American Dirt is fast-paced, easy to read, with characters that many will relate to. Lydia owns a bookshop in Acapulco. She is married to Sebastian, a journalist who writes about the drug cartels that have turned their city into a living nightmare. Lydia and Sebastian have an eight-year-old son, Luca. During a Sunday barbecue 16 members of their family are massacred by cartel assassins. Only Lydia and Luca survive. Lydia knows that unless she escapes Acapulco, sooner or later she and Luca will be next. The only way to keep her son alive is to make it to the US, where the reach of the cartels wanes.
I read American Dirt hoping the book would live up to the hype, that Cummins could portray the intricacies of the migrant experience. There are elements of the novel that work well. Cummins challenges stereotypes of migrants by making Lydia an educated, financially stable business owner. Lydia is placed in a plausible scenario where all avenues for survival are closed, except her forced migration. Her relationship with Luca is visceral, driven by a constant, selfless impetus to protect her son.
Good writing represents characters well, with the accuracy and complexity that does them justice as imaginary human beings. The ability to do this has little to do with the author’s background. I don’t have a problem with Cummins being neither Mexican nor a migrant. Fiction cannot exist without writers creating characters different from ourselves, without the imaginative plunge that immerses us in other ways of being. What better exercise in understanding and humility than pushing the limits of our intellect and creativity to create the illusion of inhabiting the consciousness of another?
Unfortunately, this is where American Dirt falls short. I did not find the novel offensive, but I found it unrealistic. The world Cummins conjures is not Mexico; her characters are definitely not Mexican. The cracks are everywhere, in small, inconsequential details such as the incorrect use of slang, but also in more serious flaws of character representation.
At one point in the novel Lydia befriends Javier, a suave gentleman who comes into her store to chat about books. He brings her expensive gifts. Whenever he visits, two goons wait outside for him. Anyone who grew up in Mexico would know this is a narco, particularly if one lives in a city torn by cartel violence, more so if you are married to an investigative journalist who works on exposing cartels. But somehow, Lydia has no clue.
Impossibilities such as this abound in the novel, which tries to be taco, but is Taco Bell.
Impossibilities such as this abound in the novel, which tries to be taco, but is Taco Bell. Others with more knowledge about undocumented migration have expressed their dissatisfaction with the representation of sensitive topics such as violence against women and children; this doesn’t surprise me given the inconsistencies I have spotted.
This is where accurate character representation acquires a moral dimension, and a duty of care for the author. If this is a marker of good writing with any story, it is absolutely crucial with characters from marginalised groups, who reflect the lives of people already suffering vilification and oppression.
Otherwise, a novel can be complicit in spreading misinformation, particularly one with a platform such as American Dirt’s.
Gabriel García Ochoa was born in Mexico City and now teaches at Monash University. He has a PhD in creative writing and his first novel, The Hypermarket, was published last year.