THE AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

****

This newly published US page-turner, to which the film rights were snapped up a full year before publication, has attracted huge amounts of publicity and not a little controversy. The novel was at the centre of a bidding war by nine rival publishers, which resulted in a seven-figure book deal for author Jeanine Cummins.

The book tells the story of a middle-class Mexican wife, mother and bookstore-owner, Lydia, and her 8-year-old son Luca, who are forced to flee their home town of Acapulco and attempt to seek refuge in the USA after 16 members of their extended family are gunned down by narcos at her niece’s quinceañera. The murders are carried out by local drugs cartel Los Jardineros, following a newspaper article by Lydia’s husband Sebastian, an investigative journalist who has recently profiled the cartel’s boss, the charismatic Javier Crespo.

The book is a vivid and compelling read, and a timely examination of the often treacherous and desperate migrant experience, at the mercy of terrifying journeys and the honesty (or otherwise) of people traffickers, although I feel it is not necessarily the “literary triumph” the book’s publisher claims it to be.

Cummins spent seven years working on the novel, and carried out painstaking research into the plight of migrants. I’m not entirely clueless about the opposing perspectives around illicit migration, but here in the UK I was somehow totally unaware that, with a passenger rail system almost non-existent in Mexico, migrants often feel compelled to ride illegally and dangerously on the top of freight trains or el train de la muerte (the death train) as they make their way north.

The book has sparked debate, as some critics have accused Cummins of appropriating the migrant experience from a position of privilege and for her own gain. The US book tour was even cancelled amid threats to the safety of both booksellers and the author, after charges that the publishers were marketing “trauma porn”.

Cummins herself has anticipated criticism, and in an author’s note at the end of the book writes “I worried that as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants …. But then, I thought, If you’re person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” I think this is legitimate; the onus is on the reader not to confine themselves to this particular US author, since there are plenty of Latin American perspectives to discover too.

As Kenan Malik has recently written for The Observer: “let us not create gated cultures in which only those of the right identity have permission to use their imaginations.” He also quotes the writer Zadie Smith: “what insults my soul is the idea … that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally.”

Despite some implausibilities (in particular, it didn’t ring true to me that Luca was only eight years of age, he seemed much older), and some clumsy writing, American Dirt tells a gripping story. Notably, the book will be relatable for many in its depiction of the very normality of Lydia’s life before the tragedy that destroys her world. And its undeniable accessibility could mean that larger numbers of people find themselves sympathetic to, and better informed about, the human stories behind the impersonal immigration statistics that they hear in the news.

Some critics of American Dirt have said that they do not mind if white, US authors write about Mexican immigrants. What does bother them is when white, US authors write badly about Mexican immigrants. And despite some comparisons with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, American Dirt isn’t a literary feat, with its at times clunky dialogue and an often ‘by numbers’ plot. What it is, though, is absorbing, informative, thrilling and genuinely moving.

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