Entertainment

The 'American Dirt' Controversy Illustrates the Media's Thirst for Immigrant Trauma Porn

Jeanine Cummins snagged a movie deal and a spot in the coveted Oprah's Book Club based on a story she has no right to tell.
January 22, 2020, 11:10pm
Jeanine Cummins
Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Contributor

As we hear often when these narratives are told, when people leave the country of their birth, it's to "seek a better life." That migration process comes with its perils, its struggles, its moments of hope, and a lifelong paradox of your identity balancing between multiple worlds. These stories are deeply personal to those who have lived the immigrant experience one way or another: as immigrants; as the children of immigrants; or are a muddled mix of both, as I am (born in the U.S., then migrated back to Mexico and grew up in both Mexico and the U.S. as a transborder individual). Jeanine Cummins has not lived this experience in any way, and that's clear in her novel American Dirt. The controversy surrounding her story has become an important topic within Latinx circles and beyond, because it's hugely symptomatic of our experiences telling Latinx stories in a largely white publishing industry.

Released on January 21, American Dirt kicks off with a group of cartel members shooting up a quinceañera and forcing protagonist Lydia, whose husband dies in the massacre, to flee Mexico with her 8-year-old son Luca and seek refuge and safety in America. The road is treacherous, full of death and carnage. This, as it has been touted, is a "Grapes of Wrath of our time," earning Cummins a seven-figure deal, a movie deal, and as of Tuesday, a spot in the coveted Oprah's Book Club.

The main criticisms of the book and its publicity campaign stem from the author's background and arguably unfounded sense of ownership over the Latinx border experience. Cummins was born on a naval base in Spain, raised in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and spent years in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Her early books, including 2013's The Crooked Branch and 2010's The Outside Boy, featured Irish-American protagonists. Her Twitter bio reads "Irlandaisa/Boricua/Persona"—but in a 2015 New York Times op-ed, Cummins asserts she is white, though she has a Puerto Rican grandmother. She admits in that article that she'll "never know the impotent rage" of racism, and says she doesn't want to talk about race out of fear of "being misinterpreted" and "uncovering shameful ignorance in my psyche." She says, "it’s imperative for white people to join the conversation about racism. Discomfort is the least of our obligations."

Seemingly aware of the bad optics that would accompany its release, Cummins wrote in a note at the end of American Dirt: "I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it. But then I thought, if you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge? So I began."

The publicity rollout of the book has been clumsy and deeply offensive to many within the Latinx community, including me. Sure, there are those who (at least publicly) support it; not only did Latinx celebrities like Gina Rodriguez—whose own comments on race have been controversial—and Yalitza Aparicio promote the book on their social media pages using the Oprah's Book Club official hashtag #ReadWithUs, but photos from a party honoring the book and its author began to circulate on Twitter. The event featured centerpieces made up of bright purple jacaranda flowers emerging from the top of a vase shaped like a stark high wall, all wrapped in twigs made to look like barbed wire; yes, this is the great big wall that looms over those on the border reimagined as a centerpiece for a book aggrandizing a culture vulture of the worst degree. This florid presentation, markedly dismissive of the true meaning of that imagery in real families' lives, is telling of how the publishing world views stories of immigrants—and how willingly they'll market our pain.

The criticisms lodged at Cummins are plenty and varied. The major ones are captured in a now-viral post by Chicana writer Myriam Gurba via Tropics of Meta, in which she beautifully sticks a blade into Cummins' lazy exposition; the embarrassing stereotypes and clichés; blatant appropriation of the works of other Latinx writers; the pitying and vilifying gaze laid thickly on Mexicans; and Cummins' exploitative entitlement as a white woman writing a story of a place, people, and experience she has no connection to.

While discomfort may be the "least of our obligations," Cummins should be rolling in it now. For someone who was once so concerned with discussing race out of fear she'd fumble it to then go so far as to insert herself in the Mexican immigrant narrative reads as almost shocking in its lack of self-awareness. We don't get to choose the circumstances of our birth or upbringing, or the pigment of our skin, but we do get to choose the stories we tell. In saying she wishes someone "slightly browner" would write this story, Cummins not only trivializes the shades of our identities and experiences, but also attempts to recuse herself from fault in posturing from a perspective that is not her own. Not only does she lack firsthand knowledge of that impotent rage of racism, but she clearly doesn't understand the colonialist nature of that racism, and her willing participation in it.

Plenty of Latinx people have written immigrant stories, and plenty more continue to try to break into publishing and journalism with their stories, often to disappointing and outright problematic results. As a Latinx writer myself, I speak from personal experience; the editing process for the essays I've written on my experience as a transborder individual have, more often than not, involved continuous mining for more traumatic content. I've sat through rewrite after rewrite where I'd be asked to remember the worst of my experience and share it; where editors have cut any time I'd mention the mundanity or actual joys of living that sometimes-harsh immigrant life. Happiness doesn't sell immigrant stories—or garner white clicks.

As Gurba wrote, "American Dirt aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it, instead, embodies Halloween. The proof rests in the novel’s painful humorlessness." Humor is an intrinsic part of Mexican existence, even in the darkest of times or in witnessing a glaring exploitation of our existence. See: the hundreds, if not thousands, of jokes Latinx people have added to the "writing my Latino novel" thread on Twitter, in which they ridicule Cummins' clichéd prose and bastardization of the Mexican experience, and simultaneously, the way in which all media has failed to represent us beyond these ridiculous stereotypes.

While Cummins' assault of Mexican culture is bad, it arrived right on time as the crisis at the border became a national talking point. She went from white to "Irlandaisa/Boricua/Persona" at the most opportune moment, trading in the traumas of others for her own benefit. The timing is not lost on any of us, particularly those of us who for years have engaged in an ongoing fight to get our stories told. We fight in newsrooms, boardrooms, studio meetings, book proposals, and other spaces where white editors hungry for all of our pain and none of our nuance serve as gatekeepers. If we do break through, we then have to battle editors who want us to create trauma porn for white readers to clutch their chest to and lament the savagery of the countries we came from are. We lose out on anything near a seven-figure deal, effectively punished for not wanting to do what Cummins did, which was treat ourselves like the pitiful emblems of pain liberal whites see us as, or bloodthirsty barbarians Donald Trump has made us out to be. It's a matter of access and what you're willing to trade to gain it.

We are not willing to give up our humanity, and that left the door wide open for someone like Cummins to capitalize on it. She could only do it within a system that clamors for our trauma, because that's when we're at our most profitable.

Our stories are rich, full of joy and pain. But most importantly, they're ours, and Jeanine Cummins has no right to any of them.