What was supposed to be a big literary reception turned into something of a debacle.
Jeanine Cummins’ border crisis book “American Dirt” had a lot of star power behind its release last week, including Oprah Winfrey’s – she chose it for her book club.
Slam dunk, right?
But critics immediately started pouring in, with many claiming the descriptions of Mexicans in the books to be callous and flawed. Cummins’ ethnicity complicates the issue: She identified herself as white in a New York Times editorial in 2016 (although recently she also claimed Puerto Rican ancestry) and has no Mexican heritage.
A petition signed by 124 writers, including names as prominent as Luis Alberto Urrea, Carmen Maria Machado and Viet Thanh Nguyen, asks Winfrey to reconsider his book club selection. The outcry was so heated that publisher Flatiron canceled the Cummins book tour, citing safety concerns.
Learn more about “American Dirt”:Controversial Oprah-Approved Book Continues to Draw Criticism
I was among those who found the book problematic. I particularly objected to the Cummins author’s note justifying his decision to write the book. “I was worried that as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I wouldn’t have to write a book that was set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants,” Cummins writes. “I wish someone a little darker than me wrote it down.”
Many “slightly darker” people than Cummins have written excellent books on the problems “American Dirt” is trying to solve: undocumented immigration, the US-Mexico border crisis, and violence in South America. among others.
The book debuted at # 2 on USA TODAY’s Best Seller list, so there’s a good chance you’ve read it already and formed your own opinion. It may differ from mine. Wherever you fall in the “American Dirt” divide, consider adding these eight recently published books written by Latin American authors to your reading list.
1. “Archive of lost children”, by Valeria Luiselli (Knopf, fiction)
What is it about : A mother, father and two children embarked on a road trip from New York to Arizona. The father researches Apache culture and the mother creates an audio documentary about children in the border crisis – a crisis in which they themselves are trapped when their children go missing. The book received an Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
2. “Children of the earth”, by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (Harper, documentary)
What is it about : A Mexican-born poet turns to prose to recount his family’s struggle to become a U.S. citizen, the stress of hiding in plain sight, and the often dehumanizing immigration system. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a sincere and haunting brief just for the current political and social climate”.
3. “Where do we come from? ” by Oscar Casares (Knopf, fiction)
What is it about : After the sudden death of his mother, 12-year-old Orly is sent to spend the summer with his aunt in Brownsville, a town on the Texas border. There, he finds his aunt’s house turned into a staging post for coyotes who bring immigrants across the border. A star-rated Kirkus Reviews review says the book “delivers a truly timeless emotional punch.”
4. “The fruit of the drunken tree”, by Ingrid Rojas Contreras (Doubleday, fiction)
What is it about : Inspired by her own life, this Colombian writer tells her story in her homeland at the height of drug lord Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror, where two young girls, their mother and a mysterious teenage girl face constant threats of violence. “This gripping novel offers an atmospheric journey through narrow choices, even for a wealthy family as society collapses around them,” says Publishers Weekly.
5. “A dream that belongs to me”, by Reyna Grande (Atria, documentary)
What is it about : Grande, a former undocumented Mexican immigrant, shares her quest to find her place in America as a first-generation Latin American student in this inspiring memoir. She is also the author of “The Distance Between Us”, a memoir about her childhood shared between two parents and two countries.
6. “Everyone knows you are coming home” by Natalia Sylvester (Petit A, fiction)
What is it about : On her wedding day, Isabel meets the ghost of her stepfather, who reappears every day from the dead in search of redemption. Isabel gradually learns the history of the family in a story that asks questions about borders and belonging. “A compelling record of family migration and the dangers and triumphs of our undocumented population,” says Kirkus Reviews.
7. “Illegal citizen”, by José Olivarez (Haymarket, poetry)
What is it about : The son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez celebrates his Mexican-American identity and examines how these two sides clash in a compelling collection of poems. Publishers Weekly calls this a “devastating start”.
8. “In the country we love: my divided family”, by Diane Guerrero (Henry Holt and Co., documentary)
What is it about : “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin” actress Guerrero was 14 when her parents were deported. Guerrero, who was born in the United States, stayed. Here, she tells her story of being resilient in the face of adversity and becoming an adult without the two people she needed most. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a moving and humanizing portrait of the collateral damage caused by US immigration policy.”