The saga of American Dirt, the controversial new novel about Mexican migration by Jeanine Cummins, has a new wrinkle. Publisher Flatiron Books announced Wednesday that it would be canceling the remainder of Cummins’s planned book tour, citing “specific” threats of “physical violence,” according to the New York Times’s book publishing reporter Alexandra Alter. Meanwhile, critics of the novel say that they, too, have received threats.
American Dirt was a heavily promoted and buzzy book before its publication on January 21. It won plaudits from luminaries like Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros, and Oprah chose it for her book club. But multiple critics have argued that Cummins, who is not of Mexican heritage, traffics in harmful stereotypes about Mexicans, and that her book does not deserve the level of institutional support from publishing that it has received.
Now, in the face of overwhelming controversy, some of those supporters are walking back their platitudes. On Tuesday, Oprah declared her intention to change her planned coverage of the book into a series of conversations. And now, Flatiron is modifying Cummins’s upcoming 40-city book tour.
So far, Cummins has made only five stops on her planned tour. In a statement Alter first reported on Twitter, Flatiron publisher Bob Miller said that the tour would be canceled because of “specific threats to booksellers and the author” which in some cases included “threats of physical violence.” Miller added that “we believe there exists real peril to their safety.”
Instead, Flatiron plans to send Cummins out in a series of town hall events with “some of the groups who have raised objections to the book,” Miller says, adding, “We believe that this provides an opportunity to come together and unearth difficult truths to help us move forward as a community.”
His statement added an apology for the early publicity of American Dirt, which made much of the fact that Cummins’s husband used to be undocumented without noting that he was from Ireland; the PR also included a book party featuring barbed-wire-themed decorations. “We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them,” Miller said.
“The gesture is cowardly,” said the writer Myriam Gurba of Miller’s plans in a statement to Vox. Gurba wrote one of the first critical reviews of American Dirt, and she is one of the organizers behind the literary political protest group #DignidadLiteraria, which arose in response to the American Dirt controversy. “Latinx people are under threat in this country,” Gurba says, “and they are attempting to reframe the issue [as one] that falsely implicates Latinx people as a threat.”
Latinos are at significant risk of violence in the US, with the FBI reporting that hate crimes against them rose to a 16-year high in 2019. Gurba says that she has received death threats in response to her review of American Dirt. She shared one with Vox, in which the sender instructed her to “please confront the police in person” so that “one of them will relieve you of the burden of a life spent in feckless fury,” before concluding, “alternatively, make me a taco.”
#DignidadLiteraria has repeatedly issued statements saying that it was not involved in any threats Cummins, her publishers, or booksellers might have received. “We support free speech and welcome discussing & debating why we find the book’s content & racially tainted promotion so repugnant,” said organizer Roberto Lovato in a tweet.
Instead, the group has been pushing for conversation. And others who object to the book’s content have been pushing for Oprah to remove her book club’s seal of approval from American Dirt. Many of them published an open letter to Oprah on the book-centric website LitHub this morning, with signatures from 82 writers, including major names like Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado, Rebecca Solnit, and R.O. Kwon.
“This is not a letter calling for silencing, nor censoring,” the letter reads. “But in a time of widespread misinformation, fear-mongering, and white-supremacist propaganda related to immigration and to our border, in a time when adults and children are dying in US immigration cages, we believe that a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up. We are asking only that you remove the influential imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club.”
In the meantime, all of the controversy around American Dirt seems to have been good business for Flatiron Books. Official sales data for the book does not yet exist, but the industry publication Publishers Lunch projected on Tuesday that American Dirt would sell around 40,000 print units and 21,000 ebooks in its first week of publication. The publication is expecting the book to debut at No. 1 on the New York Times fiction bestseller list.
Correction: An earlier version of this article identified a letter to Oprah as an initiative of #DignidadLiteraria. The letter was composed separately. We regret the error.