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Publisher cancels ‘American Dirt’ book tour: ‘Serious mistakes’ and ‘concerns about safety’

Left: Jeanine Cummins. Right: The jacket for Cummins's “American Dirt,” which was released last week. (Joe Kennedy & Flatiron Books/AP)

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 a growing chorus of critics condemns the novel for what they say is its sloppy, stereotypical portrayal of a Mexican family fleeing gang violence.

Some of the backlash has gotten so heated, the book’s publisher said Wednesday, that it canceled the 13 events left on Cummins’s national book tour.

Citing “concerns about safety,” including unspecified threats of violence to Cummins and booksellers, Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, instead plans to schedule town hall-style discussions between the author and her critics.

“It’s unfortunate that she is the recipient of hatred from the very communities she sought to honor,” Bob Miller, Flatiron’s president and publisher, said in a statement. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor.”

It’s perhaps the strongest response following weeks of intense debate about “American Dirt,” which follows Lydia, a middle-class bookstore owner forced to flee Acapulco after gangs kill her husband.

Jeanine Cummins answered questions and described her motivations to write “American Dirt” during an event at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. (Video: Politics and Prose)

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.” She conducted years of research about immigration, including multiple trips to the border and Mexico, and her proposal landed her a seven-figure contract and a movie deal.

Heading into its Jan. 21 release date, “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 was “riveted from the very first sentence,” she said, and selected it for her book club, giving Cummins a literary seal of approval all but guaranteed to boost sales.

Last week, that momentum came to a screeching halt. A December review by the Chicana writer Myriam Gurba went viral, propelled by other Mexican Americans who appeared to agree with her searing 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, many said, but it also packaged those tropes for a non-immigrant audience 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 commentary, and a host of other responses, prompted a long conversation within literary and Latino spheres: 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.

‘American Dirt’ is a novel about Mexicans by a writer who isn’t. For some, that’s a problem.

Some accused Cummins, who has mixed Irish and Puerto Rican heritage, of inappropriately stealing from writers of Mexican descent, many of whom had long struggled to break into an overwhelmingly white publishing industry. 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.

Others came to her defense. Winfrey said she recognized the need for a “deeper, more substantive discussion" about the novel, and PEN America, a free expression group, condemned the “harsh invective” coming after the author. Sandra Cisneros, the best-selling Mexican American author, said the book might engage new audiences on questions of immigration.

“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.”

For her part, Cummins stayed relatively quiet, attending a few stops on her book tour and going silent on social media. On the podcast “Latino USA” on Wednesday, she said that she was “feeling disappointed with the tenor of the conversation.”

She had long struggled with the best way to tell a story about experiences she had not lived herself, she said, and she never meant for “American Dirt" to become the definitive novel on Mexican immigrants. She wanted to be judged on the merits of her work.

All the while, parts of the book’s promotional campaign turned up on social media, adding only more fuel to the backlash: A celebratory dinner hosted by Flatiron featured a barbed-wire centerpiece, as if to resemble the border wall. A letter from the publisher sent alongside advance copies flaunted the fact that Cummins’s 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 issues beforehand. In its Wednesday statement, the publisher called the marketing moves “serious mistakes” and expressed both regret and shock about the book’s reception.

“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.

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 on the list. Bookseller preorders were so strong, the New York Times reported, that Flatiron increased its first printing by 200,000 copies.

Still, 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 she has taken just once before. She has instead committed to a special discussion of the novel this Tuesday.

Yet for the letter-writers, it seems that falls short. When immigrant voices are so shut out of publishing, and when the issue of immigration is so heavily politicized, they said, it’s dangerous to promote “an exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed” novel.

In particular, they pointed to part of Cummins’s author’s note, which spoke of increasingly polarized politics on immigration. “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.”

Yet the authors, many of them best-selling writers of color, said that passage raises a painful question: “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.”

By addressing these critiques through open conversation, Flatiron Books said it hoped to work towards a solution.

Gurba and two other critics, under the banner of a campaign called #DignidadLiteraria, said they “have no interest in a dialogue with Jeanine Cummins.” (Gurba said she also received some violent threats in response to her piece.)

The group does not want any “American Dirt” events to be cancelled, but would rather focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the publishing industry more broadly, it said in a statement.

On that front, PEN America sees a possible silver lining to the controversy.

“If the fury over this book can catalyze concrete change in how books are sourced, edited, and promoted,” the organization said, “it will have achieved something important.”