Pollito, Chicken; Gallina, Hen

Notice how the register of the prose, with its figures and rates, evokes the rhetoric of nonfiction. The use of general, declarative sentences about Mexico, in particular, makes me think of what my journalism professors used to call the nut-graf—the paragraph in the article where the journalist briefly pauses her account of the news to establish, in the most efficient way possible, the context for the events on which she is reporting. The result is that Cummins’s book often slips into didacticism.

American Dirt in Mexico

After Francis Barlow, Cock; Hen; Chicken; Dove. Engraving and etching on paper. 201 × 290 mm.

Jeanine Cummins. American Dirt. Flatiron Books, 2020.

The following review was originally published in Mexico by Nexos earlier this month. It was translated from the Spanish by the author.

What is it with gringos and birds? “Last evening a thing like our hawk,” begins the first of Charles Olson’s Mayan Letters, written from the Yucatan Peninsula in the middle of the last century:

I was down at the beach [and] I noticed these huge wings fluttering wrong. My guess was one of the kids, all of whom carry slingshots, had brought down a zopalote (our vulture) . . . But when I came near, I noticed . . . that it was no vulture, but another bird which is quite beautiful here, in Maya a chii-mi (chee-me): flies in flock over the water line, soaring like hawks . . . Just checked the dictionary, and is, as I thought, our frigate bird.

Olson’s experiences in Mexico were fundamental in the development of the “projective verse” that he would later inaugurate with his Maximus.1 What’s funny is that his great poetic discovery seems to be that in Mexico birds have different names than they do in the United States. That “thing like our hawk,” of course, is just a hawk by another name.

This strange tendency toward literary ornithology is inescapable in the opening pages of American Dirt, the most recent novel by the North American writer Jeanine Cummins. The action begins in Acapulco, where a drug cartel that inexplicably calls itself The Gardeners has just massacred the protagonist’s family. A team of police officers and forensic personnel has shown up at the scene to open a file on the incident. One of these investigators—Cummins calls him as a “detective,” though a reader familiar with the byzantine labyrinth of Mexican justice wonders whether she might refer to a Ministerio Publico, the slightly ungrammatical title that we bestow on our infamously incompetent judicial investigators—interrogates Lydia, the bookseller at the center of the plot. “One of them ate the chicken,” says the survivor about one of the killers. “The detective writes pollo in his notebook,” the narrator informs us in response.

Hilarious, I know, but also infuriating. As anyone unfortunate enough to possess a Twitter account can attest, last month’s launch of American Dirt unleashed a veritable scandal in the literary world of our northern neighbor. The principal complaint is that the novel isn’t merely bad literature, of which there is an endless onslaught, but also politically harmful. American Dirt narrates the story of Lydia and her young son Luca’s undocumented migration to America, following them as they flee Acapulco for Denver and confront the well-known Via Crucis of the border desert. The novel aspires to be a confrontation with the history of the present—a complex and brutal history that cannot coexist with a sensibility that feels the need to remind us that, in Spanish, chickens are called pollos.

The novel’s flaws are numerous and tiresome to list. The gravest, in my eyes, is that its plot is absolutely implausible. Shortly after her conversation with the “detective,” for example, Lydia heads to her bank and withdraws 200,000 pesos, or about $10,000 US, to cover the expenses of their escape. And then, instead of buying herself a plane ticket—or a new car, or two thoroughbred horses, or a catamaran—our protagonist winds up emigrating to the United States abroad La Bestia, the cargo train that for years was the only medium of transportation available to the poorest migrants and refugees on the continent. The possibilities are twofold: Either Lydia is so naive that one begins to worry for her mental faculties, or Cummins has no idea what she is talking about.

But isn’t it unfair to judge a literary work according to journalistic criteria? It may well be the case that there are no detectives in Mexico (and that Acapulco isn’t exactly known for its bookstores, its potato salad, or its inhabitants’ penchant for giving their children Italian names), but American Dirt does not pretend to register reality as it actually is—only as its author imagines it. Then again, much in Cummins’s novel invites us to read her text in a realistic key. Her narrative voice is omniscient in the strong sense of the term: It knows everything, from the characters’ most private thoughts to the precise number of local police officers who work for the cartel. Consider the following passage:

In fact, of the more than two dozen law enforcement and medical personnel moving around Abuela’s home and patio this very moment . . . seven receive regular money from the local cartel. The illicit payment is three times more than what they earn from the government. In fact, one has already texted el jefe to report Lydia’s and Luca’s survival. The others do nothing, because that’s precisely what the cartel pays them to do, to populate uniforms and perform the appearance of governance. Some of the personnel feel morally conflicted about this; others do not. None of them have a choice anyway, so their feelings are largely immaterial. The unsolved-crime rate in Mexico is well north of 90 percent. The costumed existence of la policía provides the necessary counterillusion to the fact of the cartel’s actual impunity. Lydia knows this. Everyone knows this.

Notice how the register of the prose, with its figures and rates, evokes the rhetoric of nonfiction. The use of general, declarative sentences about Mexico, in particular, makes me think of what my journalism professors used to call the nut graf—the paragraph in the article where the journalist briefly pauses her account of the news to establish, in the most efficient way possible, the context for the events on which she is reporting. The result is that Cummins’s book often slips into didacticism. One gets the impression that she wants to teach us a thing or two about contemporary Mexico, that her novel aspires to “raise awareness” of the tragedy that emerges when a mother finds herself trapped between the Mexican drug war and American immigration policy. Hence why the moments when Cummins demonstrates just how little she knows about Mexico prove so difficult to ignore: Her book promises to educate us and yet accomplishes little beyond insulting our intelligence.

