Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature
Jeanine Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it.
This article was originally published at Tropics of Meta
By Myriam Gurba
When I tell gringos that my Mexican grandfather worked as a publicist, the news silences them.
Shocked facial expressions follow suit.
Their heads look ready to explode and I can tell they’re thinking, “In Mexico, there are PUBLICISTS?!”
I wryly grin at these fulanos and let my smile speak on my behalf. It answers, “Yes, bitch, in México, there are things to publicize such as our own fucking opinions about YOU.”
I follow in the cocky footsteps of my grandfather, Ricardo Serrano Ríos, “decano de los publicistas de Jalisco,” and not only do I have opinions, I bark them como itzcuintli. También soy chismosa and if you don’t have the gift of Spanglish, allow me to translate. “Chisme” means gossip. It’s my preferred art form, one I began practicing soon after my period first stained my calzones, and what’s literature, and literary criticism, if not painstakingly aestheticized chisme?
Tengo chisme. Are you ready?
A self-professed gabacha, Jeanine Cummins, wrote a book that sucks. Big time.
Her obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:
- Appropriating genius works by people of color
- Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
- Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.
Rather than look us in the eye, many gabachos prefer to look down their noses at us. Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us. Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a “road thriller” that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.
I learned about Dirt when an editor at a feminist magazine invited me to review it.
I accepted her offer, Dirt arrived in my mailbox, and I tossed it in my suitcase. At my tía’s house in Guadalajara, I opened the book.
Before giving me a chance to turn to chapter one, a publisher’s letter made me wince.
“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.
I looked up, at a mirror hanging on my tía’s wall.
It reflected my face.
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.”
Back in Alta California, I sat at my kitchen table and penned my review. I submitted it. Waited.
After a few days, an editor responded. She wrote that though my takedown of Dirt was “spectacular,” I lacked the fame to pen something so “negative.” She offered to reconsider if I changed my wording, if I wrote “something redeeming.”
Because the nicest thing I can say about Dirt is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper, the editors hauled out the guillotine. I was notified that I’d be paid a kill fee: 30% of the $650 I was initially offered for my services.
Behold my unpublishable cruelty as it rises from the dead!
In México, busy people drink licuados. Making these beverages requires baseline skills. Drop fruit, milk, and ice into a blender and voilà: a meal on-the-go.
Unfortunately, Jeanine Cummins narco-novel, American Dirt, is a literary licuado that tastes like its title. Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.
I pinched my metaphorical nose and read.
Cummins bombards with clichés from the get-go. Chapter One starts with assassins opening fire on a quinceañera, a fifteenth birthday party, a scene one can easily imagine President Donald Trump breathlessly conjuring at a Midwestern rally, and while Cummins’ executioners are certainly animated, their humanity remains shallow. By categorizing these characters as “the modern bogeymen of urban Mexico,” she flattens them. By invoking monsters with English names and European lineages, Cummins reveals the color of her intended audience: white. Mexicans don’t fear the bogeyman. We fear his very distant cousin, el cucuy.
Cummins employs this “landscape of carnage,” a turn of phrase which hearkens to Trump’s inaugural speech, to introduce her protagonist, the newly widowed Lydia Quixano Perez. Police descend upon Lydia’s home, now a schlocky crime scene, to pantomime investigation. Lydia doesn’t stick around. She understands what all Mexicans do, that cops and criminals play for the same team, and so she and her son Luca, the massacre’s other survivor, flee.
With their family annihilated by narcotraffickers, mother and son embark on a refugees’ journey. They head north, or, as Cummins’ often writes, to “el norte,” and italicized Spanish words like carajo, mijo, and amigo litter the prose, yielding the same effect as store-bought taco seasoning.
Through flashbacks, Cummins reveals that Lydia, “a moderately attractive but not beautiful woman,” age thirty-two, operated a bookstore. Her character soon takes absurd shape. As a protagonist, Lydia is incoherent, laughable in her contradictions. In one flashback, Sebastián, Lydia’s husband, a journalist, describes her as one of the “smartest” women he’s ever known. Nonetheless, she behaves in gallingly naïve and stupid ways. Despite being an intellectually engaged woman, and the wife of a reporter whose beat is narcotrafficking, Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of México, realities that would not shock a Mexican.
It shocks Lydia to learn that the mysterious and wealthy patron who frequents her bookstore flanked by “[thuggish]” bodyguards is the capo of the local drug cartel! It shocks Lydia to learn that some central Americans migrate to the United States by foot! It shocks Lydia to learn that men rape female migrants en route to the United States! It shocks Lydia to learn that Mexico City has an ice-skating rink! (This “surprise” gave me a good chuckle: I learned to ice skate in México.) That Lydia is so shocked by her own country’s day-to-day realities, realities that I’m intimate with as a Chicana living en el norte, gives the impression that Lydia might not be…a credible Mexican. In fact, she perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.
Susan Sontag wrote that “[a] sensibility (as distinct from an idea) is one of the hardest things to talk about” and with this challenge in mind, I assert that American Dirt fails to convey any Mexican sensibility. It aspires to be Día de los Muertos but it, instead, embodies Halloween. The proof rests in the novel’s painful humorlessness. Mexicans have over a hundred nicknames for death, most of them are playful because death is our favorite playmate, and Octavio Paz explained our unique relationship with la muerte when he wrote, “The Mexican…is familiar with death. [He] jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.” Cummins’ failure to approach death with appropriate curiosity, and humility, is what makes American Dirt a perfect read for your local self-righteous gringa book club.
Writer Alexander Chee has said that writers interested in exploring the realities of those unlike themselves should answer three questions before proceeding. These are:
“Why do you want to write from this character’s point of view?”
“Do you read writers from this community currently?”
“Why do you want to tell this story?”
