"American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins (Flatiron Publishing/Salon)

Inside the cancellation of "American Dirt" (and its book tour)

Jeanine Cummins' novel about a pressing political issue had Oprah's backing, but then came the barb wire & backlash


Ashlie D. Stevens
January 31, 2020 12:36AM (UTC)

Wednesday afternoon, Flatiron Books — a New York-based publishing house — announced that it would be cancelling author Jeanine Cummins' book tour for her newly released novel "American Dirt." Just two weeks ago, this would have been a shocking statement; many thought  "American Dirt" was poised to be the darling of the 2020 publishing world. It had a major budget, some splashy advance reviews, and the backing of the Oprah's Book Club machine. 

But over the past few weeks, criticism against the book and its author has steadily mounted, especially by Latinx and migrant authors. Questions were raised about creating fictional voices, "trauma porn," and the representation of writers of color in an overwhelmingly white publishing landscape. 

Advertisement:

It's been a rapid descent that has left the book community reeling and left with questions, which Salon answers below to trace how "American Dirt" reached such an outcome.

What is "American Dirt" about and how did Jeanine Cummins write it? 

In the book, Acapulco, Mexico bookstore owner Lydia Quixano Perez is living a pretty comfortable, middle-class life with her son Luca and a husband who is a journalist. But then her husband publishes a tell-all profile of Javier, the leader of a drug cartel that has gruesomely taken over the city. This obviously doesn't go over well, and the family is forced to flee. 

The book's description continues: "Instantly transformed into migrants, Lydia and Luca ride la bestia ― trains that make their way north toward the United States, which is the only place Javier's reach doesn't extend. As they join the countless people trying to reach el norte, Lydia soon sees that everyone is running from something. But what exactly are they running to?"

Advertisement:

Cummins is not a migrant and has identified as white in past work – such as in this New York Times opinion piece in which she wrote: "In every practical way, my family is mostly white. I'll never know the impotent rage of being profiled, or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name." Therefore, in researching the migrant experience for "American Dirt," Cummins spent time in Mexico and conducted interviews with families who had been impacted by deportation, migrants in shelters in Tijuana, human rights activists, and immigration attorneys. 

How did "American Dirt" get so much attention before it was published? 

"American Dirt" was one of those novels that was set to be a best seller before it was even released. It sold to Flatiron Books in a seven-figure deal after a reported bidding war between nine different publishers; a first run of 500,000 books was subsequently announced (which is about 250 percent more than the average first run). 

The advance reviews — including trade reviews by Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly — were pretty sparkling. Fellow authors weighed in favorably, too. 

Advertisement:

"I strive to write page-turners because I love to read them, and it's been a long time since I turned pages as fast as I did with 'American Dirt,'" wrote author John Grisham. "Its plot is tight, smart, and unpredictable. Its message is important and timely, but not political." 

Dominican American author Julia Alvarez, known for "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" and "In the Time of the Butterflies," wrote that if a book "can change hearts and transform policies, this is the one!" 

Advertisement:

On Jan. 21, "American Dirt" was released — as was the news that it was the newest book selection for Oprah's Book Club. This was a joint announcement with Apple TV+, which teased a conversation between Winfrey and Cummins that would premiere March 6 exclusively on the streaming platform's "Oprah Book Club" series. 

How did "American Dirt" fall out of favor? 

It seems Cummins was always poised for a small level of pushback for "American Dirt." 

In a New York Times article prior to publication, the author conceded she is an imperfect messenger for a story about migrants. "As a nonimmigrant, she was reluctant at first to write an entire novel from the perspective of Mexican migrants, for fear of getting it wrong, or appearing to be opportunistically seizing on a humanitarian crisis. It still nags at her, even as the publication day approaches." 

Advertisement:

But what she — and the novel's publishers — didn't seem prepared for was just how quickly the narrative surrounding the book would change from "most-anticipated book of the year" to "just another story of cultural appropriation." 

But there had been hints of this since late last year. 

In December, writer Myriam Gurba wrote on the "Tropics of Meta," an academic blog, that "American Dirt" was "trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf," born out of: "(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."

Advertisement:

More than a month later, that post went viral after the publication of "American Dirt." 

Then there was a subsequent blow from the New York Times when critic Parul Seghal said that the book, while it may have had unimpeachable motives, flounders and fails when it comes to execution. In Cummins' effort to write a story that humanized what she describes as the "impoverished, faceless brown mass" of migrants, she created woefully one-dimensial characters. 

"What thin creations these characters are — and how distorted they are by the stilted prose and characterizations," Seghal wrote. "The heroes grow only more heroic, the villains more villainous."

Advertisement:

Readers also objected to how Cummins phrased her desire to write the book.

"I worried that, as a nonmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants," Cummins wrote. "I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it." 

And yet, a number of "slightly browner" writers were available to write about migration, immigration and detention. The Texas Observer put together this handy list of 17 options. 

And finally, eyebrows also raised at Cummins' inclusion of the detail that her husband had been an undocumented immigrant – which could have lent some sense of authority or authenticity – except she excluded the detail that he came from Ireland. 

Advertisement:

Wait — why are people tweeting about "barbed wire" and "American Dirt" in the same sentence? 

