The latest bump in the road for author Jeanine Cummins’s embattled novel American Dirt, released earlier this month, comes in the form of a canceled book tour — ostensibly over “safety” concerns. The book, which tells the fictional story of a mother and her son fleeing Mexico after a cartel viciously murders the rest of their family, has been embroiled in controversy since its publication.
About a week and a half ago American Dirt was still generating the kind of press notices most novelists could only dream of. It was marketed as a groundbreaking novel that captured the experience of migrants coming to the United States along its southern border, and appeared on every list of most anticipated 2020 books. The cover features a blurb by novelist Don Winslow heralding it as “A Grapes of Wrath for our time.” Oprah selected it for her Book Club. Then, disaster ensued. Cummins, who identified as white as recently as 2016 but revealed just ahead of American Dirt’s publication that one of her grandparents is Puerto Rican, was accused of appropriating a story that wasn’t hers, and of employing shallow stereotypes throughout he novel. (She herself has spoken of her desire to humanize the “faceless brown mass” — really her words — of migrants at the border, and wrote in the book’s afterword that she “wished someone slightly browner than me” had been the one to write the story.) It didn’t help matters that one of her book launch parties featured barbed-wire centerpieces.
In its announcement of the book tour’s demise, Cummins’s publisher Flatiron books said they came to the decision in the interest of safety after “threats” were made against Cummins and certain booksellers. Flatiron’s president Bob Miller wrote, “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor. 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.”
While Miller does address the controversy surrounding their book and take some responsibility for it (“in positioning this novel, we failed to acknowledge our own limits”), the letter overall is less an apology than a call for discourse, as further evidenced by the next phase of American Dirt’s press bonanza: a series of town halls. Miller writes, “Rather than run away from this conversation, we want to move towards a solution. For that reason, we will be organizing a series of town hall meetings, where Jeanine will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book.”