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Written by Jeanine Cummins, the novel has faced controversy for its depiction of Mexican immigrants

By Benjamin VanHoose
January 30, 2020 12:55 PM
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American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins
Credit: Flatiron Books; Joe Kennedy

Amid controversy surrounding one of its newest releases, publishers at Macmillan’s Flatiron Books have made the “difficult decision” to cancel the book tout for Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt.

On Wednesday, the publishers announced that the planned promotional appearances for Cummins’ novel would not be moving forward due to “backlash” and “threats of physical violence.” Events were slated for stops in Washington, Mississippi and other locations through February.

The book, which hit shelves on Jan. 21, follows Lydia Quixano Pérez, a Mexican bookstore owner who flees to the U.S. border with her 8-year-old son to escape drug cartel violence.

Despite the initial buzz and praise for the book, American Dirt quickly gained criticism for what some believed was a stereotypical depiction of Mexican immigrants.

“Jeanine Cummins spent five years of her life writing this book with the intent to shine a spotlight on tragedies facing immigrants. For that reason, it’s unfortunate that she is the recipient of hatred from within the very communities she sought to honor,” said Bob Miller, president and publisher of Flatiron Books, in a statement. “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor.”

He added: “Unfortunately, our concerns about safety have led us to the difficult decision to cancel the book tour. Based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety.”

American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins
American Dirt
| Credit: Flatiron Books

In lieu of the previously planned author tour, Miller said a townhall series will be organized, during which Cummins will sit down with people on all sides of the issue to engage in an open discussion.

“We believe that this provide an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community,” Miller said.

In the statement, Miller also explained that he and the team behind the book were “surprised” by the negative reception, admitting that they made “serious mistakes” in rolling out the book.

“We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland,” he said. “… We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.”

Ahead of the book’s debut, several high-profile literary figures praised American Dirt. Stephen King called it “extraordinary,” while Don Winslow deemed it “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.”

Oprah Winfrey with author Jeanine Cummins Gayle King, Anthony Mason and Tony Dokoupil Co-Hosts of CBS THIS MORNING
From left: Oprah Winfrey with author Jeanine Cummins, Anthony Mason, Gayle King and Tony Dokoupil, CBS This Morning, Jan. 21
| Credit: CBS via Getty

Oprah Winfrey chose the book for her popular book club, as well. Per the publisher’s website, Winfrey, 66, said reading the novel “gutted” her

“I didn’t just read this book — I inhabited it,” she wrote in her review. “… Everything about this book was so extraordinary. It’s suspenseful, the language is beautiful, and the story really opened my heart. I highly recommend it, and you will not want to put it down. It is just a magnificent novel.”

Winfrey soon addressed the backlash by sharing a video on Instagram, encouraging fans and readers to share their perspectives on the book’s themes.

“We’ve read and continue to read your comments. It’s clear that we need to have a different kind of conversation about American Dirt and we welcome everyone’s thoughts and opinions in our community. #ReadWithUs,” read the post’s caption.

In the clip, Winfrey also announced plans to stream a discussion about American Dirt on Apple TV+ in March, exploring topics of diversity and representation in the literary world.

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In response to concerns over the star’s endorsement of the book, more than 100 authors signed a letter urging Winfrey to rethink her selection of American Dirt in her famed book club.

In the piece, published on LitHub, the writers express concerns over representation of Latinx stories and who gets to tell them.

“Many of us have firsthand experience with migration and its difficulties and traumas; some of us are Mexican immigrants, and have even more direct experience with the migrations Cummins purports to represent in American Dirt,” the open letter states. “Cummins’s book is, yes, a work of fiction. Many of us are also fiction writers, and we believe in the right to write outside of our own experiences: writing fiction is essentially impossible to do without imagining people who are not ourselves.”

The letter continues: “However, when writing about experiences that are not our own, especially when writing about the experiences of marginalized people, still more especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved — when this is the case, the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.”