It seems clear, then, that American Dirt is a bad novel. Why dedicate so much attention to a mediocre text? From whence the scandal? The answer, I think, lies less in the text itself than in the marketing decisions of Flatiron Books, the novel’s publisher. The blurbs for the first edition announce the arrival of a new Great Immigrant Novel and declare Cummins the heir of John Steinbeck. Oprah Winfrey, the television personality who for unknown reasons is one of the most important voices in the American publishing industry, chose the novel for her multitudinous book club. The author’s advance, say trustworthy informants, ascended to the extraordinary sum of one million dollars. The launch dinner featured decorations made with barbed wire. As if that wasn’t enough, Cummins, who was born in Spain to white American parents and grew up in the United States, recently decided that the fact that one of her grandmothers had roots in Puerto Rico gave her the right to identify as “Latina.”

Now, it’s important to underline that Cummins’s identity is, in a strict sense, irrelevant to the quality of her text. Even if we decide that her “latinity” is spurious, nobody can deny that it is possible to write well about Mexico without being Mexican. Consider Bolaño or Mistral, for example, but also Jean Meyer, John Reed, Ioan Grillo, and many others. The difference is that these authors, unlike Cummins, understood that Mexico is an infinite subject to which one must dedicate a lifetime to understand that it is impossible to understand it. The marketing apparatus around American Dirt, on the other hand, suggests that the author’s authority is not the product of her research or imaginative capacities but of her heritage. The result is that Cummins’s tenuous latinity becomes a talisman that excuses her profound ignorance of the reality that she seeks to portray.

This is, I think, the origin of the fury that the novel unleashed in many Latinx writers. It is no secret that the vast majority of books published north of the Rio Grande are written, acquired, edited, promoted, reviewed, sold, and nominated for prizes by monolingual white people. The corollary is that writers of color frequently have to fight an uphill battle to get their work published, usually for less money and with less fanfare than their white colleagues. Cases like American Dirt, then, add insult to injury: There is no doubt that somewhere out there are better books on similar subjects written by authors whose latinity is substantially more solid that Cummins’s. Why, then, spend so much money and so much promotional energy on such a bad book by such a clueless author?

Judging from the posts of the handful of American editors I follow on Twitter, the answer is that American Dirt has the potential to sell. According to this interpretation, the publishing mistake was to present a mass-market thriller as if it were a Great Literary Work. Leaving aside the unwarranted insult to the noble tradition of the airport whodunit, the editors beg the question. If American Dirt did not pretend to be literature, why sell it as if it did? What is the literary or marketing function of equating Cummins and Steinbeck? The question admits only two answers, both disconcerting: Either the editors of Flatiron Books have such terrible taste that the comparison struck them as appropriate, or they are so terribly cynical that it struck them as useful despite its evident falsity. One winds up suspecting that what we have before us is a perverse case of affirmative action: In the eyes of the editors, the fact that the author identifies as Latina somehow justifies or compensates the literary shortcomings of her work.

With these considerations in mind, let us return to the chickens. I’d like to suggest that the presence of italicized Spanish words throughout Cummins’s novel serves at the level of language the same function that her claims about her identity serve at the metatextual level. Let’s see what happens to the passage that we discussed earlier if we remove the italicized word:

“One of them ate the chicken.”

The detective writes chicken in his notebook.

All of a sudden the phrase takes on a certain dadaist flavor—though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it suddenly sounds idiotic. Given that American Dirt is apparently an example of a thriller, a genre defined by narrative efficiency and the careful dispersal of dramatic context, it seems pertinent to ask what, exactly, the passage is supposed to reveal to us about the characters and the world they inhabit. That detectives take notes much like milkmen milk cows? That Lydia’s PTSD leads her to make absurdist jokes? That both the victim of the crime and the investigator tasked with solving it lack the rational faculties to discern a telling detail from a mind-numbing tautology? I suspect not. The use of “pollo” serves no other purpose than to remind the North American reader that, in Mexico, people speak Spanish. The disheartening corollary is that the veneer of linguistic plausibility that Cummins’s italics give to her text allows her to write hundreds of pages about Mexico without ever bothering to google the median income of a country where 200,000 pesos are more than enough to make her protagonist wealthier than 90 percent of her fellow citizens.

American Dirt, in short, seems to imagine a reader who knows absolutely nothing about Mexico, to the point that the Spanish word for “chicken” strikes him as exotic as that “thing like our hawk” seemed to Olson. The strong reaction of writers like Myriam Gurba—the title of her great review of the novel is is “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck”—is the product of the encounter between a reader for whom Mexico is everything and a book written for a reader for whom Mexico is nothing. The question, then, is whether literature should flatter the ignorance of the reader or challenge it. The answer, I think, is every bit as obvious as the lyrics of that tired little song that so many of us Mexicans repeated ad nauseam throughout our colonized childhood: pollito, chicken; gallina, hen.

  1. For a discussion of Olson’s imperialist poetics and the importance of a profoundly colonial vision of Mexico to his work, see Heriberto Yepez’s seminal study, The Empire of Neomemory. For an example of the ideological blindness of even left-wing American writers, search YouTube for the speech in which Amiri Baraka defends Olson by dismissing Yepez as “that Mexican guy.” 

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