Book club forms in response to “American Dirt”

The discussion group plans to select a new book by a Latinx author to read together

Maya Lora

A nationwide discussion of the recently published novel “American Dirt” inspired a book club on campus to explore Latinx voices.

According to an article by Vulture, “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins was met with swift online criticism after it was announced as an Oprah’s Book Club pick. The novel, written by an author who in past interviews identified as white but has since aligned herself with her grandmother’s Puerto Rican heritage, follows a mother, Lydia, and her son Luca on their journey from Mexico to the United States.

Despite early praise from prominent authors such as Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros, the book’s critics accuse Cummins of feeding into racist tropes of Mexican immigrants and the lives they lead before and after fleeing to the United States.

“American Dirt” has also sparked discussion on the lack of diversity in the publishing industry. According to the latest diversity survey from Lee & Low Books, Latinos only make up six percent of the industry, which is still white-dominated.

Students and faculty attended a conversation on the novel on Thursday, Jan. 30, entitled “A W&L Community Response to Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt.” The discussion was dreamed up by Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Julia Hernández, who said she wanted to hear what people on campus thought after hearing about the controversy and reading reviews.

Attendees like Jackie Tamez, ‘22, shared some of the criticisms of the novel and publishing industry expressed online and in other reviews.

“I kind of felt disappointed when I found out that this was getting so much attention. There are many options for people to pick over this one and like there’s already this big lack of representation in the industry,” Tamez said. “It’s just that people would rather read these stories from someone who’s white when there are so many other options.”

Edwin Castellanos Campos, ‘20, who was formerly the president of Latinx Student Organization, said he’s upset with the praise Cummins has been getting “for a story, even though it’s fictional, that’s not hers.”

“The attention is being drawn to places where it shouldn’t be drawn and [she’s] benefitting,” Castellanos Campos said.

The book also launched a conversation on who should and shouldn’t be allowed to write about certain experiences, such as immigration stories.

Janet Ikeda, associate professor of Japanese, said she’s seen inaccurate literary portrayals of the Japanese and Japanese-American experience written by white authors, such as “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Shogun,” provoke students interest in Japanese culture.

“How many students show up at my door because they watched a rerun of ‘Karate Kid,’” Ikeda said, “but it got them to my door, right, and then I can dismantle.”

The discussion group decided to go forward with a book club to explore Latinx voices in literature. They decided they wanted to put “American Dirt” in conversation with a book written by a Latinx author.

Participants in the book club are free to read as much of American Dirt as they want. Hernández said the group wanted to find a way to allow members to not criticize a book they hadn’t actually read while not supporting the book by purchasing a copy. Therefore, participants can either read as much of the book as they please by renting a reserved copy in the library or they can read a sample via Amazon, the Kindle app, or iBooks.

The group is also voting on a seperate book to read separately to compare an authentic voice to Cummins’s. Options include “Across a Hundred Mountains,” “Children of the Land” and “The Distance Between Us,” among others.

Anybody who wishes to participate in the book club will receive a copy of the chosen story for free to read before the group meets to discuss later this academic year.

Hernández said in an interview that the book club could continue after this round, but the focus would shift away from books like “American Dirt.” She said although that was the “spark,” she wants to focus on the concept surrounding #DignidadLiteraria, a movement started by Latinx authors to promote Latinx voices and stories.

She said the conversation could create a space to celebrate the Latinx community, “because the publishing industry in so many ways is kind of failing the Latinx author, or, you know, the Latinx literary community.”

Ikeda said she’s excited to read “Children of the Land” on her plane ride to Japan for her spring term study abroad course in Kanazawa.

“If we have a choice, why don’t we try to read the original voice first?” Ikeda said in an interview. “Can people who didn’t experience the atomic bomb write about the atomic bomb? I think the answer is yes. I don’t think we can deny them a voice. But we can demand that we want more of an authentic voice.”

Ikeda said she thinks conversations about books like “American Dirt” are especially important to have on the Washington and Lee campus.

“Current and vital topics that you often find on other liberal arts campuses are not so vigorously debated here,” said. “We are entering a new W&L era where… [the students] who are arriving at W&L, like their counterparts at other liberal arts universities, want to discuss these topics openly. That’s what we should be doing on a university campus.”