The Controversy Over ‘American Dirt’

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  • Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Antisemitic Remarks
  • Chinese Child-Rearing: Stress and Shame

Credit…Carolina Moscoso

To the Editor:

Re “The Long Shadow of ‘American Dirt,’” by Pamela Paul (column, Jan. 29):

I agree with Ms. Paul. Writers should not be bullied into portraying only those protagonists who are like them. And yet …

Ms. Paul would surely concede that had a white person written a novel akin to “Beloved,” no matter how brilliant and inspired, the book wouldn’t have been socially acceptable in 1987, let alone today.

Arguably, the brutality the white colonialists heaped on African Americans would be reason enough to preclude white American writers from placing an African American protagonist in their work. Moreover, how could a white writer fully appreciate the African American experience?

Yet, sometimes writers of different colors and backgrounds are able to summon the empathy and intuition to see through another’s eyes and open their readers’ eyes in the process.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” was written by a white man, Dee Brown. Mr. Brown was instrumental in helping me see the horrors the Native Americans endured as whites ventured west under the guise of Manifest Destiny.

Similarly, “American Dirt,” despite being fiction, has awakened me to the suffering of those south of the border and the perilous journeys so many are taking to get to America and a better life. I fear for what will be lost if we hamstring writers, or any artists for that matter.

I dream of a future in which the artworks people produce are judged not by the author’s skin color, sexuality, religion or background, but only by their content and quality.

David Stearns
Boise, Idaho

To the Editor:

Pamela Paul’s defense of the novel “American Dirt”is based on the claim that critics attacked the book because the author was “not an immigrant or of Mexican heritage,” and thus “wasn’t qualified to write” it.

I was one of the novel’s earliest outspoken critics back in early 2020, writing several critiques for publications across the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Most of the novel’s detractors made it clear that the issue was not Jeanine Cummins’s ethnicity. Several non-Latino authors have written excellent books on Mexico. Our outrage was not about “who gets to write what,” but rather about the contents of the book itself.

“American Dirt”presents a cartoonishly inaccurate depiction of Mexico and this great nation’s people and culture. While many more well-informed authors have been pitching their books about Mexico and migration for decades, the publishing industry chose to throw its weight behind an absurdly fallacious representation of the country.

David J. Schmidt
La Mesa, Calif.

To the Editor:

“American Dirt” is a brilliant and compelling novel that vividly portrays the many obstacles, dangers and heartbreak immigrants face on their courageous journey. Jeanine Cummins skillfully navigated political and geographic landscapes as her main character tried to lead her child to safety and a promising future.

The attacks on the author are incomprehensible. Yes, the author is not Mexican (she identifies as white with Latina heritage). Yes, the author is not an immigrant. Ms. Cummins did, however, write an amazing novel that led readers to a better understanding of the immigrant experience, ultimately leading to greater compassion and empathy.

To annihilate her for being unqualified to write the novel because of her heritage is an insidious and dangerous attack. It is a form of book banning.

Following that line of nonsense, John Hersey had no business writing “Hiroshima.”

Anne Colletta
West Linn, Ore.

To the Editor:

Pamela Paul’s column about “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins’s book about a woman fleeing with her son from Mexican drug cartel members, underestimates the root cause of the angry reaction to this problematic book: the lack of representation of Latinx authors in publishing.

There are few Latinx mainstream published authors, few editors, and few agents and reviewers. A diverse group that represents about 20 percent of the U.S. population mostly appears in print when written about by outsiders using stereotypes that portray them as bloodthirsty murderers.

Literature plays an important role in shaping our understanding of our world. Future readers, wanting to know how Latinx people lived now, will turn to books. An inaccurate and inauthentic portrayal of the Latinx community today will echo down through the ages. We need the many great books written by today’s Latinx authors to be published.

Russ Lopez
The writer is editor of LatineLit magazine.

To the Editor:

Shakespeare was not a teenage girl, nor was he a Roman general, a Jew in Venice or a depressed prince. However, we appreciate Shakespeare as we should Jeanine Cummins for imagination and creativity.

If I were still teaching high school English, “American Dirt” would be in my curriculum. The book would be a wonderful way to put a teenager in the shoes of a person trying to escape violence. It sickens me that anyone trashed this talented author.

Emily Farrell
Media, Pa.

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Antisemitic Remarks

Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s relationship was born of political expediency but fueled by genuine camaraderie.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Speaker’s Union With Firebrand May Shape G.O.P.” (front page, Jan. 23):

Political alliances often stem from political expediency, as appears to be the case with Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.

In his quest to win the privilege of wielding the speaker’s gavel, Mr. McCarthy brokered agreements with several far-right members of Congress, including Ms. Greene. While doing so is certainly his prerogative, rather than unconditionally empowering Ms. Greene to the extent that he has, I would have liked to see the speaker insist on renunciations of her past antisemitic remarks and behavior.

Likening President Biden to Adolf Hitler, making Holocaust analogies about mask mandates and espousing antisemitic tropes, including her claim that a Jewish banking family may have used space lasers to start a California wildfire, are some of the things that have caused great concern and consternation in the Jewish community.

At a time of rising antisemitism, we know that such statements beget greater bigotry. Before Mr. McCarthy further emboldens Ms. Greene and grants her an even more prominent platform in the halls of Congress, his insistence on a public disavowal of her disturbing diatribes would certainly be appropriate.

N. Aaron Troodler
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.

Chinese Child-Rearing: Stress and Shame

Credit…Illustration by Zisiga Mukulu/The New York Times; images by Heather Bowie Kaye and Getty Images

To the Editor:

Re “China Helped Raise My Kids. They’re Fine,” by Heather Kaye (Opinion guest essay, Jan. 19):

As a Chinese American teenager raised in the U.S., I was utterly dismayed to see a “total drive for academic excellence” founded in “the shame of letting their teachers and classmates down” portrayed as a benefit of attending school in China.

These principles, entrenched in my upbringing, have prevented me from exploring my passions without the heavy burden of cultural expectation. They’ve stifled my successes and damaged personal relationships. Success propelled by shame feels like never being enough, like living in constant fear of being a disappointment. It isn’t sweet.

There are admirable facets to China’s rigorous education and the unity it instills, but we need to recognize and condemn, not praise, its cutthroat and academically consumed facets. Chinese middle school students are jumping off buildings and hanging themselves after learning their test scores have dropped or failing to finish homework.

Even though Ms. Kaye may find her children’s self-motivated nature convenient, we must approach such child-rearing techniques cautiously.

Sophia Stone
Johnson City, Tenn.
The writer is a high school student.

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