Sunday, March 22, 2020

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

DNF @ p.61

I don't like people telling me how to think and even though I respect the one-star reviews of people who were genuinely hurt by this book and felt like it dirtied or tarnished their culture, I do not support the people who are going onto the reviews of people who read or want to read this book and are telling them not to read it. 1) Since when has telling someone not to do something ever made them not want to do it? And 2) Attacking the readers is not going to fix the mistakes made by the author; there's a difference between politely commenting on a review and sending them a few links so they can make an informed consumer purchase and telling them straight up on that review that if they read the book they're a bad person and/or part of the problem.

That said, I have a lot of thoughts about this book and what it represents and the demographic it appeals to. Before I get into my review of the book itself, though, I'm going to repost my original thoughts on the controversy that were part of my "pre-review," as reading the book in question has only cemented what I thought before and actually raised new concerns and I do value transparency and want to have my original opinion stay intact.

1. Negative feedback sucks, but that's part of being an author-- especially when you write about a topic that is a pain point for a LOT of people (particularly under this administration). I think blocking the critics was a mistake on behalf of the author and (part of her) publishing team. I also think it's a mistake to package this as an #OwnVoices book-- and it isn't the author doing this, I've seen readers doing it too-- especially since the author is of Puerto Rican decent and this takes place in Mexico. That's like saying a book is #OwnVoices because it's about Chinese characters and the author is Korean. It homogenizes two very different cultures, which is offensive to both.

2. I wish the author acknowledged that her book was basically THE HELP for Mexican culture, in that it's a feel good story for white people (or at least people who don't identify as Latino) because it acknowledges all the stereotypes that they likely hold without challenging them or making them feel guilt. Stories like these might feel harmless because they don't seem racist on the surface but, again, the whole stereotype thing-- portraying Mexico as a shithole filled with gangbangers just kind of feels icky to me. Especially when the gold ring in her plight is the United States, her ticket to freedom. Ick.

3. I also wish that maybe the author had boosted the voices of the people she wrote about and researched from. From what I understand, there was a vaguely guilty author's note that made a lot of people mad. Using her platform the way Courtney Milan does, to talk about and promote important social issues, and name-drop people who do big and important things in human rights and social justice, would have made her seem more sincere. Instead of, you know, some of the other things that were allegedly posted.

 4. I see a lot of people trying to play both sides because they don't want to feel guilty about liking the book. You can like the book but don't shut down the people who read this and felt hurt or dirtied by it. Everyone has a right to feel. If their commentary makes you feel guilty, then it might be an opportunity to ask yourself why you're feeling bad, and if maybe this is an opportunity for you to swallow your knee-jerk outrage and maybe just sit back and listen.

So, now the part you were waiting for: my review of the book. 

I'm going to be very brutally honest and say that AMERICAN DIRT is for Latino people (specifically Mexican culture) what MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and THE HELP were for Japanese and Black people, respectively. It takes various stereotypes about Mexican people (English-speaking intellectuals, cartel drug lords, hard working lower class, etc.) that are readily accessible and understood by white people and puts them in a book while purporting to be telling the story of that group of people. MEMOIRS did the same thing with geisha and THE HELP was about Black servants. These are no stories intended primarily for the people in question and they were not written by the people in question; they are all from an outside perspective, as viewed from the lens of an outsider. I actually liked MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and THE HELP, but I understand why they are problematic and why people can see those stories as stereotypical at best and incredibly offensive at worst. To deny that is somewhat ignorant. You can love something that is problematic but it's important not to forget why it's problematic, and that it does not necessarily reflect reality.

AMERICAN DIRT would like to be like those aforementioned stories, but it doesn't even tell a particularly good one. I joked in a status update that the heroine's interaction with the drug lord could be the meet-cute in one of those mafia captive romances that are all the rage, but I was only half-joking. It really reminded me of Karina Halle's Dirty Angels trilogy, a guilty pleasure smutfest that is basically the modern-day equivalent of a 70s exploitation film and in no way represents a realistic portrayal of Mexico. I actually liked that story, too, which is yet another black mark against AMERICAN DIRT-- and I find it hilarious that both those books have cartel lords named Javier and 'dirt' in the title.

This is a boring story with mediocre writing. I found it intolerable. It's not really literary fiction because the writing is so hackneyed. It is, at best, book club bait: a book that aspires to literary pretentions but whose appeal is basically limited to making people who don't want to struggle through real literature feel smart by diving into something that's "daring" and "controversial." I don't begrudge the people who enjoyed this book, but I also don't think it is a good or even particularly well-written book, nor do I think that it's telling a particularly compelling or even novel story. I also don't think it would be anywhere near as popular as it is were it not for the controversy that brought this book under the public eye. As it is, the vast number of five star reviews befuddle me.

If you're interested in the controversy, there are a number of reviews written by people who can speak to that topic with much more authority than I. I am rating this book solely on its ability to tell a good story (nope) and the rather amusing idea that it is somehow literary (nope) or worthy of acclaim (also nope). Unfortunately, it's popular enough that they'll probably make a movie of it, but hey, maybe they'll offer Scarlett Johansson the chance to play the Mexican heroine.

(Sorry, I couldn't resist, ScarJo. I actually did love you in The Marriage and JoJo Rabbit.)

1 out of 5 stars

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.