In Defense of AMERICAN DIRT… and Just Being a Nice Person

Zibby Owens
Jan 25 · 3 min read

This has gone too far. I am truly baffled by the controversial response to AMERICAN DIRT, the stunning debut novel by Jeanine Cummins.

Jeanine’s book is absolutely sensational. I couldn’t put it down — and as the host of a literary podcast (“Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books”), I read more than 150 books a year, so that’s really saying something. This book simply stands apart.

I don’t care that Jeanine wasn’t a Mexican refugee herself — or even Mexican. That’s entirely beside the point. I don’t care what her race, gender or nationality is. What I care about is her book. How it makes me feel. What it makes me think about. How I stayed up late at night flipping pages in the dim bedside light as my husband slept beside me because I couldn’t bear to put it down.

Did I miss a memo? Since when do authors have to actually be like to characters they portray in fiction? Isn’t that the whole point of fiction? That writers can conjure up entirely new people, new scenes, and new places that somehow take us readers out of our own minds and into other worlds?

AMERICAN DIRT is a once-in-a-lifetime read. The language is absolutely captivating. The characters are so real I felt like I would recognize them if they walked in my living room. The scenery was depicted so vividly I could feel the hot sun scorching me as I walked through the desert. The story transported me and gave me insights into a life experience I will most likely never live myself.

So why are so many people absolutely livid?! Perhaps Jeanine’s seven-figure advance has the haters jealous. Perhaps seeing others succeed in any way, at any cost, roils anger. But why does it make it okay to be this mean?

As a mom of four children, I try all the time to teach my kids to be kind to others, to put themselves in other people’s shoes, and to treat people the way they would want to be treated. I tell them that if they don’t have something nice to say, they shouldn’t say anything at all. And yet, as I flip through the newspapers in the mornings as we all inhale our breakfasts, I ingest nasty, angry diatribes that feel personal, unwarranted and just cruel.

Why?

Why do people have to be so mean?

How does this help anyone?

Jeanine herself has had extreme trauma in her life. Her teenaged cousins were raped and killed. What more does she have to go through to earn enough legitimacy to write a captivating novel filled with trauma?

I’m all for literary criticism. I devour book reviews and find many offer valuable insights, like an English teacher bringing new light to something familiar, or exposing me to books I haven’t had time to read. But reviews that simply slander authors go against all the rules of being a good literary citizen. The worst part is that they’re typically written by other writers. What happened to community? Sticking up for one another? Having each other’s backs?

One of our own, an author, has produced a stellar, breathtaking work of art. Like all the great authors before her, of all different genders, races and nationalities, Jeanine is a gifted storyteller. Let her tell her story. Listen to it. Enjoy it. Learn from her unique point of view and the way she sees and paints the world. Appreciate her fiction. She didn’t claim to do anything other than tell a story. She even says that although she may not be the best person to tell that story, it was better that she told it than it not being told at all.

I won’t forget Lydia and her son, Luca. Their fictitious journey through Mexico has changed my life. Just like a great book should.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Zibby Owens

Zibby Owens is the creator and host of award-winning podcast, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” A mother of four and a writer herself, Zibby lives in NYC.

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