew that a fictional book wasn’t a true story. We knew that a memoir or autobiography (mostly) was a true story. The line, probably for many reasons (involving fraught and erroneous news stories, our current salacious and moronic President, and popular opinion that is regularly influenced by social media hackers) is blurred.

Great fiction is said to have a type of universal truth. Perhaps this is what blurs the line, too-our expectations. What do we consider great fiction? Or even great truth? Does great fiction need to be hyper-realistic in order to be “true?” Who does it need to be true for? Who does it need to speak to? What should a reader walk away with?

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummings, is, by definition, a work of fiction. This story is a fictional story. It’s not true. It’s not meant to be true. And to expect it to be true, or to reflect truths that you may want it to reflect, is a failure of understanding what fiction is and what fiction does. This book, like most fiction, will not speak to everyone. My personal reading of this book leads me to think that it’s written for women (and men, but I think primarily women) who are not familiar with the migrant experience, or with Mexico, or with Mexican culture. I also don’t think that’s a bad thing. This book introduces me to stories I wouldn’t have otherwise encountered. After reading it, I want to go seek out the true stories, to learn more about Mexico, and migration, and the people who have undergone this terrible journey. I think the purpose of the book has been served. I don’t believe the book to be a literally true portrayal of Mexico. But the story has shown me that I need to read more.

I dislike attacking books, because the presumption is that the book that is attacked is the only book. Attacking books presumes the reader is an idiot who will never read another book, and who will latch on to the ideas in this one book, never thinking anything for themselves again, and devoting their life to living like this fiction. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read this way. I read a LOT of books. I read constantly. Some books I want to crawl into and never leave. Others I never need to revisit. Some, I find truths in that I add to my collection of truths, trying to always expand and revise my truths to add to, and challenge, my beliefs. I believe a lot of people read this way. I believe we are more than robots, passively consuming culture. I believe we are complex, and that we read complexly.

I am a white woman. I am straight, and reasonably middle-class-ish, and I don’t really care what my pronouns are. I care about other people’s pronouns, because I respect their right to be who they are. But I’m not that into identity politics, I’m more into pursing no-self than I am into pursuing more labels for myself. I have enough labels. I’d like less of them. One of my additional labels is Ph.D. in English. I’m middle aged. I wear contacts and reading glasses. I have trouble seeing at night.

So what stories am I allowed to tell? The stories of only middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road, average, well-educated, white, straight women who work in offices and write blogs? Am I supposed to tell you that you are not allowed to write about this book, because I have a doctorate in English, and I’ve studied books, in great depth, for the last 15 years? Because I can make that argument, just as easily as someone can make the argument that Jeanine Cummins has no business writing her fictional narrative. Policing narratives is easy. There’s always lines we can draw between us and them (this, by the way, is one of the reasons I’m not into identity politics. Identity politics is a knife. You can use it to operate and perform surgery. Or you can use it to stab people to death. And I see more stabbings than surgeries these days.). Policing narratives isn’t how we create more narratives. It’s how we create less of them. Burning books doesn’t always involve fire.

The publishing industry, the promotion industry, appears more at fault here than the author. The whiteness of the publishing industry needs to change. And in order to do that, we need to add more narratives, not subtract the narratives that are there. The canon of literature won’t be fixed by exclusion, but by addition. We need more stories, more voices, and more narratives. Not less. And we need to give big advances to non-white authors. We need to give big promotion budgets and get the best blurbs for writers who are marginalized. We need the publishing industry to change.

White privilege is real. And we see it in the American publishing industry, which is dominated by white voices. But white privilege is also an American phenomenon. Not all countries are predominately white. Whiteness isn’t valued globally. And certainly not everyone wants to be white. The very concept of white privilege, by leaving out the Americanness of the concept itself, makes the assumptions that white privilege is global. I don’t think it is. I don’t think everyone wants to be white, or American, or male. I don’t think that the dominant culture in other countries is white or American. Destabilizing white privilege in America also means destabilizing Americanness.

But I don’t think we destabilize white privilege in America by sending authors death threats. I don’t think screaming abuse at the author will destabilize white privilege. I don’t see the point of claiming she has no “real” knowledge or experience concerning undocumented aliens in America because her husband is Irish, which doesn’t count. Irish doesn’t count? Have you read the history of the Irish in America? Whiteness isn’t monolithic. And when we make whiteness monolithic, we continue to reify whiteness as an overarching construct. When we say “people of color” and that doesn’t include white as a color, we continue to make white the default. White shouldn’t be the default. When we say that white people don’t experience racism, we’re placing whiteness in another position of default and power, the power of a group who is the only group able to discriminate against another group based on the color of their skin. Whiteness won’t be destabilized if we continue to reinforce the privilege of being white.

I realize that I speak from a place of white privilege, here in America. I am probably not going to get shot by a cop. I had access to education. To work. Because I have benefits that have nothing to do with my talents, and everything to do with the color of my skin, I think it’s important to be conscious of that, to do my best to include everyone, of any color, of any gender, of any sexuality, of any economic background, of any ability, of any intelligence, of any experience. I work hard to listen and to share, partly because the world is a remarkable place, and the people in it are amazing people, and my god, we are all so very tiny on this giant ball of mud, whizzing through space while we live our short little lives. Maybe I feel unreasonable sympathy for Jeanine Cummins, because what if she’s just trying to listen and share? What if she’s trying to use her privilege, the whiteness she has, to bring attention to stories that need more attention? I don’t know her. I don’t know if she’s a fraud and con artist, claiming a racial identity solely for book sales. Or if she’s a person legitimately trying to do good in the world.

And how much of that matters? How important is the author to the book? Roland Barthes famously argued that the death of the author is the birth of the reader. How much of American Dirt is what we bring into it? What if what we bring to the pages is more important that what the author intended? What if this book makes millions of Americans sympathetic to migrants? Is that more important that the reasons Jeanine Cummins had for writing it?

Jeanine Cummins certainly doesn’t deserve death threats. Her book, as it turns out, is very good. Would I call it the great work of our time? The great tale of the migrant experience? No. I wouldn’t agree with any of the bombastic blurbs. It’s not a great literary achievement. It’s not an authentic, true description of a significant crisis in the Americas. But it deserves to be an Oprah book, and it deserves a place on the shelf next to all the other books. It deserves to be read. And so do lots of other books. You should go read those books. Read books by Mexican authors. And by African-American authors and Japanese authors and Vietnamese authors and Indian authors and American Indian authors and Ugandan authors and Moroccan authors and Scottish authors. Read widely. Read varied books. Read poetry and fiction and non-fiction and memoir and cozy mysteries and YA and romance and westerns and psychological thrillers and horror. Read everything. Read as much as you can. Read authors who aren’t white, who aren’t straight, who aren’t from the United States, who aren’t men. Read authors who are alive, today, and writing right now. Read for breadth and depth of experience. Read to learn, to discover, to experience, to understand. Read for pleasure. Read for pain. Read for escape. Read for immediacy. Read for everything. Read fully and complexly. Fill yourself up with stories. Share them. Think about them. Talk about them.

And then write and share your own.

Originally published at on February 7, 2020.

Read. Write. Craft. Zazen.

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