A few months back I shared that I had selected the first novel for a newly-formed book club at my local coffee shop. Based on a basic understanding of the plot and a few recommendations from family, I chose Jeanine Cummins's American Dirt.
We were forced to cancel our book club due to COVID-19 but I still wanted to read the novel. I read it in about three weeks. Just a few years ago, I would have read it much quicker (like, one day) but today life revolves around my toddler.
I cried a lot. I couldn't sleep some nights because Lydia and Luca were all I could think about.
When I finished, my husband asked what I had been reading that affected me so much. So I gave him a quick summary and we chatted about migration to the extent of our limited understanding.
In those moments I was impressed with how much American Dirt was able to move me. I messaged a friend who I knew had read it just to get her opinion, too. We talked about how the story would likely bring about some difficult conversations among our friends and book club members in rural Ohio.
And then I started to wonder what the Mexican and Mexican American communities were saying about this book. I wasn't oblivious to the fact that Cummins is white or to the fact that she mentions in her afterword that her husband was once undocumented but fails to mention that he's Irish which seems like a obvious attempt to position herself as worthy of writing this novel in the readers' eyes. I knew going into it that Cummins did her own type of research before writing the book but I didn't think to do my own.
So, I searched the internet for some reviews by Mexicans and Mexican Americans. I stumbled across many critiques.
And one in particular left me feeling dejected. Author Daniel Peña calls the book "lab-created brown trauma built for the white gaze and white book clubs to give a textural experience to people who need to feel something to avoid doing anything and from the safety of their chair."
Swiftly, I was punched in the gut. Here I am, a white reader, a white book club organizer, a white woman in America only just now realizing that another white woman in America wanted to give Mexican immigrants a face. She wanted to be their white savior.
As I read a NYT article by David Bowles, I wondered again why had I not instead read the Mexican literature the Cummins read? It would surely make more sense to read books that already exist about immigration by Mexican writers.
So, this is my promise to myself and to everyone that I will do better. It's on us to recognize and call out white savior complex when we see it.