Culture

‘American Dirt’ Fails to Understand the Border. Here Are 7 Books that Get it Right

Lead Photo: Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla
Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

Jeanine Cummins’ book American Dirt was guaranteed to go big ever since she sold it at a multi-publisher auction for seven figures. Since the sale of the manuscript, the book has only ballooned: a film in production, Oprah’s Book Club picks and excerpts and interviews in major newspapers and magazines. In some of the publicity materials, interviews and general hoopla around the book, Cummins has stated that her goal in writing the novel was to change the portrayal of immigrants at the border and humanize the people portrayed as a “faceless brown mass.” 

Yikes.

As mainstream media and institutions celebrate the title, Latinos, of various cultural backgrounds and professions, have deluged Cummins with criticism. Some have questioned whether the author is the right person to tackle the subject matter to begin with. Cummins has long identified as white; however, because of a Puerto Rican grandmother, she recently added the archipelago’s flag to her social media pages and increasingly calls herself Latina. She also talks occasionally about her undocumented husband, a white Irish man.

In addition to inquiries around identity, the real critique of American Dirt comes in all the ways Cummins has packaged and made palatable to white readers the pain and suffering of immigrants and Latinos — often at the expense of authenticity. The alarm was first rung by Chicana writer Myriam Gurba, who wrote an extremely funny and furious review of the book. Her argument: American Dirt writes about undocumented immigration for an audience of gringos ready and waiting to be shocked and moved, making a spectacle of the pain of these “faceless brown masses” without even getting basic details of their story right. To wit: Lydia, the middle-class, bookshop-owning main character, is scared of the American bogeyman, not a Mexican cucuy; the narco kingpin sounds like Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots; and, as Parul Seghal at the New York Times points out, characters cannot stop talking about how brown everyone’s skin is. 

Then there’s the massive publicity budget that has pushed the book everywhere and funded some extremely tasteless promotional choices, including a barbed-wire-themed floral centerpiece at a book expo and American Dirt-themed manicures. As if the novel and its marketing weren’t cringe worthy enough, Cummins’ own supporters have fueled the online firestorm, from a really unfortunate phone call by Oprah Winfrey’s team allegedly asking if author Valeria Luiselli “knew any illegal people” to arguably the most problematic Latina celebrity of our generation Gina Rodriguez recommending American Dirt on Instagram. While this has led to some really funny shitposting (see: the Writing My Latino Novel tweets), there’s a more serious conversation going on around a largely white publishing industry and what it means for overlooked Latino writers who rarely, if ever, get seven-figure book deals or a thrumming publicity engine. 

If the uproar around American Dirt is maybe making you realize that you don’t know as much about the border as you might want, or you just want to throw your support behind people writing about their own experiences of the border, Latinidad and immigration, here’s a list of titles to start with. 

1

"Unaccompanied" by Javier Zamora

Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora

Unaccompanied is a book of poetry that takes as its subject author Javier Zamora’s own border crossing from El Salvador to the United States as a 9-year-old. Zamora writes the poems mostly as addresses to people who helped him on his journey: his grandparents and parents, a stranger who saved his life while trekking through a desert and El Salvador itself. Unaccompanied is a first-person view of immigration and border crossing from a child and an adult remembering that child. 

2

"Tell me How it Ends" by Valeria Luiselli

Tell me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

If what you’re looking for is a sensitive approach to issues of immigration that also wrestles, to some degree, with the privilege of the person writing, pick up Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends. The book begins with the author’s own struggles in getting a green card but is eclipsed by those of the undocumented children she translates for. In the book, she also wrestles with the unjust treatment immigrants face not only in the U.S. but also in Mexico.

3

"By The Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the American Border" by Luis Alberto Urrea

By The Lake of Sleeping Children: The Secret Life of the American Border by Luis Alberto Urrea

In Cummins’ author’s note, she writes that her work owes a debt to Luis Alberto Urrea’s By The Lake of Sleeping Children (some might argue that it’s more than a debt, pero bueno). For his book, Urrea spent time among communities of garbage pickers and coyotes in a post-NAFTA Tijuana. His portrayals of the people he encounters and the circumstances of their lives are sensitive, human and complex.

4

"Signs Preceding the End of the World" by Yuri Herrera

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

If what you’re really after in your not-reading-American-Dirt quest is a noir-thriller about border crossings, but by a) an actual Latin American person who gets the details right and b) draws on, but doesn’t explicitly take scenes from classics of Mexican literature like Pedro Paramo, then Signs Preceding the End of the World is the book for you. In this slim, 100-page explosion, Yuri Herrera tells the story of Makina, a girl sent north by her mother to find a brother and bring him back, and tackles everything that gets carried back and forth across the border.  

5

"Children of the Land" by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is better known as a poet (Cenzontle), and Children of the Land is his first venture into prose. While you’ll have to wait until Tuesday for this book’s actual release, Castillo’s memoir promises to be a reckoning with what it means to grow up after having “crossed into a threshold of invisibility” as an undocumented family in the U.S. 

6

"La Bestia" by Oscar Martinez

La Bestia by Oscar Martinez

American Dirt spends a great deal of time on La Bestia, the train that migrants ride north through Mexico. Oscar Martinez is a Salvadoran journalist, and his book La Bestia was the first one that really brought attention to the train and the danger and promise that it can represent — cutting journeys of days on foot into hours but putting people in the way of kidnappers and narcos. 

7

"Mean" by Myriam Gurba

Mean by Myriam Gurba

While Mean doesn’t explicitly deal with the border or crossing it, it is about Myriam Gurba’s sexual assault by “budding serial killer” Tommy Jesse Martinez and his eventual murder of Sophia Castro Torres, “a soft-spoken Mexican migrant who sold Mary Kay cosmetics and performed farm work.” The way that American Dirt presents the U.S. as a safe haven where people will face no harm is demonstrated to be a lie in Mean, where portrayals of ideas like home and safety are presented realistically and with complexity.