The Doomed Project of American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins’s controversial new novel reveals the limits of fiction that wants readers to empathize.

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American Dirt, the much discussed new novel from the author Jeanine Cummins, opens with a perfunctory slaughter. While the Mexican bookseller Lydia (most often referred to as Mami) escorts her 8-year-old son, Luca, to the restroom in his grandmother’s Acapulco home, members of a local cartel kill every other member of their family. After unleashing a torrent of bullets—during a quinceañera barbecue, no less—the men of Los Jardineros place a cardboard sign on the body of Lydia’s journalist husband, Sebastián. The message: TODA MI FAMILIA ESTÁ MUERTA POR MI CULPA. It is my fault my entire family is dead.

Thus begins the terror-driven journey at the heart of Cummins’s book. Lydia and Luca must flee the world they know best in order to escape the reverberations of the cartel’s wrath toward Sebastián, who continued to write about Los Jardineros despite multiple warnings. In its 400 pages, American Dirt paints a specific portrait of one grief-stricken mother and child weaving their way through perilous territory in pursuit of a safer life in the United States. But Cummins conceived of the book as part of a larger project, too. In a four-page author’s note at the end of American Dirt, she writes of her discomfort with how Latino migrants are most often characterized. “At worst, we perceive them as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep,” she says. “We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings ... I hope to create a pause where the reader may begin to individuate,” Cummins continued. “When we see migrants on the news, we may remember: These people are people.”

On the surface, this is an anodyne ambition. But works like American Dirt, which labor to provoke empathy in an imagined audience—one that shares far more in common with the author than with the characters—are limited by the impossibility and soft egotism of their aims. “Polemical fiction,” as the author Lauren Groff dubbed American Dirt in her fretful New York Times review, “is not made to subvert expectations or to question the invisible architecture of the world.” But while Groff asserts that works such as American Dirt exist to make the reader “act in a way that corresponds to the writer’s vision,” Cummins’s novel actually offers little by way of actionable material. Instead, it inspires empathetic despair in a hypothetical American reader. Along with the rapturous praise that first accompanied it, the book encourages comfort with this facsimile of justice alone.

What good, after all, does the mere acknowledgment of migrants’ essential humanity do for those whose lives have been shattered—and in some cases, ended—in large part because of punitive U.S. immigration policies? Are the tens of thousands of migrant children held in government custody, some of whom never see their families again, to feel comforted by American Dirt’s limp exhortation to the average reader—or by Oprah Winfrey’s selection of the novel for her famed Book Club? For those whose lives are not shaped fundamentally by the indifference of others, empathy can be a seductive, self-aggrandizing goal. It demands little of author and reader alike. “The empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it,” the author Namwali Serpell wrote last year in an essay for The New York Review of Books. “It’s an emotional palliative that distracts us from real inequities, on the page and on screen, to say nothing of our actual lives. And it has imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized.”

Therein lies a more concerning element of the goals laid out in Cummins’s afterword, which anticipated the scathing criticism the author—who identified as white as recently as 2016would receive for writing a novel about the horrors a young Mexican child and his mother endure along the border. (To be clear, much of the criticism has also skewered American Dirt on literary grounds, a not-unrelated set of shortcomings.) “How would I manage, if I lived in a place that began to collapse around me?” Cummins, who has since revealed that she has a grandmother who is Puerto Rican, writes. “If my children were in danger, how far would I go to save them?” These are weighty inquiries, rich starting points for a creative exploration of familial bonds.

Fittingly, American Dirt is at its strongest when it emphasizes Lydia’s protectiveness over her son. These moments do not, however, exist in a vacuum. For each moment of maternal connection that Cummins and readers living comfortably in the U.S. might relate to, American Dirt includes a depiction of sensationalized violence—bullets that tear, machetes that slice. Again and again, Lydia and Luca’s pain—and the pain of people like them—is offered up for dissection and consumption in place of meaningful character development. It’s these moments of torment that are Cummins’s clearest appeals to the otherwise unaware or uncaring reader; it’s these scenes that reveal just how tangential readers with their own traumatic experiences of migration are to the American Dirt project.

At the close of her afterword, Cummins writes of photographing a graffitied Tijuana wall and making it her computer background. The image, which joins her barbed-wire cover and launch-party decorations in evoking the mystique of a beautifully lawless place, informed part of her research in which “even the notion of the American dream began to feel proprietary.” She shares the simple reminder emblazoned on that same wall in Mexico: También de este lado hay sueños, or “On this side, too, there are dreams.” Like Cummins’s stated goal of stimulating concern in readers for whom migration is a distant phenomenon, this art appears innocuous enough at first blush. But both prompt the same questions: Who, exactly, needs this reminder? Does the same reader capable of reading numerous news stories about family separation soften when a story is presented through the lens of Cummins’s fiction—and if so, whom does that internal change really benefit?

The novel also puts forth a nebulous meta-narrative: In choosing the brave actions of a journalist as the cause for the cartel’s violence, Cummins consecrates the power of bearing witness. Telling the truth is dangerous, readers are reminded through this plot line. It is as though American Dirt seeks to justify its own didactic existence. And so, with this book, readers can conclude that Cummins has necessarily done something courageous—something perhaps above reproach. (This view is never stated outright in the text; the author instead agonizes in the afterword, “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”) But Cummins has largely dismissed the concerns of real-life authors “browner” than her, insisting that her book alone is not responsible for the publishing industry’s entrenched racism. This is, of course, true. But her responses have nonetheless underscored the pernicious and widespread belief that won American Dirt fanfare in the first place: that “empathy” exists for the benefit of the spectator, not the afflicted.