Review: Why I’m Not Reading “American Dirt”

Given the national uproar swirling around the new novel about Mexican immigrants, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, you’d think Congress might have launched an investigation. Or that the president might be moving some Pentagon funds to build a wall around the book.

Its part-Hispanic author is being pilloried far and wide for many things:  ignorance, stereotyping, shallowness, whitewashing, appropriation, trauma porn, inaccuracy and saviorism.  Oh, and what seems to infuriate some of her detractors most is Oprah Book Clubism, making-a-lot-of-moneyism, and movie dealism.

How dare this literary imposter tread on sacred Mexican/Mexican-American ground when apparently only someone of that ethnicity could handle that subject matter? Doesn’t she realize that her book must represent the entire rich reality of Mexican culture, not just some sordid aspects of it?

There’s apparently a Geneva Literary Convention that stipulates restrictions like these that I must have missed while I was publishing and teaching over the last few decades.

Some of the strongest protests attack her for daring to make money, lots of money, when there are apparently so many more deserving authors who are being ignored and should be doing better.  Maybe they deserve a telethon.

I’ve been a published author for a long time and guess what? The world of publishing is wildly unfair and complaints about who does well and who doesn’t reek of jealousy and childishness. Books have their own karma and whining about how a certain book hits a cultural sweet spot while others languish is a total waste of time. Likewise besieging an author because she happened to write a popular or noteworthy book at the right time.

All the furor made me sample the book on Amazon and I gave up at the end of the first chapter.  The writing bugged me in various ways, partly because it seemed too sophisticated in describing what a kid was feeling. But what truly turned me off were the closing lines after a scene of major gunfire:

Outside the window he hears Mami’s tentative footsteps, the soft scuff of her shoe through the remnants of something broken. A solitary gasp, too windy to be called a sob. Then a quickening of sound as she crosses the patio with purpose, depresses the keys on her phone.

This is a hot mess. How does this kid know that the steps are tentative? What are the remnants of something broken? Is that poetic or a reference to objects of some kind? Bodies? Something else? And why would she be scuffing through them, why wouldn’t she avoid them? How can he possibly know that his mother is crossing “with purpose”? And finally, if he’s inside, how can he see her depressing the keys of her phone?  Is he some kind of superhero?

Sloppy point of view kills a book for me because I lose faith in the author’s ability to tell a story deftly and clearly. In the many years I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and half a dozen other newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, I learned to trust those warning signs. Maybe the novel gets better, but I’d rather not continue when a book raises serious doubts in the very first chapter.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Language Bigots Don’t Understand America

A New York lawyer’s rant about Spanish-speaking workers at a Fresh Kitchen recently went viral, and rightfully so.

The lawyer was infuriated to hear Spanish, which the counter workers were speaking to each other, and to some customers.  He’s not only intolerant, he’s ignorant.  Since the time when it was still called New Amsterdam,  New York City has welcomed people seeking freedom and opportunity, whether they spoke Portuguese, Dutch, German, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, Vietnamese or any other language.  Hundreds of languages are currently spoken in New York.

Many immigrants might not know English when they get here and perhaps may struggle with it all their lives.  But if they don’t learn it or learn it fluently, their children do.  It’s a pattern that’s been repeating itself one generation after another and has helped us become ever more diverse.

When my parents came here in 1950 from Eastern Europe via Belgium, my mother spoke English, but my father didn’t and he had to learn it at his place of work.  Between them, they spoke close to a dozen European languages.  While Yiddish was their everyday choice, they often switched to Russian because they wanted privacy from me and my brother.  But they could speak it in public, too, and they did.

I heard several languages in my apartment building and grew up in a neighborhood where you could hear German on the streets, and then later Spanish.  I never felt threatened.  I felt the opposite.  These other languages were siren calls for me to make myself fluent in a second language at the very least.  And something more: they fueled my desire to travel outside of the country and experience other cultures as authentically as I could.

I teach on a campus with several thousand Chinese students.  They don’t frighten or enrage me.  I find the experience fascinating since Mandarin, Cantonese, and other languages spoken in China aren’t like any language I know or have studied.  Hearing spoken Chinese, I feel connected to the world outside my small Michigan college town, even if I don’t know what’s being said.  And I’m reminded how connected we all are, which makes me want to re-double my efforts in learning Dutch, my latest challenge after having spent two amazing weeks in Flanders.

As for hearing employees speaking to customers in something other than English, my mother spoke Polish with the butcher she frequented, and Russian whenever she realized a store employee was from somewhere in Russia.  I envied her knowledge, flexibility, and fluency.  And if a guy like the lawyer at Fresh Kitchen had gone postal about her not speaking English, I’m sure she would have had a wide range of terms to put him in his place.  But politely, because she was always dignified, and her English had a British tinge to it.

Lev Raphael is the best-selling author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  You can study creative writing with him online at writewithoutborders.com