The introductory letter from Cummins’s editor answers the final question. Cummins believes 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.
Saviors terrify me, they always fuck things up, often by getting people killed, and if you don’t believe me, look closely at the first four letters of the word messiah.
To fit the messianic bill, Cummins re-branded herself as a person of color. A glance at recent interviews shows Cummins now identifying as “Latinx,” her claim to this identity hinging on the existence of a Puerto Rican grandmother. Cummins, however, is still breaking in her Latinx-ness because four years ago, she wasn’t.
I repeat: Four years ago, Cummins was white.
“I don’t want to write about race,” Cummins wrote in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. “What I mean is, I really don’t want to write about race…I am white… I’ll never know the impotent rage of being profiled or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name.”
Unlike the narcos she vilifies, Cummins exudes neither grace nor flair. Instead, she bumbles with Trumpian tackiness, and a careful look at chronology reveals how she operates: opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically. Cummins identified the gringo appetite for Mexican pain and found a way to exploit it. With her ambition in place, she shoved the “faceless” out of her way, ran for the microphone and ripped it out of our hands, deciding that her incompetent voice merited amplification.
By her own admission, Cummins lacked the qualifications to write Dirt.
And she did it anyways.
For a seven-figure sum.
A seven-figure sum.
As Bart Simpson used to say, “Ay caramba!”
Dirt isn’t Cummins’s first book. In addition to several other novels, she wrote a highly racialized true crime memoir, A Rip in Heaven. I also wrote a memoir in this genre, Mean. Mean features a budding serial killer, Tommy Jesse Martinez. In 1996, Martinez sexually assaulted several women, me included, and his final victim helped police capture him.
In the months between my sexual assault and his capture, Martinez raped, disfigured, and bludgeoned to death Sophia Castro Torres, a soft-spoken Mexican migrant who sold Mary Kay cosmetics and performed farm work. Martinez stole her green card, kept it as a trophy, and threw it in a trash can once it bored him.
Sophia’s ghost haunts me. She’s always with me, I supposed you could say she talks to me, and she has words for Cummins:
Mexicanas die en el otro lado too. Mexicanas get raped in the USA too. You know better, you know how dangerous the United States of America is, and you still chose to frame this place as a sanctuary. It’s not.
The United States of America became my grave.
Perhaps Cummins fascination with borders explains Dirt’s similarity to other works about México and migration: her novel is so similar to the works she used for research that some might say it borders on the P word. In Dirt’s acknowledgements, Cummins announces her ignorance by thanking people for “patiently teaching me things about Mexico.” She lists writers “you should read if you want to learn more about Mexico” and lists a slew of authors – Luis Alberto Urrea, Oscar Martinez, Sonia Nazario, Jennifer Clement, Aida Silva Hernandez, Rafael Alarcon, Valeria Luiselli, and Reyna Grande – contradicting her characterization of us as an illiterate horde. We not only have faces and names. Some of us have extensive bibliographies.
If Cummins had really wanted to draw attention to the assorted crises faced by Mexicans, Mexican migrants in particular, she could’ve referred readers to the primary and secondary sources she plundered. Let’s take, as an example, Across a Hundred Mountains, a novel written by Reyna Grande. At age 9, Grande entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant. She “became the first person in her family to set foot in a university,” and obtained both a B.A. and M.F.A. Her lived experience as a Mexican migrant inspires both her fiction and nonfiction and Grande writes intimately about a phenomenon Cummins has emphasized she knows nothing about: racism.
While recently attending a literary gala at the Library of Congress, a fellow writer misidentified Grande. Instead of assuming she was his peer, he treated her as a member of the waitstaff. Grande wrote about this experience, stating that “feelings of inadequacy” have persisted in spite of her success. These feelings begin early. When I was in high school, I scored better on the Advanced Placement English Language and Composition exam than all of my white classmates. Instead of celebrating my success, many teachers openly insinuated that my score was suspect. I must have cheated.
While we’re forced to contend with impostor syndrome, dilettantes who grab material, style, and even voice are lauded and rewarded.
Dirt reads like a gringa remix of Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey and a sloppy mash-up of Urrea’s entire oeuvre. His early works, Across the Wire and By the Lake of Sleeping Children, echo throughout Dirt. The book’s cringe-inducing awkwardness reminds me of the time I walked in on my roommate dressed from head to toe in my clothes. It astonished and disturbed me to find this fellow undergrad in front of our dorm room mirror, pretending to be… me. Suddenly aware of my presence, she made eye contact with me through the reflection. Unsure of what to do, I left. We never discussed the event.
She returned my clothes to the closet, but her choice to wear them as a costume had altered them. I couldn’t wear them anymore. They smelled of my roommate. Seams were torn.
My roommate and I weren’t the same size.
Cummins did the same thing as my roommate but took her audacity a step further: she stepped out in public wearing her ill-fitting Mexican costume.
American Dirt is a Frankenstein of a book, a clumsy and distorted spectacle and while some white critics have compared Cummins to Steinbeck, I think a more apt comparison is to Vanilla Ice. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Imperative Entertainment, a production banner notorious for having teamed up with the likes of libertarian cowboy Clint Eastwood, has acquired the rights to the “Mexican migrant drama novel.”
Because my catastrophic imagination is highly active these days, I can visualize what this film might inspire. I can see Trump sitting in the White House’s movie theatre, his little hands reaching for popcorn as he absorbs Dirt’s screen adaptation. “This!” he yells. “This is why we must invade.” I don’t think Cummins intended to write a novel that would serve a Trumpian agenda but that’s the danger of becoming a messiah. You never know who will follow you into the promised land.
Myriam Gurba is a writer, podcaster and artist who lives in Long Beach, California. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist MariNaomi. She is at work on a re-write of Little Women and a memoir about violence. Follow her on twitter.
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