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Sujatha Fernandes on Jeanine Cummins

Breaking free of the frenetic pace of criticisms on social media, Sujatha Fernandes takes her time to explain the dubious politics of Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt in the Sydney Review of Books:

The reason why Cummins’ approach had such appeal among major publishing houses (there was a three-day bidding war between nine publishing houses to buy the novel) has partly to do with the resonance of the ‘good immigrant’ stereotype in US society. As I discuss in my book Curated Stories, since the 1990s, immigration reform advocates have tried to present high achieving and exceptional migrants as the face of the immigrant rights movement in order to appeal to mainstream US society. Undocumented students ­– Dreamers — who were valedictorians of their school and who had assimilated into American culture, were presented as the good, deserving immigrant. The writing and promotion of American Dirt follows this same logic, that we can get people to care about the border crisis if we show the victims as good and deserving people, who are ‘just like us’ at heart.

The problem with this strategy is that rather than seeing all migrants as worthy of inclusion and acceptance, there is a hierarchy created between those worthy migrants who are humanised and recognisable due to their exceptional achievements and ability to assimilate, and those who are stigmatised and excluded as anonymous, foreign, and lower-class. Good migrants need to perform continually their exceptionality as model Americans in order to distinguish themselves from other unworthy, bad migrants. What does it mean that most migrants crossing the southern border — who are variously caged, hunted down by border patrol and vigilantes, separated from their children under the Trump administration — are not like Lydia and Luca? It makes them essentially unworthy and hence deportable.

The essay also looks at the novel’s political divergences from Anna Krien’s Act of Grace.