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As the ‘American Dirt’ backlash ramps up, Sandra Cisneros doubles down on her support

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Author Sandra Cisneros praised Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt” long before a storm of controversy surrounded it.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Author Sandra Cisneros reaffirmed her support for the contentious migrant novel “American Dirt” just hours after the book’s publisher canceled writer Jeanine Cummins’ promotional tour.

Cisneros, the esteemed Mexican American author of “The House on Mango Street,” joined journalist Maria Hinojosa for an exclusive interview that aired Wednesday on the NPR podcast “Latino USA.”

Cisneros, an early champion who called “American Dirt” “the great novel of las Americas” and “the international story of our times” in a blurb before the book was published, doubled down on her love for it. She argues that it holds the potential to educate an audience that hasn’t previously been exposed to migrant stories.

“It’s going to be [an audience] who maybe is undecided about issues at the border,” Cisneros told Hinojosa. “It’s going to be someone who wants to be entertained, and the story is going to enter like a Trojan horse and change minds. And it’s going to change the minds that, perhaps, I can’t change.”

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Cisneros, who recently praised Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s “Children of the Land,” a memoir about growing up undocumented, had been silent since a firestorm gripped “American Dirt” after its publication Jan. 21.

Critics have condemned the migrant tale as a harmful act of cultural appropriation, riddled with stereotypes about Mexico and the struggles of migrants. On Twitter, the Latinx community responded with “Writing my Latino novel,” a thread of satirical, snarky reaction posts making fun of the book’s clichés.

For Wednesday’s podcast episode, Hinojosa also spoke to Cummins; writer Myriam Gurba, who wrote an explosive critique of the novel; and Luis Alberto Urrea, a Mexican American author who writes about life on the border.

“It felt like a slap in the face,” Gurba told Hinojosa of her experience reading Cummins’ work in Mexico. “It felt insulting that I am in a country with a tremendous cultural history and a tremendous literary history, and I’m reading a book with an introductory letter from a publisher that argues that this author is going to give a face to the faceless. And I’m looking around at my Mexican family, and we all have faces. And faces and voices matter in my family.”

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Celebrities endorsed ‘American Dirt’ — then the reactions on Twitter turned negative. Cries of appropriation — and barbed-wire centerpieces — spark scorn for book

Most initial supporters of the book, including John Grisham and Stephen King, have not publicly responded to the brewing backlash. Novelist Ann Patchett, however, told the Los Angeles Times last week that she stood by her opinion: “I read the book and I loved it. That experience can’t be changed by people who don’t like it.”

Last week, “American Dirt” publisher Flatiron Books acknowledged the controversy the book had sparked but maintained its defense of it. On Wednesday, however, the imprint walked back its support, canceling the entire “American Dirt” book tour due to “safety” concerns.

Individual bookstore discussions and signings with Cummins had already been canceled across the country, including in Southern California. Cummins also withdrew from a Los Angeles Times Book Club event scheduled for March 11.

Oprah Winfrey, left, with author Jeanine Cummins
Oprah Winfrey, left, with author Jeanine Cummins on “CBS This Morning” earlier this month.
(John Paul Filo / CBS)

“American Dirt” tells the story of Lydia and her 8-year-old son, Luca, who are fleeing from their home in Acapulco after a drug cartel kills more than a dozen of their family members during a quinceañera. They flee north on a treacherous, 2,645-mile journey, disguising themselves as migrants in an effort to cross the border.

Cummins was also included in the NPR conversation and addressed some of the complaints she’d received since the book hit shelves, including an uproar over photos she shared of a fan’s nail art and floral centerpieces at a publisher launch party inspired by her book cover. Both, like the novel’s key art, featured barbed wire as a decoration.

“The writer has very little to do with the publication of the book and is often unaware of things that are going out,” Cummins said, before adding, “There were some things I was aware of that I, in retrospect, recognized as problematic.”

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In the interview, Urrea said the public outcry over “American Dirt” wasn’t over Cummins’ ethnicity nor the seven-figure advance she received. The problem was in her novel’s portrayal of Mexico, its people and the border.

“Part of the issue is that this ... is a minstrel show, the absolutely wrong, mishandled, absurd, cartoonish lack of knowledge about us, about our culture, about the frontera,” he told Hinojosa.

He also admitted that he didn’t want to read the book after his wife became “agitated” and told him: “There’s a lot of material here that seems awfully familiar” to his work.

The Latino USA interview comes on the heels of open letters written to Oprah Winfrey, who waded into the controversy when she selected “American Dirt” as her latest book club pick, later promising that discussions about the book would be “deeper” and “more substantive.”

Also on Wednesday, a letter attributed to more than 120 “writers of diverse backgrounds” was published on the website Literary Hub.

Jeanine Cummins’ novel about a migrant family, “American Dirt,” hasn’t been published yet but has already stirred a debate: Who should tell what stories?

The letter, signed by Valeria Luiselli and Urrea, among many other high-profile authors, asked Winfrey to “remove the influential imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club, as you have in the past upon learning that a book you’d championed wasn’t what it first seemed to be.”

The authors explained that the letter was not a call to silence or censor, nor was it written to attack Cummins. Instead, they said, “in a time of widespread misinformation, fearmongering, 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.”

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In another petition, writers questioned Winfrey’s ability to discuss the book from “all sides” of the “issue.”

”[W]e believe [Gurba] and the thousands of Latinos joining #DignidadLiteraria should have a say as to what the ‘issue’ is and who we believe needs to be in the dialogue,” they wrote, adding that the only two sides that need to be discussing the controversy are Latinx voices and “executives and other publishing powers-that-be.”


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