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

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here. 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…

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

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.

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.

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“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.

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