When she set out to write “American Dirt,” Jeanine Cummins wanted to start a conversation about migrants at the border.
Instead, the writer’s fourth book sparked a very different debate – on equally fraught questions of identity, authorship and cultural appropriation – as an ever-growing chorus of critics condemns the novel for its portrayal of migrants fleeing gang violence.
Some of the criticism got so heated, the book’s publisher said Wednesday, that it has canceled what’s left of Cummins’ national book tour.
Citing “concerns about safety,” including threats of violence to Cummins and booksellers, the 13 events left on her schedule will instead be replaced by town hall-style discussions between the author and her critics, Bob Miller, president and publisher of Flatiron Books, said in a statement.
“It’s unfortunate that she is the recipient of hatred from the very communities she sought to honor,” Miller said. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor.”
It’s perhaps the strongest response to weeks of intense debate pegged to “American Dirt,” which follows Lydia, a middle-class bookstore owner forced to flee Acapulco after gangs kill her husband.
Cummins, who began working on the project seven years ago, said she initially sought to open “a back door into a bigger conversation about who we want to be as a country.”
With a movie deal and seven-figure advance, “American Dirt” seemed poised to become a hit. It was praised in book reviews and hailed by other authors, including several Latina writers. They called it a thrilling page-turner, “a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our time” and “the great novel of las Americas.”
Oprah Winfrey, who said she was “riveted from the very first sentence,” selected it for her book club, giving Cummins a literary seal of approval that is all but guaranteed to boost sales.
Last week, that momentum came to a screeching halt. A scathing review by the Chicana writer Myriam Gurba went viral, propelled by other Mexican Americans who seemingly agreed with her take: “American Dirt” is “a literary licuado that tastes like its title.”
Not only did the book traffic in stereotypes and falsehoods about Mexican culture, they said, but it also packaged those tropes through the fetishizing lens of “trauma porn.”
“While some white critics have compared Cummins to [John] Steinbeck,” Gurba wrote, “I think a more apt comparison is to Vanilla Ice.”
Her review opened the floodgates to a series of nonstop commentary: on who should be able write what, and how they should write it; on which books are promoted by the publishing industry, and how it treats Latinos, both as authors and characters; on who counts as “Latino” to begin with.
Some accused Cummins of inappropriately stealing from writers of Mexican descent, many of whom had long struggled to break into a publishing industry they said is overwhelmingly white. The actress Salma Hayek apologized for endorsing the novel. Facing calls and boycotts, several booksellers set to host the author pulled out at the last minute.
But not everyone went so far. Winfrey said she recognized the need for a “deeper, more substantive discussion,” and PEN America, the free expression advocacy group, condemned the “harsh invective” coming after the author. Sandra Cisneros, the best-selling Mexican American author, doubled down on her defense.
“The story is going to enter like a Trojan horse and change minds,” Cisneros said, “and it’s going to change the minds that I perhaps can’t change.”
Cummins had otherwise remained relatively quiet, but she appeared on an episode said on the podcast “Latino USA” on Wednesday that she was “feeling disappointed with the tenor of the conversation.”
All the while, social media users dug up parts of the book’s promotional campaign, adding only more fuel to their criticisms: A celebratory dinner for the book on Cummins’ social media featured a barbed-wire centerpiece, as if it resembled the border wall. A publisher’s letter with a galley flouted the fact that Cummins’ husband was once an undocumented immigrant – without mentioning he is Irish.
On the podcast, Cummins said it was “insane” that she didn’t speak up about these mistakes beforehand. In its Wednesday statement, the publisher expressed both regret and shock.
“The fact that we were surprised is indicative of a problem, which is that in positioning this novel, we failed to acknowledge our own limits,” Miller said in his statement. “The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies.”
Yet, for all the negative criticism, “American Dirt” still appeared to be doing well in terms of sales. As of early on Thursday morning, the novel was listed at No. 5 on Amazon’s bestsellers list, the highest-ranked work of fiction. Bookseller preorders were so strong, the New York Times reported, that Flatiron increased its first printing by 200,000 copies.
But by then, the discussion on social media and in literary and Latino circles had long taken on an entirely different tone.
In an open letter on Wednesday, more than 80 writers called on Winfrey to remove the novel from her book club, an action that she has taken just once before. The list has since expanded to more than 120 authors, and Winfrey has instead committed to a special discussion of the novel on Tuesday.
When immigrant voices are so shut out, and when the issue is so heavily politicized, they said, it’s dangerous to promote “an exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed” story about immigration.
In particular, they pointed to part of Cummins’ author’s note, in which she also wrote of polarizing politics: “At worst, we perceive [migrants] as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep,” she wrote. “We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.”
That passage raises a painful question, the authors wrote: “Who is this we imagined by Cummins, who is this them?” their letter said. “We, the undersigned, do not see a faceless brown mass. We, ourselves, are not faceless, nor are we voiceless.”
PEN America, for one, sees a possible silver lining.
“If the fury over this book can catalyze concrete change in how books are sourced, edited, and promoted,” the group said, “it will have achieved something important.”