Skating through the internet is like what going to a bookstore is when you’re not sure what you want to read. You bounce between here and there, your starting off point being, of course, the things that interest you.
I love books. Anything to do with writing and literary criticism.
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Miriam Gurba’s thoughts and post about Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt”, but I did. She was harshest critic I ran across in that she was vitriolic, name-calling and self-righteous. She was paid a “kill fee” for a commissioned review that was pulled at the last minute because of its downbeat assessment of the novel.
Her review — posted on “Tropics of Meta” — was interesting, informative and enlightening.
To say that Gurba did not like Cummins’ novel is an understatement.
She branded Cummins book “fake-ass social justice literature.” This raised my radar and I wondered what exactly fake-ass social justice literature was? Would I recognize it if I saw it? If it bit me, as they say, on the ass?
She accuses Cummins as positioning the U.S.A. as the magnetic sanctuary towards which everyone is drawn, the message being: “Mexico: bad. USA: good.” Well, yeah. I’ve heard that one before, and depending who says it and how they say it, it’ll either get a high five or a fuck you from me. Like I say, it depends.
Gurba got so pissed off, she says, that her “blood became carbonated.” That alone, I thought somewhat frivolously, might be worth the price the hardback.
She cited overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes:
+ the Latin lover
+ the suffering mother
+ the stoic manchild
+ “Toxic heteroromanticism”
I was hooked. Gurba sold me on reading a book that I’d had no intention, initially, of reading. There was no way I could make an assessment of Gurba’s review without reading “American Dirt” itself. And I had to read the book because I wondered: can the book really be that bad?
So I checked the novel out from the public library.
I was surprised. I found “American Dirt” to be a page-turner, written exceedingly well and with what to my sensibility seemed like empathy.
The novel is about a Mexican mother and book store owner (Lydia Quixano Pérez) and eight-year-old son (Luca) who flee from their home after their entire family has been murdered by one of the drug cartel families. Lydia and her son’s escape is fortuitous; they were all meant to be killed. Lydia personally knows the drug cartel kingpin (Javier), as he’s been a customer at her store with whom she’s become friends prior to the debacle. He is characterized as an erudite and charming reader, and the two of them happen to love some of the same rare books. Lydia’s husband, a journalist, has been writing an expose of this kingpin, ignorant of their friendship. The hit on Lydia and Sebestian’s family is prompted by publication of this piece of reportage which unleashes a cascade of unforeseen events. Lydia and Luca go underground. The bulk of the novel is about the fugitive’s decisions they have to make, about having to watch their backs for a very real bounty by the cartel for their capture, and their harrowing trek illegally riding on the top of a transport train headed north. Their destination is the United States.
I wondered if I was missing something. I remembered a 1970’s political cartoon by the late Ron Cobb, printed in the Los Angeles Free Press. It depicted a white middle class and middle aged man in a suit and with a crew cut, wide myopic eyes behind glasses set in conservative frames, looking lost and clueless. In the caption he states, to paraphrase from memory, “I don’t know why people complain about the police. I’ve never had any problems with them.”
Was I that myopic conservative lost and clueless man?
Gurba wrote that Cummins’ opening starts with assassins opening fire at a “quinceañera”, or fifteenth birthday party. She wrote that this is “a scene one can easily imagine President Trump breathlessly conjuring at a Midwestern rally.” And while this is both observant and true, I thought that it also negated what I took the intent of the scene to be: a showcase of the unconscionable and horrific violence which has been and is perpetrated in Latin America. Perhaps there aren’t any quinceñera hits by any drug cartels in the news, but the news is rife with beheadings, mutilations, executions, public displays of carnage meant as messaging and warnings, as well as mass graves. The violence is of course not solely from the cartels, but that does not diminish the trauma, horror and anxiety of its existence. Cummins is painting for us the threat from which Luisa and Luca are running away from. Is Cummins’ painting with a broad brush? Of course! Does it work? Absolutely. This is a work of fiction. Why is it, as Gurba calls it, “trauma porn”? The trauma in question exists. Does Gurba mean that because Cummins’ got a seven-figure payment for the book and is offered for mass consumption, that it is a species of pornography?
Writers I enjoy and some writers I respect praised the book. The Latina writers Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. Stephen King called the book “extraordinary”, and John Grisham thought it was “rich in authenticity.” My focus thereafter would be in trying to figure out what they read and saw, and what the critics who hated the novel read and saw.
As mentioned, Gurba accused Cummins of employing overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes. I don’t think I can argue with her on that. There is a Latin lover and a suffering mother and a stoic manchild. I’m not entirely sure what the novel’s referent for “toxic heteroromanticism” is, but my guess is the tingling Harlequin novel frisson between Lydia Quixano and Javier, the drug lord. But all of these stereotypes do exist. Furthermore, Cummins does an admirable job of trying to flesh out these cookie cutter characters, and make them not so. If you tell someone about the situations and characters in the book, they will recoil and the unlikeliness of it. Yet Cummins is expert, in my opinion, at easing disbelief.
The bulk of Gurba’s criticism was about things surrounding the publication as opposed to the novel itself. It pissed her off that New York Time-bestselling author Don Winslow compared Cummins to John Steinbeck. It probably galls her that Cummins received a seven-figure sum for her novel. (Kinda galls me too, but hey, it’s good work if you can get it.) But I get the sense that Gurba is projecting more onto Cummins than is there. And all the praise she’s received has to be draining to read, contrary as it is to her opinions.
And that, in short, is what I dislike most about Gurba’s review. It is conclusionary without citing the flaws using the text itself.
