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Who can tell stories?

Members of ASU's humanities faculty weigh in on controversial fiction

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February 17, 2020

Artistic expression has always been a catalyst for discussion in society. It can open up talks about fears, hopes, passions, identity, politics and race, and these are some of the topics circulating around the controversial new novel "American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins. 

The novel follows a mother and son who are fleeing to America, escaping a drug cartel in Mexico that killed the rest of their family. Over 18 days, the two of them dodge enemies who are part of the cartel and make their way to the very dangerous “La Bestia,” a train that travels the length of Mexico. 

When the book is boiled down, it depicts a perilous journey to find safety in the U.S., but the author describes a bigger purpose in her four-page author’s note at the end of the book — and that's where the controversy begins. 

Cummins writes how she doesn’t like to see migrants coming to the U.S. depicted 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.” Her hope, she writes, was to bring a face to those people and to help her readers see them as human. She also wrote she wished someone “browner” had written the story. 

While the novel has garnered much praise — a seven-figure bidding battle between publishing houses, a movie option prior to the book’s release and a place in Oprah Winfrey's book club — it has come under attack by many for the way it depicts the migrant experience.

So who gets to write these stories? And why is there so much backlash for this particular book?

Articles in the Atlantic and NPR criticize the way the book fetishizes migrants’ struggles while disregarding the true trauma migrants face on their way to the U.S., when they arrive and once they are granted access. They also point out how the characters come from a well-off, middle-class family, which could make the audience question the migrant journey the mother and son take. 

“A middle-class woman with the economic resources to both fly and obtain a tourist visa to the U.S. would definitely not have crossed the entirety of Mexico — from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast — to ride ‘La Bestia,’” said Arizona State University history Associate Professor Alexander Aviña. “The migrants braving the Sonoran Desert or 'La Bestia’ are the poorest, from the Mexican and Central American working classes, who can generally only afford to pay ‘coyotes’ or smugglers who will take them into the U.S.”

Aviña, whose research in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies focuses on Latin American history, points out the vast majority of Central American migrants in recent years are asylum seekers and refugees who didn’t try to avoid Border Patrol. This is also true of Mexican migrants who are increasingly seeking asylum as a result of drug violence.

Another point of contention from the book's critics is that Cummins specifically uses Mexican migrants to drive her narrative, when in recent years there has been an increase of Central American migrants. Aviña sees this as a minor criticism for the novel. Instead, he sees a bigger issue in how the author of "American Dirt" peddles a romanticized version of trauma to cater to a white American audience that crosses political lines.

"[Cummins] uses Trumpian depictions of Mexico that appeal even to white liberal Americans who may know little to nothing about Mexico but feel pangs of guilt for the atrocities we've seen at the border in the last six to eight years — caging of children, separation of families, deaths of children while under ICE and Border Patrol custody,” said Aviña. “The ‘white gaze’ that operates in the novel essentially works off of Trumpian depictions of Mexico and Mexicans.”

One of the main arguments against the novel is that by not accurately portraying the political and historical intricacies that come along with migration, the author further pushes a false narrative about those coming to the U.S.

Along with heavier criticisms, such as romanticizing the trauma of her characters, others have focused on Cummins’ writing style and execution. 

New York Times review of the book describes the novel as having awkward sentences, predictable plotlines and characters who are “thin creations.” It also poses the question, does the shallowness of the book garner as much attention as the larger themes?

Claudia Sadowski-Smith is a professor in the Department of English. She specializes in late 20th- and 21st-century multiethnic U.S. literature, immigration studies, border studies and fiction of the U.S. Southwest. 

“To me, the problem with 'American Dirt' is not so much that an author of Puerto Rican heritage wrote about Mexican migration or that the novel is formally not perfect and that better work is not being published,” Sadowski-Smith said. “The novel has been marketed and blurbed as though other cultural productions about U.S.-Mexico migration, both by Latinx and by non-Latinx authors, do not really exist.”

She points out there are many novels written by non-Chicanx authors that have not received the same level of attention or scrutiny, such as T. Coraghessan Boyle’s "The Tortilla Curtain," Susan Straight’s "Highwire Moon" and John Vaillant's "The Jaguar’s Children."  

“Maybe that is also key to the controversy surrounding 'American Dirt,' but it has not yet been articulated in this way,” said Sadowksi-Smith. “Aside from this, 'American Dirt' is, to me, most problematic because of its content. The novel links Mexican migration primarily to Mexican drug cartels and in this way absolves U.S. economic and immigration policy of its role in contributing to Mexican migration.”

This doesn’t mean Sadowski-Smith thinks authors who write about situations and groups of people they are not fully immersed in shouldn’t write those stories. She says, as long as those authors conduct sufficient research and write those experiences with respect and knowledge, authors can have the creative freedom to write what they like. 

“To my mind, the best creative work also uses artistic and plot devices that clearly mark the writers’ relationship to their subject matter, as an outsider, for example, rather than ignoring the particularity of that position,” said Sadowski-Smith. 

Many people see fiction as a way to gain insight into the lives of others or to understand situations they are far removed from. So when people read about different circumstances, even in fiction, they expect to be provided with accurate information. When it doesn’t, they are let down. 

But fiction requires a suspension of disbelief, and readers could allow for inaccuracies in stories. But how many mistakes are too many?

Michelle Saint, a philosophy lecturer in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies who specializes in the philosophy of fiction, argues that these mistakes may be purely an aesthetic flaw, but sometimes inaccurate portrayals can be a moral flaw as well.

“This is particularly the case when authors present inaccurate portrayals of socially oppressed individuals,” said Saint. “We aren’t confronted with nonwhite perspectives as often as white ones, or transgender perspectives as often as cisgenderPeople whose gender identity matches the sex they were identified as having at birth. ones, etc. So there are substantial social forces that encourage us to see oppressed groups as stereotyped objects, rather than living, complex people.

“We have to acknowledge that having good intentions doesn’t protect you from harming others, and it doesn’t protect you from being morally criticized for the harm that you have done.”

According to Saint, artistic expression is presented within specific social and political contexts, but not everyone in our society has the same opportunity to participate in these conversations. 

“The moral wrong Cummins committed, I believe, wasn’t really in her telling of stories but instead in her listening,” said Saint. “She was an insufficient listener, and that is what led to the problems in her novel. And if you want to tell stories about those whose voices are different from your own, and especially if you intend to tell stories about those who have less power in society than you yourself have, you have to start by being a good story-listener.”

Saint says it’s important that authors trust the voices of those who are affected by their narratives and actively seek out the voices that are often ignored. 

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