If you are angry about Jeanine Cummins’ novel “American Dirt,” that is perfectly fine.
If you are one of the people threatening Cummins and threatening booksellers for carrying her book, that is not fine. That is not even close to fine. I don’t care how angry you are.
During the two weeks since “American Dirt” was published, the uproar has gotten louder and louder. I think it’s tremendous when people are reading books and arguing over books and books are smack in the middle of the cultural conversation.
But it is not OK for Cummins’ publisher to have to cancel her book tour out of fear for her safety. Do I have to tell you that’s wrong? OK: That’s wrong.
There was a lot of buzz around “American Dirt” from the beginning, a novel about a Mexican woman who flees a murdering drug cartel with her son and tries to get to the American border. Will she make it? Will the United States let her in? What could be more timely?
I don’t think anyone has said it’s high literature — more that it’s a gripping page-turner that shines a light on what migrants at our southern border are enduring.
It was named an Oprah book. The book’s publisher, Flatiron, set up an extensive tour (including to Excelsior on Feb. 7 — now canceled) and then everything hit the fan.
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The backlash first came from critics who were furious that Cummins is not Mexican. She is part Puerto Rican, but Puerto Rican is not Mexican, and ethnicities are not interchangeable, and that was the first problem.
There were complaints that Cummins relied on stereotypes; that she mangled the Spanish language; that she got basic things wrong; that she appropriated the stories of Mexicans, stole their experiences for her own use.
The anger that “Dirt” has unleashed predates the book and was a long time building, from people who believe that their voices are not heard, that publishers are overwhelmingly white and prefer white writers.
They were angry that Cummins identified as white until it was expedient to identify as Latinx. Angry that she got a huge advance for the book when Mexican writers are struggling to get published at all. Angry that at a book party last spring the table decorations were taken from the jacket of the book — bricks and barbed wire. The anger just built and built.
Perhaps Cummins’ book tour should have been canceled because of these problems. Instead, it was canceled because of “specific threats to booksellers and the author,” Flatiron publisher Bob Miller said Wednesday in a statement. “We believe there exists real peril to their safety.”
This is terrible — chilling, and terrible. Just as chilling: Plenty of people on Twitter do not believe there really were threats but think the publisher is making this up.
Publishing books is a business. Selling books is a business. If you don’t like the books that are being published, by all means, raise your voice! Shout it out on Twitter, in letters to publishers. Let bookstores know you want different books. Let Oprah know you think this book shouldn’t be her book club choice. (So far 121 writers have asked her to remove it from her book club.)
Oprah will host a conversation about the book and the response to it in March. Flatiron is planning a series of town hall meetings with Cummins and “some of the groups who have raised objections to this book,” Miller said.
This seems to me to be the way to go. Threats are a great way to silence people. They are not a great way to start a conversation. So start a conversation. Don’t drown people out — change some minds.