Monday, February 03, 2020

American Fatwah

It appears that the heat generated toward the Jeanine Cummins novel American Dirt by the rather self-righteous Miriam Gurba is not going to lessen anytime soon. The novel's publisher has now cancelled the national tour planned to promote the book because bookstores have been threatened with violence if they dare to help Cummins promote it. Cummins herself is said to have received death threats, so the publisher really had little choice in the matter. 

And all of this was started by a woman with an obvious chip on her shoulder, the kind of person who is always hoping to be "insulted" enough to make a stink in public. How else do you explain her article titled "Pendeja, You Ain't Steinbek: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Literature"? That translates into something like "Bitch, You Ain't Steinbeck: My Row with Fake-Ass Social Literature." Gurba tips her hand early on in the piece by admitting that she was already angry about the book before she read it because of a promotional letter she received from the publisher from which she took great offense to the term "these people." Gurba even admits to "hate-reading" American Dirt. This sure sounds like someone on the lookout for a fight. 

There is no doubt that Gurba is clever with words, and no doubt that many of the points she makes about the novel, but not so much about its author, are worthy ones. What cheapens the whole exercise, however, is the viciously gleeful tone she uses to bless the rest of us with her insights. Gurba uses terms like "trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf," for instance. Now, that's clever. But her tone is one of talking down to "white" readers is not clever.

And Gurba's book review criticism (although I'm not exactly sure what she means by "toxic heteroromanticism), when she controls her emotions for a moment, is well-taken:
"Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs."
Or this:
"It shocks Lydia (the novel's main character) to learn that some central Americans migrate to the United States by foot! It shocks Lydia to learn that men rape female migrants en route to the United States! It shocks Lydia to learn that Mexico City has an ice-skating rink! (This “surprise” gave me a good chuckle: I learned to ice skate in México.) That Lydia is so shocked by her own country’s day-to-day realities, realities that I’m intimate with as a Chicana living en el norte, gives the impression that Lydia might not be…a credible Mexican. In fact, she perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist." 
 O.K. I get that, and I understand why Gurba would feel that way. Very obviously, she can judge that kind of thing better than any non-Mexican would ever be able to judge it. But where Gurba begins to lose me is when she says things like this (from her posted article about the review she wrote:
Dirt is a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle and while some white critics have compared Cummins to Steinbeck, I think a more apt comparison is to Vanilla Ice. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Imperative Entertainment, a production banner notorious for having teamed up with the likes of libertarian cowboy Clint Eastwood, has acquired the rights to the “Mexican migrant drama novel.”
Because my catastrophic imagination is highly active these days, I can visualize what this film might inspire. I can see Trump sitting in the White House’s movie theatre, his little hands reaching for popcorn as he absorbs Dirt’s screen adaptation. “This!” he yells. “This is why we must invade.” I don’t think Cummins intended to write a novel that would serve a Trumpian agenda but that’s the danger of becoming a messiah. You never know who will follow you into the promised land.
So is it politics that Gurba is most concerned with? Is she just  worried that those who politically disagree with her will find some way to use American Dirt to their own advantage? Does she really believe that Trump will invade Mexico someday? Is that silliness  what her tirade is really all about? 

Or is she just as pissed off that Cummins received a lot of money for the book, money that did not go to Gurba or someone with her more informed sensibilities:
"By her own admission, Cummins lacked the qualifications to write Dirt.
And she did it anyways.
For a seven-figure sum. 
A seven-figure sum." 
I do hope that some good ultimately comes from all of this, and that calmer heads will prevail to the point that both sides learn something along the way. Most certainly, Mexican and Central American authors should find it easier to have their voices heard in North America, and they should be rewarded accordingly. But Jeanine Cummins is not the villain she is being portrayed to be by Gurba and others. 

And she damn sure does not deserve to receive death threats. 

And bookstores should not have to fear violence when inviting an author to come to town to promote a book.

And readers like you and me should not have to be afraid to go to a bookstore - for any reason. 

You decide: Read American Dirt for yourself. That's the least you can do if this kind of thing is important to you. (I gave up on the long library queue this afternoon and purchased a copy for myself...wonder why Oprah and all those big-name authors who gave such hugely overstated plugs on the book's cover are not catching any grief along with the author and publisher.) 


  1. Okay, now I feel like I should go out and buy a copy of this book just to support the author. I hate angry trolls like Gurba.

    1. I broke down this afternoon and bought a copy of the book because it looks like my library copy will never get here. Target had it at 30% off, so it was only three or four dollars more than a large paperback.Not too bad, really.

  2. We've heard nothing about any of this over here so I'm reading your posts with a great deal of fascination. I'm not sure whether it's even available here yet, that could be why there's no fuss thus far. I'll be interested to hear what you think when you get around to it.

    1. I'll be reading it sometime this month, I'm pretty sure. Didn't take long for me to change my February reading outline, did it? LOL

      Did you click on the link in my post? That Gurba woman is pretty easy to figure out. She's trying very hard to be outrageous and "cute", I'm betting, in order to build some name-recognition of her own. My question to her would be why, if she's so talented and informed, she doesn't write a similar book herself. Her answer would be that she would have a hard time getting it published and she surely wouldn't get paid "seven figures" for it. That may write the book anyway if it's not about the money.

  3. I wasn't eager to read this one before all the hoopla--now, I'm beginning to feel more interested. This kind of "censorship" has become more common in the last few years.

    1. I'm pushing the heck out of this one, Jenclair. I read the first three or four pages last night just to get a first impression, and I'm looking forward to getting back to it in a few days. The first page hooked me.

      I'm mentioning the book to every reader I know and explaining the situation to them. And I'm tweeting and posting about it, too. Just did a new post on the subject this morning, in fact. I'm hoping that a backlash to the original backlash sells lots of lots of extra copies of American Dirt.

  4. Replies
    1. I'm disgusted with the whole thing, especially the hypocrisy involved on the part of her critics. Either dump on all of those promoting the book or dump on none of them.