A Night of White Empathy at a Reading for American Dirt

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Flatiron Books via AP, CBS)

On the top floor of a Barnes and Noble in New York City, on the release day for Jeanine Cummins’s controversial and immediately celebrated novel American Dirt, an audience hums with excitement as it waits for Cummins to take the stage. Rows of middle-aged white women, in between discussing emails from the schools their kids go to, take selfies with their copies of American Dirt, the purchase of which garnered entry to the event. A woman sitting next to me let everyone know that she’s Jeanine’s friend, and I count the people of color in the room besides myself. There appear to be eight, not including Barnes and Noble employees. When someone close by says, “There’s Jeanine,” the room stops, and everyone turns to the back to look for her.

American Dirt is a novel following a fictional mother-son duo as they flee narcos in Mexico into the supposed safe haven that is the United States. The book, which purports to tackle the lack of sympathy towards migrants worldwide, was sold for a seven-figure advance, and Hollywood has already optioned its rights for a movie. Though it hasn’t been out for a full week, it has already been wildly lucrative for Cummins; the day of her reading, it was chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick, and that morning, Cummins appeared on CBS This Morning, alongside Winfrey herself, to promote its release.

Cummins is smiling and almost tearful as she steps up to the microphone for her reading. She asks the audience to indulge her in her “Oscars moment,” before issuing a roster of shout-outs and thank-yous to the people that helped her on her book-writing “journey”—the people at her publishing company, her family, her real-life friends, her author friends. She thanks the local book club that came to the event. It didn’t occur to me until the end of the hour-long event that there was one group Jeanine failed to thank for making her book possible: Mexican immigrants.


The controversy surrounding Cummins’s book upon its release has been multi-pronged. Fans and book blurbs have lauded American Dirt as a page-turning thriller that cannot be put down and a heart-wrenching study of border politics. Crime novelist Don Winslow, whose latest series is the Cartel Trilogy, called American Dirt “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.” But Cummins has steeped her story in boilerplate ideas of Mexicans and their culture, sprinkling in two-dollar Spanish throughout to lend a sense of authenticity—some seasoning if you will. Many Latinx readers have argued that it is a reckless story, with characters and plot rendered for the benefit of clueless white audiences, and have been appalled that Cummins would turn a profit on a story told so carelessly.

Critics have largely agreed with this less than flattering opinion. In a widely-shared review, novelist Myriam Gurba wrote, “Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.” On Twitter, Latinx immigrants, writers, and reporters decried the book and its sensationalized characterization of immigration, and the Chicano writer JP Brammer started the “writing my Latino novel” meme to parody American Dirt’s prose:

Cummins, a white Latina whose grandmother is Puerto Rican and who has previously written about considering herself white, claims she researched the subject to the best of her ability, traveling to Mexico and spending time on the borderlands over the course of four years. By her own admission, she came to the subject as an empathetic outsider. Cummins was inspired to write American Dirt in 2016 after listening to the discourse around immigration on the news; she has said the left’s narrative was “paternal” and obsessed with “saving these people” while the right made it seems as if a “wave of criminals” was “invading,” and she wanted to “humanize” the immigrants who were coming across the border. (At a pre-release event in November, tables were decorated with barbed wire, and Cummins received a barbed-wire manicure echoing her book cover.) It remains unclear what ultimately led her to believe that the people crossing the border needed to be rendered human, and to whom she purported to humanize them—particularly since there is already a large body of work about the topic of contemporary immigration, written by Latinx authors and amassed over decades. But the best way to “humanize” immigrants, she seemed to decide, was a monolithic description of their experience—which, she implied at her Barnes and Noble reading, can be divorced from race or location. “This story could be happening anywhere. This could be Australia,” she said to a room full of mostly white book lovers, as if immigrating from Australia is the same as immigrating from Mexico.

It is clear from the first chapter that Cummins had a white audience in mind when writing the story of her protagonist, Lydia. Lydia and her husband are upper-middle-class citizens of Mexico with jobs that would be deemed respectable to an American audience: Lydia is a business owner and her husband is a reporter. They are the “good” kinds of brown people; they speak “excellent” English. Lydia—much like Cummins—is surprised by just about everything she discovers on her travels to the north, as though she hasn’t lived in Mexico her entire life. It’s very apparent that someone who had to “learn about Mexico,” as Cummins wrote in her acknowledgments, wrote Lydia into existence. There is no sense throughout the book that Cummins is familiar at all with the landscape of Mexico, outside the names of towns. At times it reads as if she was purposely vague on the description of a neighborhood so that the reader could imagine they were anywhere else. But the lack of specificity is precisely why such a book appeals so massively to a mainstream white gaze: they can put themselves in the story and imagine they are practicing a type of empathy, when in fact they’re just perpetuating erasure.

At the Barnes and Noble event, after her “Oscar moment” and a brief reading, Cummins agreed to answer pre-submitted audience questions. She chose them at random from a pile of index cards collected by an employee, and the first few questions were softball. How long did it take you to make this book? What kind of research did you do? Which of the characters do you relate to the most? Then, by luck, she picked up mine; via index card, I had asked her if she felt that her whiteness played a role in choosing to write this book, and how it was received by the public.

Cummins looked uncomfortable, and her answer made me uncomfortable. She told the room that this was an “important” question that “we should all be asking ourselves.” She said she believed that her status as a white woman who is also Puerto Rican (“you can be both,” she said), as well as her economic status and motherhood, contributed to how she wrote the book. But as for how it was received, she said, she felt she couldn’t speak on it. “That’s not something I’m equipped to answer, nor do I want to.” And with that, she moved on to the next question, discussing how much “goodness” and “hope” she saw “along the migrant trail.”

Saying “I don’t want to” to a discussion about race is steeped in privilege—much like the prose in American Dirt. It is a slogan for people who have not had to spend time thinking about race every day because it affects their every move—something she wrote about herself in her widely cited 2016 op-ed. It betrays the sympathy that Cummins claims she has for migrants and people of color and diminishes her attempt to garner that sympathy in other people who might pick up this book. Yet Cummins cannot simply raise the standard of the Puerto Rican flag as a defense when critics ask valid questions about race. Latinx people, just like immigrants, are not monolithic in our experiences.

Earlier in her talk, Cummins said she resisted writing this book for a long time because she was “afraid.” Her fears, she said, were that she was “not qualified, I’m not a migrant,” but that “ultimately I kept bumping up against the same truth, which was that I was trying to shove a round peg into a square hole, and that the only appropriate lens through which to view this story was to inhabit the skin of a migrant.” Inhabiting another skin isn’t as easy as trying on a new costume or spending a few months on the borderlands—but fortunately for Cummins, her audience, willing to throw piles of money at anything that affirms their own righteousness, can’t seem to tell the difference.

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Scarlett Johansson’s already up for the role of Lydia in the film adaptation.