In the tasteless centerpieces seen below used at a book party put on by Flatiron Press, yes, that's barbed wire wrapped around the boxed, floral arrangements. The displays are meant to mimic the cover of "American Dirt," which features a stark white background, blue flowers, and threads of barbed wire. These photos spread quickly on social media after being tweeted out by Gurba on the day "American Dirt" was published. 

"A person's trauma should never be someone else's aesthetic," one Twitter user replied. Another tweeted a photo shared by Cummins in response; in it, a fan of the book had her nails painted to look like Cummins' book jacket, adorned with tiny painted flowers and barbed wire. 

One sentiment that was repeated over and over was how the book's content, and the subsequent roll-out, was indicative of systemic shortcomings in the American publishing industry when it comes to accurately representing and championing diverse voices. 

Advertisement:

"This book/author is really out to be a microcosm for everything wrong in contemporary literature and publishing, huh?" One Twitter user wrote. "Gotta respect the commitment to cringeyness, I suppose." 

But "American Dirt" is fiction. Why shouldn't Cummins be able to write about an experience that isn't her own? 

No one is arguing that a fiction writer needs to have experienced everything that their characters have (we wouldn't have any fantasy writing if that were the case. See: "Lord of the Rings"). What "American Dirt" has inspired, though, is a conversation about who literally has the opportunity to write stories about marginalized communities; people who have experienced these stories aren't actually having the opportunity to tell them and are instead often passed over for white writers like Cummins. 

A 2018 Forbes article found that just 1 percent of British children's books feature main characters who are black or another minority ethnicity, and that among British young adult books, just 8 percent of titles published within the 2006-2016 decade were by authors of color. And in the United States, as Sadie Trombetta wrote for Bustle, there are more "diverse books than ever — but too few are being written by POC.

There have been efforts to draw attention to this issue. I think of the #ownvoices hashtag that came into use in 2015. It was coined by author Corinne Duyvis as a way to "recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group."

Advertisement:

But this disparity – between the marginalization of lead characters and the marginalization their authors still – exists, as does the overwhelming difficulty in this industry for writers of colors to get noticed, as novelist Angela Flourney said in an interview with Buzzfeed. A lot of this can be attributed to the lack of racial diversity among decision makers in the publishing industry. 

"It's a lot of white women who are sort of passing the buck as far as what the issue is onto dudes who don't exist," Flourney said. "Yeah, they might be at the top, but they're not reading the books. They're excited about the books they're telling you to get excited about . . . I think it's an undue burden for the writer of color that's just trying to get people to care about their book as much as other people's books, to then also be the one to have the answers." 

What do the demographics of the publishing industry in 2020 look like? 

According to a study by Publisher's Weekly, "the industry's racial makeup became slightly more diverse last year — though, with whites comprising 84 percent of the workforce, publishing remains an overwhelmingly white business." 

Additionally, industry members of color were much more likely to be new to the industry than white members. Nineteen percent of members of color said they have been in publishing for three years compared to 10 percent of white members. 

What's next for "American Dirt"? 

In the wake of the controversy — as well as reports of planned, peaceful protests —  a number of "American Dirt" events were canceled. Flatiron Books cited "safety concerns." 

Vroman's Bookstore, one of the planned stops on the book tour, released their own statement following the cancellation: 

"Months ago when booking the event, we believed we were booking a novel about an important issue of our time and hoped it would spark needed discussions about immigration. The controversy surrounding this book has ended up sparking another important conversation about own voices. In the end the publisher has cancelled the event but not before our staff and our community engaged in critical conversations about immigration, the horrible atrocity happening at the US border by the US government, freedom of speech, and own voices."

Then on Wednesday afternoon, Flatiron finally issued their own statement regarding the book's publication and the event cancellations. In the statement, publisher Bob Miller says that both he and the rest of the staff had been caught off guard by the backlash to "American Dirt.

"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. "The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them."

Miller also apologized for the way in which "American Dirt" was promoted before its release. 

"On a more specific scale, we made serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book," Miller said. "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; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly. We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them."

However, the statement also positions Cummins as a victim, and moves from apologetic to chiding. One paragraph in the release says that it's "unfortunate that she is the recipient from hatred within the communities she sought to honor. We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor." 

Finally, Flatiron announced that some of the planned book readings will be replaced with town hall-style meetings in which Cummins, as well as groups who "raised objections to the books," will be available to field questions and move towards a solution. 

But since the book's release, nearly 50,000 copies have already sold. It currently sits atop the New York Times best sellers list. Reviews from general readers on sites like Goodreads and Book Marks, they are all overwhelmingly positive. 

There's an obvious disconnect between the experience of Latinx authors — who, by offering criticism to this book, are giving voice to migrants — and the general American public, and therein lies the biggest issue with the novel. While "American Dirt" may be fiction, it's all rooted in the experiences of those migrants, and to pretend otherwise is doing a dangerous disservice to our collective understanding of a very real, very pressing political issue. 

 


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture.

MORE FROM Ashlie D. Stevens


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American Dirt Books Border Detention Explainer Fiction Flatiron Publishing Jeanine Cummins Migration Publishing

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •