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More American Dirt Chisme a la Myriam Gurba

“Chisme” (Spanglish for gossip) is Myriam Gurba’s “preferred art form.” After reading the chisme-laced verbal barrage prefacing her review of American Dirt, I now have a much better understanding of her fury over what she calls “this obra de caca,” which appears to have little to do with the obra itself.

According to Gurba, she learned about American Dirt when an editor at Ms. invited her to review it. After accepting the invitation and receiving her review copy, she headed for her aunt’s house in Guadalajara, intending to read the book there. But before she even opened it Gurba received a letter from the publisher. In an article for Tropics of Meta, which also contained her review, she describes the letter and her reaction:

“‘The first time Jeanine and I ever talked on the phone,’ the publisher gushed, ‘she said migrants at the Mexican border were being portrayed as a ‘faceless brown mass.’ She said she wanted to give these people a face. The phrase ‘these people’ pissed me off so bad my blood became carbonated. In order to choke down Dirt, I developed a survival strategy. It required that I give myself over to the project of zealously hate-reading the book, filling its margins with phrases like ‘Pendeja, please.’ That’s a Spanglish analogue for ‘Bitch, please.’”

Already loaded for bear, Gurba penned her review, accusing the author of having a messianic complex: “She thinks she’s important, and expert enough to represent ‘faceless’ brown people. Step aside, Jesucristo. There’s a new savior in town. Her name is Jeanine.”

Does Cummins really believe she has some special calling or messianic mission? Maybe, if you listen to all the chisme written about her, but I certainly didn’t get that impression from the book.

Gurba also attacks the author for using “overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic man-child, into her wannabe realist prose.”

Oh, Myriam, Myriam, Myriam

I have to take issue with you on all three so-called stereotypes.

  1. The Latin lover. There are three lovers at the heart of American Dirt, and I fail to see the stereotype you complain about in Cummins’ characterizations of either of the two male participants. Like novelists the world over, Cummins has employed the classic love triangle to explore the dark side of romance: obsession and betrayal. We only glimpse Sebastian, Lidia’s murdered journalist husband, through flashbacks, but we see enough to know he was a devoted husband and father and an intelligent, principled man. While Javier, the drug lord who pursues Lidia, in no way represents an accurate portrayal of one of the heads of Mexico’s most violent criminal organizations, he hardly fits the stereotypical Latin lover bill—I mean, the guy wears thick, fish-eyed glasses and spouts sophomoric poetry, for godssakes.
  2. The suffering mother. Sorry, Myriam, but Mexico doesn’t have a lock on maternal suffering. From classical Greece’s Niobe to Suyuan Woo of The Joy Luck Club, mothers have been doing their share of literary load bearing around the globe throughout history.
  3. The stoic man-child. You are totally off base here — far from being the stoic man-child, Cummins’ deft weaving of Luca’s narrative reveals a young traumatized boy dealing with unimaginable loss. I found the author’s portrayal of Lidia’s and Luca’s relationship to be not only convincing but compelling, subtly tender and universally true.

All of this leads me to wonder: Did we read the same book? What if you had never received that gushy letter from the publisher? What if your advance copy had come without the author’s name attached?

It’s no wonder, with all the vitriol you’ve spouted, you weren’t invited to Oprah’s round table to talk it out. You don’t talk, you shout, starting with the title of your Tropics of Meta article: “Pandeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck…” While I totally agree with you on that point, Myriam, I still say that so-called gringa bitch did write a decent book.


1 Comment

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    Hi, Kate I’ve just finished reading “American Dirt” and so now I let myself read your response to that reviewer and some of the other responses to the novel. I liked the book a lot, and I confess that I must be one of those “suburban, white women” who were perhaps the target of the publisher’s marketing. This book has done for me what the author wanted; I can now see migrants as more human and diverse. Personally I think “American Dirt” could have almost as much (though not likely as much) influence on the reading public as the massively influential “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had on the 19th century. It was the second largest selling book after the Bible in that century! Queen Victoria cried when she read it.


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