Why Everyone's So Mad About ‘American Dirt,’ the New Immigration Novel Oprah Loved

Floral arrangements covered in barbed-wire are just the beginning.
January 30, 2020, 8:42pm
"American Dirt," a novel by Jeanine Cummins and Oprah's Book club selection, is seen on the shelves at a Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Julia Weeks)

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Jeanine Cummins’ fourth novel, “American Dirt,” was supposed to be the next literary phenomenon.

But just over a week after its release, the author’s remaining appearances have been canceled after “specific threats” lead to concerns about her safety, according to Flatiron Books President Bob Miller. Critics have said the book’s depictions of Mexican culture are inaccurate, cliche, and offensive. They’ve also called the marketing surrounding the book insensitive.

First, photos from a bookseller dinner at Book Expo 2019 showed that the event was decorated with opulent floral arrangements wrapped in barbed wire, meant to mimic the book's cover. Tweets of Cummins praising a fan’s nail art, also mirroring the cover, began to go viral shortly after.

While promoting the book, Cummins also highlighted the fact that her husband was once an undocumented immigrant. What she failed to mention is that he’s originally from Ireland, not a Latin American country. In the past, Cummins has identified as white, though her grandmother was born in Puerto Rico.

“American Dirt” tells the story of a young Mexican bookstore owner forced to flee her town for the U.S. after her journalist husband is killed by the local drug cartel. During a press stop in Washington, Cummins said she conducted five years’ worth of research, consisting of visiting the U.S.-Mexico border, orphanages, and soup kitchens for migrants, according to the New York Times. She also received a seven-figure advance, and the movie rights were sold off as early as last June.

The novel received mostly positive reviews prior to its release on Jan. 21. Renowned authors like Stephen King called it “an extraordinary piece of work.” Others hailed it as “the 'Grapes of Wrath' of our time.” Oprah Winfrey even earmarked “American Dirt” as the latest book to enter her famous Book Club.

But shortly after the book’s release, a biting review from Mexican writer Myriam Gurba published last month went viral, and the initial reception seemed to sour.

“Rather than face that we are their moral and intellectual equals, they happily pity us,” Gurba writes in the review. “Pity is what inspires their sweet tooth for Mexican pain, a craving many of them hide. This denial motivates their spending habits, resulting in a preference for trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf. To satisfy this demand, Cummins tossed together American Dirt, a ‘road thriller’ that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin.”

The controversy has inspired countless other writers who were also offended by the book’s depiction of a Mexico ravaged by drug cartels and its not-so-current portrait of the U.S. as a sanctuary for immigrants. Writer David Bowles pointed out that several excerpts from the book are pulled directly from other works by Latino creatives. It also sparked a larger conversation over the inequities and lack of opportunities for people of color in the publishing industry.

On Wednesday, a petition signed by over 120 “Latinx writers and thinkers,” was sent Oprah, asking her to rescind her endorsement of the book. The media mogul promised to have a “deeper discussion” about American Dirt on the next episode of her AppleTV Plus television show.

Cummins has been mostly silent since the backlash began. But in an interview with NPR’s Latino USA, the author explained that while she didn’t expect the criticism, she now understands where it’s coming from.

“I’m feeling disappointed in the tenor of the conversation,” she said. “It’s not where I hoped to be. I think I’m beginning to understand it and get my footing. I understand that there’s a tremendous amount of earned frustration among communities of color when it comes to the publishing industry. It’s not just a very white industry, it’s also a very affluent, white industry.”

Despite the controversy, the book is doing well. It currently sits at number one on both Amazon’s list of bestselling books and the New York Times’ Best Sellers list.

In a letter published Wednesday evening, Miller addressed the overwhelming response the book has received among Latino writers and social media users.

“When we began the journey of supporting this book, it quickly spawned as much excitement and anticipation as any book I can remember in my 40 years working in the publishing business,” Miller wrote. “We were therefore surprised by the anger that has emerged from members of the Latinx and publishing communities.”

Miller said that the book tour will be replaced by a series of public town hall meetings around the country where Cummins “will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book.” Details on where these town halls will be held have yet to be announced.

Cover image: "American Dirt," a novel by Jeanine Cummins and Oprah's Book club selection, is seen on the shelves at a Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Julia Weeks)