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Appropriation Or Representation? We Hear Your Thoughts On The Controversial Novel ‘American Dirt’

"American Dirt" author Jeanine Cummins doing press for her book on "CBS This Morning" alongside Oprah Winfrey

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By now, you’ve probably heard about “American Dirt,” the novel by Jeanine Cummins that was published last week amid high hopes and controversy. 

The social thriller tells the story of a mother and son running from Acapulco, Mexico to the United States after the massacre of their family by a drug cartel. The book had reportedly set off a bidding war, with Cummins receiving a seven figure advance. It received some criticism in December, but was also lauded by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Stephen King -- and then it was chosen as Oprah’s book club pick, which catapulted the novel to a new level of scrutiny.  

Detractors say the book is poorly written. That it appropriates migrant stories and repackages them for a white audience, fetishizing their pain while relying on harmful and untrue stereotypes. They’ve also criticized the publishing industry for putting so many resources behind a book about migrants by a white author (she has one Puerto Rican grandmother, but has in the past identified as white). The marketing of the book, which included nods to the author’s formerly undocumented husband (he’s from Ireland) and barbed wire center pieces at a publishing party, have also garnered backlash. 

Cummins has said that she did lots of research, including consulting with academics and interviewing migrants at the border, and that her goal was to help readers empathize with a faceless crisis at the border. Amid increasing tensions, the book’s publisher cancelled an event that was slated for yesterday, Tuesday, January 28, at the Pasadena bookstore Vroman’s. On Wednesday, the author tour was cancelled by the publisher. 

Today, we want to hear from you. If you are a writer or creative, how do you think one should approach writing about an experience that’s not your own, if at all? How does this controversy reflect on the publishing industry? If you’ve read the book, did you think it humanized the plight of its characters or flattened and fetishized them? Call us at 866-893-5722.


Constance Grady, culture writer for Vox who’s been following this story; she tweets @constancegrady