Everyone in Book World has been talking about Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt. Last month, the novel, about a Mexican mother and her son's journey to the US border, was poised to achieve the kind of blockbuster bestsellerdom that only Oprah can confer. Beloved author Sandra Cisneros called it "the great novel of las Americas." Salma Hayek shouted it out on her Instagram. The American Library Association partnered with select border-city libraries to promote the book.
But then a torrential rain pelted down on American Dirt's parade—from critics who labeled the novel "trauma porn" for its clumsy cultural blunders, apparent rip-offs of Latinx writers, and Google Translate-quality Spanish dialogue. The overwhelmingly white publishing industry's blind spots were exposed. Cummins' book launch party even featured floral centerpieces wrapped in barbed wire, amping up the fetishistic vibes. Hayek admitted she hadn't read the novel, while Cisneros doubled down on her support for it. Oprah promised to plumb the depths of the controversy in a TV special that was filmed on Feb. 13 in Tucson, to air in March.
I've read enough of American Dirt to know that there are way better recent books about the border. Here are a few that deserve more attention.
Mean by Myriam Gurba (Coffee House Press, 2017)
Long Beach-based writer Gurba was one of the first critics to call out American Dirt. In an online essay called "Pendeja, You Ain't Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature," Gurba tells the story of how Ms. magazine asked her to write a review of the novel, then rejected it for its overwhelming negativity. (She called American Dirt "a literary licuado that tastes like its title.")
Mean is Gurba's coming-of-age memoir as the queer daughter of a Mexican mother and American father. She grew up in Southern California speaking Spanish, English and Spanglish. Her experience embodies all the contradictions of this cultural commingling: she is called "wetback" on the playground; her best friend is a white girl who looks like Kurt Cobain and ends up accidentally smoking crack. As Gurba confronts racism, sexual assault, and misogyny throughout her young life, her response is to toughen up, embracing the idea of "mean" as a feminist act of defiance. Gurba's voice soars and sears in this hopscotching personal history, illuminating the experience of being birthed by both sides of the border.
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (Copper Canyon Press, 2017)
Zamora, a poet born in El Salvador in 1990, revisits his solo childhood journey through Mexico to the United States in this far-ranging collection. These poems are political: "Disappeared" addresses those responsible for the turmoil in Zamora's young life: "Bush Sr, Ronald Reagan, Batallón Ramón Belloso, Alliance for Progress, USAID." They are autobiographical: In "To President-Elect," he writes, "I am not the only nine-year-old/who has slipped my backpack under the ranchers' fences. I'm still/in that van that picked us up from 'Devil's Highway.'" And they are moving: "I wasn't born here," Zamora writes. "I've always known this country wanted me dead."
The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez by Aaron Bobrow-Strain
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019)
This nonfiction narrative by a professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington state reads like a novel—albeit one with a healthy educational dose of immigration policy. It's the story of Aida Hernandez, born in Agua Prieta, Mexico, in 1987. Eight years later, Aida, along with her mother and her siblings, went to live undocumented in the neighboring town of Douglas, Arizona. There, Aida got pregnant at 16 and married an abusive man. She chased an American dream of being a teacher in New York City, but was instead deported without her son. On her first night as a bartender back across the border, she accepted a ride home from a stranger; after she refused to kiss him, he repeatedly stabbed her and left her to die in the street.
The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez interweaves Aida's story with several others. There is her father, a famous revolutionary from Chihuahua; Rosie Mendoza, a social worker who transcends her own abusive past to help women like Aida; and Ema Ponce, a gay Ecuadorean making her way to the US. Don't read this book looking for easy answers to the immigration crisis; there are none to be found here, except perhaps the idea that sexual violence is inextricable from border politics. Bobrow-Strain's "About this Book" details his meticulous research, borne of 45 hours of formal interviews with Aida and a friendship between author and subject.
Sagrado: A Photopoetics Across the Chicano Homeland
(University of New Mexico Press, 2013)
This large-format multimedia book is anchored by the work of three New Mexicans: gorgeous photography from Robert Kaiser, essays by Spencer R. Herrera and the graceful poetry of Levi Romero, New Mexico's newly minted first state poet laureate. It's a journey into all sorts of corners around the Chicanx Southwest, including some very close to home here in Northern New Mexico.
Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores (FSG, 2019)
An absurdist satirical novel set on the Texas-Mexico border, Flores' book is about an imagined trade in exotic animals that are brought back from extinction and smuggled into the United States for rich consumers.
Border Land, Border Water by CJ Alvarez (University of Texas Press, 2019)
Alvarez, a New Mexico native and current fellow at the School for Advanced Research, dives into the fascinating history of construction projects that have shaped the border as we know it today.
Retablos: Stories From a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis
(City Lights Books, 2018)
The El Paso native paints vibrant vignettes about moments of transformation as he grew up along the border. As Solis contemplates the statue of Don Juan de Oñate at the El Paso airport, remembering Oñate's order to sever all the right feet of Pueblo men, he writes, "I think of a retablo of a bloody pile of right feet with the Holy Virgin suspended above them. I think of how I've been lamed by my own past and then I think of how often I've walked away and yet always manage to walk back."
Molly Boyle urges you to check out Book Mountain's stellar new location (1302 Osage Ave., 471-2625). She also wanted to shout-out that one bookseller at op.cit. books in the DeVargas Center (157 Paseo de Peralta, 428-0321) who recently remembered that she ordered a Clarice Lispector book, like, two years ago. Support your local independents!