Skip to content

Gata fight! Gringa Jeanine Cummins writes boo-hoo novel about illegal immigrants, gets called “pendeja” by bisexual “Spanglish” author miffed that Ms. magazine turned down her review

January 23, 2020

Myriam GurbaPhoto: Weird Sister

The moral of this story: Don’t mess with a bisexual “Spanglish” author!

From the New York Times:

Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt,” one of the year’s most anticipated and debated novels, is Oprah Winfrey’s new pick for her book club.

“American Dirt,” published Tuesday, tells of a bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who loses much of her family to a murderous drug cartel and flees north on a terrifying journey with her 8-year-old son. The novel was acquired by Flatiron Books in 2018 in a reported seven-figure deal and has been talked about in the publishing world ever since. It has appeared on numerous lists of books to look for in 2020, has reached the top 20 on ahead of its release, and has been praised by everyone from John Grisham and Stephen King to Erika Sanchez and Sandra Cisneros.

Winfrey, interviewed Friday by telephone, told The Associated Press that one blurb that stood out was novelist Don Winslow’s comparing “American Dirt” to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“And I remember thinking, ‘Yeah right, you better know what you’re talking about because I have a first edition of ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ and it sits on a pedestal in my living room,'” Winfrey said. “Now I wouldn’t say this is ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ but I would say that … I have been a news reporter, watched the news, seen the stories every day, seen the children at the border and my heart is wrenched by that. And nothing has done more (than ‘American Dirt’) to make me feel the pain and desperation of what it means to be on the run. It’s changed the way I see the whole issue and I was already empathetic.”

Oprah! That must have been the last straw, right on top of the seven-figure advance, for Myriam Gurba, “writer, podcaster and artist” in Southern California who cohosts the AskBiGrlz “advice” podcast for troubled souls who feel the need for counsel from “bisexual, bi-racial/cultural” ladies like her. Gurba, like Cummins, is a writer, but unlike Cummins, she’s never been paid seven figures for anything, although her literary efforts have appeared “in anthologies such as The Best American EroticaBottom’s UpSecrets and Confidences, and Tough Girls.”

So Gurba, writing for Tropics of Meta, lets loose in bilingual “Spanglish” on the hapless Cummins: “Pendeja,. You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”:

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.

Woo! How do you say “Meow!” in Spanglish?

Gurba says that “a feminist magazine” (later revealed to be Ms.) commissioned a review of American Dirt from her, then turned down the review on the ground that it was too “negative.” So Gurba supplies a few choice quotes from her rejected review:

Cummins employs this “landscape of carnage,” a turn of phrase which hearkens to [U.S. President 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.

As might be expected, some commenters on the Tropic of Meta piece pointed out that Gurba, herself not exactly a Mexican native (although she claims a Mexican grandfather), sounds about as idiotic as Cummins as she drops Spanish words, Spanglish-style, into her English text:

You are doing the same thing the Dirt woman is doing, thinking that by dropping a bunch of poorly-used Spanglish you gain authenticity.

Now, Gurba is dead-wrong that Cummins “ain’t no Steinbeck.” In fact, Cummins, who claims a Puerto-Rican grandmother, although she described herself as “white” in a 2016 New York Times essay, is a near-reincarnation of Steinbeck, the son of a well-do-to physician in Salinas, California, who had probably never spent more than five minutes with any of the actual migrant Okie farmworkers from the Dust Bowl who were his protagonists in The Grapes of Wrath. Like Cummins with “amigo” and “mijo,” Steinbeck larded his novel with colorful phrases in pseudo-Okie dialect–“If we was all mad [at the evil capitalist growers] the same way .  .  . they wouldn’t hunt nobody down”–in order to give his tear-jerker novel the requisite authentic flavor.

But still, as author-translator Bruce Schmidt writes, American Dirt does come off looking like the work-product of someone who hardly knows a word of Spanish:

Despite Cummins’ claims to have been “careful and deliberate in my research,” she failed to research how to spell her main characters’ names.

The surname Quijano has not been spelled with an X since medieval Spain, and the correct Spanish version of the name “Luke” is Lucas. One wonders if the protagonist Lydia adopted her son “Luca” from Italy, Hungary or Romania….

Cummins sprinkles in the most stereotypical cultural fetishes that Americans associate with Mexico: quinceañera dresses, Day of the Dead celebrations, concha sweetbread rolls, grilled carne asada.

And USA Today book-reviewer Barbara VanDenburgh points out that even Cummins’s English style isn’t so hot:

Even on a sentence level, “American Dirt” is frequently cringeworthy. Lydia doesn’t just blink her eyes, she “funnels gratitude into the slow blink of her lashes.” As a man plummets to his death from the top of a train, “his shadow makes the shape of grief as he hurtles toward the earth.” One woman fighting off a rapist “can feel the hard club of his anatomy pushing against her stomach.”

As Myriam Gurba writes, “For a seven-figure sum. A seven-figure sum.”

For that I could have ginned up “the hard club” of male “anatomy” in my own illegal-immigrant weeper novel. After all, I’m more “Latinx” than Cummins and maybe even more so than Gurba. My mother (a legal immigrant) was born in Lima of every Hispanic-origin nationality you can think of, including Mexican. That’s a lot of carne asada.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

From → Uncategorized

One Comment
  1. A NYOB permalink

    Battle of the cholas it is not.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: