Jeanine Cummins' new book "American Dirt" has been surrounded by controversy.

The year started out good for Jeanine Cummins.

She’d already led a colorful life. She was born in Spain, where her father was stationed while serving in the U.S. Navy. In 1993, she entered the international Rose of Tralee festival but with a distinctly American background. Irish, yes, but born abroad, and also with a grandparent from Puerto Rico. She was a Rose of Tralee finalist. 

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She attended Towson University in Maryland, and then spent several years living abroad, including in Belfast. There, she’s told interviewers, she worked as a bartender and wrote bad poetry.

Cummins went on to marry an undocumented immigrant from Ireland, a flooring contractor, with whom she eventually had two children.

Along the way, Cummins built quite a career for herself in publishing, eventually authoring four books. These include a memoir, A Rip in Heaven, about her Irish American cousins who were murdered, as well as a novel about the Irish Famine entitled The Crooked Branch.

Then came 2020. A book enthusiast by the name of Oprah Winfrey had already come knocking.  Oprah had heard all the hype surrounding Cummins’ latest book, a novel about the harrowing journey Mexican migrants make to the U.S.

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Perhaps Oprah was naive enough to believe someone who’d written about one group of past desperate refugees might have something interesting to say about those in the same position today.

The book is called American Dirt. It is right now atop bestseller lists.  None of which Cummins can talk about while on her book tour. Because the tour has been canceled.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Macmillan)

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (Macmillan)

"Jeanine Cummins spent five years of her life writing this book with the intent to shine a spotlight on tragedies facing immigrants," Bob Miller, president of Flatiron Books, said in a statement last week. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor. Unfortunately, our concerns about safety have led us to the difficult decision to cancel the book tour.”

And so our culture wars have yet another chapter, equal parts sad and absurd and utterly avoidable.

Cummins’ most grievous error, apparently, is choosing to write about an experience she has no direct personal connection to.  That used to be called, you know, writing. Some might even say it’s what actors also do.

But a number of respected writers -- Valeria Luiselli, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Tommy Orange -- wrote a letter to Oprah asking her to reconsider her selection and outlining their objections to American Dirt.

They boil down to this: the writing and characters kind of suck, amounting to so-called “torture porn,” the exploitation of suffering for entertainment.  Boy, isn’t that new!

But much of this is also propelled by the fact that Cummins is seen as a white writer colonizing the suffering of non-white folks.  Again, this used to be dealt with by pointing out that the author tried to do something and failed. Better luck next time.

It also used to be seen as at least modestly admirable for folks to attempt to empathize with folks who are different from them. The history of TV, movies, and books is, of course, loaded with such efforts that are indeed deeply offensive. 

But when we move from criticizing badly executed art and focus instead on the evil intentions of the culturally appropriating artist, we make a terrible series of errors with far-reaching consequences.

Consider Omar El Akkad, an author who offered advance praise for American Dirt, presumably (and very stupidly) based on the fact that Cummins’ publisher publicized the fact that her husband had been an undocumented immigrant.

"The marketing copy was all bull***,” El Akkad later tweeted. “There is no personal connection. The author's husband immigrated here from...Ireland."

And that’s where we are these days. It’s good if you have a personal connection. Bad if you don’t. 

Most importantly, what on earth could the Irish have to say about poverty, migration, exploitation, and starvation?

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