Our Land? The Cultural Appropriation of “American Dirt”

Posted by Troy Seefried, Fiction Editor for 8.2

If you’ve heard about American Dirt, then you’ve heard about the controversy surrounding the story. Jeanine Cummins is a white-identified author who tells the story of a Mexican woman who escapes Mexico and attempts to immigrate to the United States for the safety of her family. While an emotionally compelling book, many are arguing that she doesn’t have the cultural license to tell this story.

The conversation taking place in today’s literary world is based around the question: Can we write outside of ourselves? Considering the story itself, a first-person narrative of a Mexican woman fleeing her home country, some, including myself (a member of the Mexican-American community), will say that this is a story reserved for the LatinX or Mexican literary community. Not to say it can only be told for them, but it should be written by them. In my opinion, this is absolutely a story that should be shared with the masses. It’s especially important to learn about the lives of undocumented immigrants at this time . It’s important that we learn about them, hear from them, and then as a society strive to better the system and find a solution. But is Jeanine Cummins, a white-identified author allowed to tell this story?

That’s where it gets a little tricky. After doing some research I discovered an interview that Shelf Awareness, an online literary newsletter, did with Jeanine Cummins in which she reveals that she is a part of the LatinX community by saying, “I was resistant, initially, to writing from the point of view of a Mexican migrant because, no matter how much research I did, regardless of the fact that I’m Latinx, I didn’t feel qualified to write in that voice.” While she identifies as “White” she also identifies as LatinX or more specifically, according to a second interview in The Sydney Morning Herald, as Puerto Rican. According to the second interview, her grandmother came to the US from Puerto Rico in the 1940s as the bride of a naval officer. So, considering her status as LatinX that many in the literary community have either overlooked, ignored, or haven’t had the opportunity to learn about, the question remains. Is this a story she can tell?

To be honest, I don’t know. Is there cultural appropriation between the subsectors of the LatinX community? Does Jeanine Cummins hold the biological qualifications to share the story of a Mexican woman’s suffering? Is this another case of a white author capitalizing on the suffering of another culture? While I can’t answer these questions definitively, I can say that I will be picking up a copy of American Dirt to assess the book on a more intimate level as I believe all writers and lovers of literature should.

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