On Wednesday, January 29, publisher Flatiron Books announced that the remainder of Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt book tour was canceled effective immediately. This includes her Denver appearance, which had been scheduled for Sunday, February 2, at Tattered Cover. Any tickets already purchased will be refunded; ticket holders should see an email from Tattered Cover explaining exactly how.
Cummins’s tour was only five stops in when it was suddenly halted in the face of growing opposition to the book. Two bookstores in St. Louis and Houston had already announced cancellations, citing concerns that they’d be unable to handle the potential disruptions, and Flatiron itself had nixed three appearances in California. When the publisher pulled the plug on the whole tour, it did so citing “specific threats to booksellers and the author.” According to Flatiron Publishing's Bob Miller, “We believe there exists real peril to their safety.”
The controversy surrounding American Dirt is about stereotypes and cultural appropriation; the novel centers on a Mexican mother and her son escaping a drug cartel by crossing the border into the U.S. — a timely story, given the current state of American politics, which is probably why a slew of literary bigwigs have given the novel their imprimatur. Stephen King loved it. Sandra Cisneros praised it. Oprah chose it for her book club. The usual publishing hype machine was running full steam.
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That push may well be one of the things that doomed American Dirt. Flatiron Publishing apologized in a statement for “deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation.” These inadequacies included everything from misrepresenting Cummins’s personal history (they marketed her as being the wife of an undocumented immigrant while purposefully omitting the fact that he was Irish) to tone-deaf centerpieces on the reception tables at a bookseller’s dinner that included barbed wire.
Writer Myriam Gurba, whose work deals with her experiences in both the LGBTQ and Mexican heritage communities, has been at the forefront of the literary side of the criticism, starting with her December book review, partially titled “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck.” Her deconstruction of the issue from the inside deserves to be read in full (meaning click on that link and read the whole thing), but Gurba sums up her essential commentary on the book itself with a quick list:
[Cummins’] obra de caca belongs to the great American tradition of doing the following:
1. Appropriating genius works by people of color
2. Slapping a coat of mayonesa on them to make palatable to taste buds estados-unidenses and
3. Repackaging them for mass racially “colorblind” consumption.
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CNN’s Rafia Zakaria agrees with Gurba in her social commentary on the novel, claiming that “the heart of the problem is that American Dirt is not really a story of Mexican migrants at all. It is the story of American entitlement, one that never questions the brute injustice of geography of birth determining opportunities in life. "
And the backlash continues. An informal coalition of 121 writers (including Denver literary phenom Kali Fajardo-Anstine, who wrote Sabrina & Corina) published a letter to Oprah, asking her to remove her book club seal of approval. While praising Oprah’s positive effect on the reading habits of Americans in general, it states, "In a time of widespread misinformation, fear-mongering, and white-supremacist propaganda related to immigration and to our border, in a time when adults and children are dying in US immigration cages, we believe that a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up.”
Cummins has so far remained silent regarding the cancellation, but in an NPR interview last week, she said that “not everyone has to love my book,” and that she tried to be sensitive in her purposeful depiction of what she called “the faceless brown mass” of Mexican immigrants coming into the United States. Flatiron Publishing, for its part, is responding not just by the cancellation, but by planning a series of “town hall meetings” instead, to which the publisher plans to invite “some of the groups who have raised objections to the book.”
Meanwhile, American Dirt is selling in huge numbers and has already been optioned for film by Clint Eastwood’s production company.