The American Dirt Controversy Is Painfully Intramural

Novels can change minds, but this novel won’t.

The jacket cover of 'American Dirt'
Flatiron Books

Imagine if a controversial novel about a treacherous border crossing triggered a papal homily, or even a presidential tweet. Either scenario would suggest that public leaders are reckoning with the migrant crisis anew, thanks to a risk-taking work of fiction. Novels can have this power. Jeanine Cummins’s new novel American Dirt does not. The controversy the novel has provoked is not the controversy its subject needs.

The asymmetry of Cummins’s identity (she’s white and not an immigrant) and story (a Mexican woman’s flight to the United States with her son) has led to charges of racial and cultural appropriation and publishing-industry whitewashing. Cummins has noted that her grandmother was from Puerto Rico, but this biographical detail doesn’t solve the problems that American Dirt poses in its presumption to represent the migrant experience. Making matters worse, the novel is a commercial success: It won a seven-figure advance and was optioned for a film adaptation amid broader industry buzz, and it’s an Oprah Book Club selection. In response to criticism, Oprah has promised that her treatment of American Dirt will also involve a conversation about “who gets to publish what stories.” Oprah’s decision to frame the debate on these insular terms is telling. This is fundamentally a fight about an industry; it’s about how book publishers do business, and with whom.

Regardless of whether Abraham Lincoln actually credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with writing the book that started the Civil War, Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed white American thought and action on the evil and injustice of slavery when it was published in 1852. In The Dream of the Great American Novel, Lawrence Buell notes that the book’s popularity was national and, soon afterwards, global; that Vladimir Lenin named it his childhood favorite; and that the then–Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court blamed Uncle Tom’s Cabin for “fomenting the ‘political hate’ that ensured the constitutional crisis of 1861.” The novel has since been criticized for representations of black experience that are sentimental at best and sentimentally dehumanizing at worst, and for Stowe’s lack of autobiographical connection to her subject matter. Nevertheless, she suffered no serious personal consequences for her effort, and the book influenced public opinion and political will on a fraught and grave matter that affected millions.

Stowe’s experience is an outlier: It was both publicly significant and personally positive. The “Rushdie affair” was only half of that. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses provoked riots around the world with its satirical representation of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The fatwa issued on the author’s life in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini led to domestic U.K. political debates over Rushdie’s right to state security; his novel featured prominently in discussions of free speech and Islam’s place in Western life. The novel also figured in geopolitics, agitating U.K.-Iran relations. Meanwhile, the novel’s public notoriety exacted great personal cost from Rushdie and others, including his Japanese translator, who was stabbed to death in 1993.

The controversy about American Dirt feels intramural by comparison. The novel is a fast-frothing thriller about Lydia, a bourgeois Mexican bookseller, and her son Luca, who flee to the United States to escape members of a drug cartel led by a bookish thug, after the cartel kills her journalist husband in the novel’s opening sequence. In fleeing, Lydia and Luca are subjected to indignities and brutalities associated with the thousands of desperate people caught up in the migrant crisis. As Cummins says in an author’s note, she wrote this book because she wanted readers to know that “the people coming to our southern border are not one faceless brown mass but singular individuals, with stories and backgrounds and reasons for coming that are unique.”

Unique, a word with a superficial sense of import that conceals capacious emptiness, perfectly captures the spirit of the novel. American Dirt is fantasy fiction for suburban readers, with its plétora of italicized Spanish words, its graphically rendered and fast-paced simulacra of real-world dangers and class- and culture-transcending solidarities, its damp lyricism, and its imperiled, resilient, working-mom hero. By the end of American Dirt, Lydia is up late at night reading a novel in her new home in El Norte. Her son is safe and asleep beside her as “the lamplight falls in soft circle across her tented knees, across the warm blankets, across Luca’s casting breath.” The novel that Lydia reads, like Cummins’s description of her reading, shudders with overwrought meaning, related to her past life, to near death, to love and hate and survival, but never mind: “No one can take this from her. This book is hers alone.”

If only American Dirt could belong to more than its confected protagonist and the frisson-seeking, relevance-minded readership she seems made for. Cummins and her publishers certainly hoped for that kind of reach. BuzzFeed reports that Cummins was recently asked at an event why she thought she had license to write this story. Channeling Oprah, Cummins acknowledged “that this book is going to engender a lot of important conversations … about who gets to tell what stories … I don’t necessarily know if I’m the person to answer those questions. I wrote a novel. I wrote a work of fiction that I hoped would be a bridge.”

Cummins thinks we need more bridges than walls to remedy the devastating and lethal traumas of borderland and migrant living. I agree. But I suspect that most people reading her novel already agree too. Nor will the controversy draw in a broader public; why should the broader public care to read a book whose very existence may indicate a problem within publishing, but does not actually say anything demanding or catalytic beyond that problem? People read, read about, and argued over Stowe and Rushdie’s novels—and still do, in fact—because they sustained controversies of public consequence at scales of significance that engaged both ordinary readers and public leaders: Those books convinced and provoked, moved and offended.

The immediate and lasting consequences of the controversies associated with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Satanic Verses reveal just how much novels, whether sentimental fictions or postmodern epics, can charge and change public life. Nothing close to this is happening with American Dirt. The migrant crisis doesn’t just deserve better stories or storytellers, however you judge the criteria. It deserves a better controversy.