For example, in her piece for Tropics of Meta, she writes:
When I tell gringos that my Mexican grandfather worked as a publicist, the news silences them.
Shocked facial expressions follow suit.
Their heads look ready to explode and I can tell they’re thinking, “In Mexico, there are PUBLICISTS?!”
The first question I had upon reading that was, Who are these people you rub shoulders with? Why do you hang around people who think that kind of shit? Where do you run into them?
There are plenty of Neanderthals who think this way, no doubt. All you need to do is watch the news.
As to Gurba’s conclusionary stance:
She accuses Cummins as positioning the U.S.A. as the magnetic sanctuary towards which everyone is drawn, the message being: “Mexico: bad. USA: good.” This is definitely a cliché, but the cliché holds a lot of water. The immigration issue in our country clearly shows that people are dying, both literally and figuratively, to try and get into the U.S.A. No one is trying to storm the Mexican border, or many other borders in the world, for access.
Does this mean that Mexico is bad and USA is good? Of course not. Gurba cites having had a friend who was raped and killed on U.S. soil. We are not heaven. There is crime enough to spare everywhere. But my family personally suffered violence and horrific threats from official Federal enforcement when they were returning from a vacation in Mexico. It happened, my father believed, because he was a Mexican citizen driving a car with California plates. My father was dark skinned, my mother and brother both white skinned. We fit the variance and diversity that Gurba laments Cummins as not acknowledging. Didn’t help us much.
But again, there is that line of would-be immigrants knocking on our door.
Gurba writes: “Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of Mexico, realities that would not shock a Mexican.” There is truth in this. But it is equally true that the shock is never as deep as when it happens to you. Lydia’s life of being an observer goes through a shocking transformation when her family is slaughtered.
Gurba quotes Octavio Paz: “The Mexican is familiar with death. [He] jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” To quote Gurba herself: “Pendeja, please.” This is almost as moronic as the Bryan Adams song where he sings, “Now it cuts like a knife/But it feels so right.” Bryan Adams, puh-leeze. I don’t think Paz is saying that the Mexican perspective of being intimate with death is that we’re sanguine with violence and ugliness. When he says we sleep with death, that we sleep with it and celebrate it, I think he’s saying that it’s part of our psychological DNA. He’s not saying that we are not horrified by it, or that the butchering of a loved one would not devastate us.
Gurba posits that Jeanine Cummins is writing for a white audience. I think the novelist pretty much says so when she says her intent is to give the faceless a face in the imaginations of those of us who rarely, if ever, focus in on the problem of illegal immigration. We of the Latino and Latina, Hispanic and Latinx cloth don’t need to be convinced. But given Cummins’ clear and stated intent, one must ask: Is this something to be denigrated, scoffed at? Gurba complains that gabachos and güeros are shortsighted as best, blind at worst, ignorant, fat dumb and happy. Given this stance, what on earth is wrong with what Cummins states her intention in writing “American Dirt” was? Norte Americanos need all the help they can get.
In any event, Miriam Gurba was not alone in her take-down. David Bowles of the New York Times, among other things, dismissed the novel “as a poorly executed work not worth paying attention to.” (For an interesting takedown of Bowles’ critique, see Jesse Singal’s takedown of David Bowles’ critique, “David Bowles’ Criticism Of “American Dirt” Is Riddled With UnfairInaccuracies And Distortions” online at medim.com.)
And there were many others.
I always tell my children that when we open our mouths and make public pronouncements, we often say as much about ourselves as the subject we’re making pronouncements on.
I also tell them to listen closely to what intelligent critics write and say. Even if you end up disagreeing with some or all of a critic’s criticism, they invariably offer insights and observations that most of us would have missed, twists of perspective and fresh opinion that can give us, even in disagreement, a wider panoramic view of the lay of the land. You ignore what you have kneejerk reactions against at your own peril. You end up in an opinion bubble and are at danger of going through life with blinders, missing so much.
As critics, we believe that we are committed to truth, and we achieve this by stating our opinions.
“Objectivity is not pretending not to have an agenda, but showing clearly what that agenda is. You cannot live without an agenda and you cannot free yourself from the responsibility of having it. And then the world can see the degree to which your agenda is profound or trivial.”
George Friedman of Geopolitical Futures write that “Defining objectivity as possessing no preconceptions works if you really have no preconceptions, but what human is a blank slate, and what human has the discipline not to care?”
I found a critique of “American Dirt” that was more incisive and specific and convincing, of many of Miriam Gurba’s own assertions. It is David J. Schmidt’s review in “The Digital Nib” titled “A Poor Imitation: ‘American Dirt’ and Misrepresentations of Mexico.”
He points out an army of minutia of tone-deaf faux pas committed by Jeanine Cummins. They range from Cummins’ failure to spell her main characters’ names as an inaccurate reading of the history, culture and semantic vagaries would demand. This, and other mistakes, creates inconsistencies of texture, imagery, language. She mixes in British legendary references into a story about Mexico. Surely there are plenty of Mexican mythological stories and indigenous folktales that would have created a more authentic tapestry consonant with the subject of “American Dirt.”
And there are many other points brought up by Schmidt to make his case that Cummins novel is riddled with falsely weaving inappropriate threads into her tapestry of misinformation. For those I refer any readers to his bright and incisively articulate piece.
And yet, though I see and understand and agree with what he says — “If English-speaking readers assume that this novel accurately depicts the realities of Mexico and immigration, it will only further the cause of disinformation and prejudice. And in this day and age, we can’t afford any more of that.”— I still greatly enjoyed “American Dirt”, and don’t know what exactly to make of that.
I’m sure I know what Miriam Gurba would make of me. “Pendejo, please.”