'American Dirt' Author Jeanine Cummins Answers Vocal Critics

Jan 24, 2020
Originally published on January 24, 2020 9:24 am

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week was supposed to be an exciting one for author Jeanine Cummins. After months of hype, her novel, "American Dirt," had finally been published. It got high praise from writers including Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez. Oprah even picked it for her book club. This is a clip from "CBS This Morning."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS THIS MORNING")

ANTHONY MASON: Oprah. Drum roll, please.

OPRAH WINFREY: Oh, it is "American Dirt," "American Dirt," "American Dirt," by Jeanine Cummins.

GAYLE KING: Yes.

WINFREY: Ugh, I love it so much.

MARTIN: "American Dirt" is the story of a Mexican woman named Lydia. In the opening scene of the novel, her family is murdered by a drug cartel. She and her 8-year-old son are the only survivors.

JEANINE CUMMINS: And what follows is that Lydia and Luca, in this one moment, fall out of their middle-class lives and become people who have to run for their lives.

MARTIN: And they run to the U.S.-Mexico border. That voice you heard was part of a recorded interview we did with Jeanine Cummins last week, an interview that never aired because the criticism of her book started coming down hard, and the conversation about the novel had to change. Latino writers in particular have eviscerated the book, including LA Times reporter Esmeralda Bermudez.

ESMERALDA BERMUDEZ: This book has left a lot of white readers with a very fuzzy feeling - like, oh, my God - about immigrants. And my skin is crawling. My skin is crawling.

MARTIN: You'll hear more from my conversation with Bermudez elsewhere in the show. In light of all the takedowns of the book, we called Jeanine Cummins back. She told me she has tried to avoid the criticism, especially on Twitter. So I shared some of what was being said.

I do want to get into some of the details of the critique because it is so widespread. And I understand that you've tried not to engage in it. But we spoke with a writer from the LA Times, Esmeralda Bermudez, an immigrant herself. And she has said - and I'm quoting from a tweet thread - "'American Dirt' has left us with a textbook example of nearly everything we should avoid when writing about immigrants. It is hollow, harmful, an adrenaline-packed cartoon."

CUMMINS: OK. I don't know how to respond to this. It's - I can't - not everyone has to love my book, you know? I endeavored to be incredibly culturally sensitive. I did the work. I did five years of research. The whole intention in my heart when I wrote this book was to try to upend the traditional stereotypes that I saw being very prevalent in our national dialogue.

And I felt like there was room - I feel like there is room in the national dialogue for us to examine the humanity of the people involved in a much more intimate way. And I - you know, people can decide for themselves whether they feel that I failed or succeeded in that endeavor, but that was my hope.

MARTIN: Do you think you were aware of your cultural blind spots as a white woman writing about this who has no personal experience as a migrant?

CUMMINS: I think I was as aware of my cultural blind spots as I could be. I certainly centered them in my mind as I was writing. One of the things that I find deeply distressing and disappointing about the current tenor of this conversation is how, in the court of public opinion, I am the white lady now in this narrative. The fact is that I am a white person. I am a citizen of the United States. I am a person who has a very privileged life. I am also Puerto Rican. And I - you know, that fact has been attacked and sidelined by people who, frankly, are attempting to police my identity.

MARTIN: Your grandmother is from Puerto Rico.

CUMMINS: Yeah. And that was the ethnicity and the culture of my father. And no amount of vitriol on the Internet can make that untrue. But I feel like I understand that voices of color and women's voices have been hijacked and devalued for a very long time. I am a person who has always hoped to be on the right side of those arguments. I wrote a book that I believe in. I wrote a book that I hoped would remind readers that any one of us could be migrants.

MARTIN: You did write an op-ed in The New York Times in 2015 saying that you didn't want to write about race. Quote, "I'm terrified of striking the wrong chord, of being vulnerable, of uncovering shameful ignorance in my psyche."

CUMMINS: Yeah. I mean, that is exact - you know, that's one of the things that I've seen taken out of context over and over again in this conversation. But the fact is that that whole essay is about me reckoning with race. And in that essay, I acknowledge that I am the beneficiary of white privilege.

I am always examining my position in society and the positions of the people around me because I am deeply, deeply committed and interested in equality. And so it's particularly painful to be in the sort of crosshairs of this really, really big conversation. But I think, you know, in some ways, it's a conversation more about who gets the attention for their books.

MARTIN: Do you think there's a problem, an imbalance in the publishing industry?

CUMMINS: Oh, absolutely. To be sure, yes, there is. Yeah. And that's not a problem that I can fix, nor is it a problem that I'm responsible for. All I can do is write the book that I believe in. And I did that.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY")

MARTIN: That's Jeanine Cummins, author of the new novel "American Dirt." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.