Books

'American Dirt' publisher stands by polarizing novel amid brewing backlash

#x201c;American Dirt#x201d; be Jeanin Cummins (Flatiron Books)
“American Dirt” be Jeanin Cummins (Flatiron Books)

As harsh criticism continues to roil Jeanine Cummins’ buzzy immigrant novel, “American Dirt,” publisher Flatiron Books stands by the divisive book but acknowledges the brewing backlash it has sparked.

In a statement provided to the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, the imprint continued to defend the title, saying that it seeks to generate “empathy” for migrants.

“We are carefully listening to the conversation happening around the novel,” the statement said. “ ‘American Dirt’ asks the question, ‘How far will a mother go to protect her son?’ and in the course of answering that question, gives us empathy with our fellow human beings who are struggling to find safety in our unsafe world.”

While some have hailed Cummins’ latest work as a poignant and humanizing tale of one migrant family’s harrowing journey to America, several others have slammed it as harmful and careless cultural appropriation.

“The concerns that have been raised, including the question of who gets to tell which stories, are valid ones in relation to literature and we welcome the conversation,” the statement added.

Told from a mother’s perspective, “American Dirt” follows Lydia and her 8-year-old son, Luca, as they mount a dangerous escape from their home of Acapulco, Mexico, after a drug cartel murders several of their family members at a quinceanera.

Despite its polarizing narrative — which critics say is riddled with offensive stereotypes — the novel has gained a handful of celebrity supporters, including “Jane the Virgin” star Gina Rodriguez (who has since deleted her Instagram endorsement), author-producer Stephen King and “Roma” breakout Yalitza Aparicio.

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Oprah Winfrey proudly declared “American Dirt” her latest book club pick earlier this week. (The Los Angeles Times Book Club will host an event with Cummins and Times editor Steve Padilla on March 11.)

Backlash on social media, however, has been swift and unforgiving, especially after writer Myriam Gurba published a scathing review that has since gone viral.

“Jeanine Cummins’ narco-novel, ‘American Dirt,’ is a literary licuado (smoothie) that tastes like its title,” Gurba wrote in her takedown. She argued that the book “fails to convey any Mexican sensibility. It aspires to be Dia de los Muertos but it instead embodies Halloween.”

Skeptics have accused Cummins — who was born in Spain, raised in Maryland and identifies as white and Latina — and the American publishing industry as a whole of stifling real migrant voices while fetishizing and capitalizing on their suffering.

The firestorm even launched a snarky new meme trend called “Writing my Latino novel,” in which readers spoof Cummins’ writing style with lots of italicized Spanish language and over-the-top cliches about Mexican culture.

“How Mexican am I? My dad was a taco; my mother a pinata. I was born on Cinco de Mayo, Mexico’s most holy day,” one Twitter user quipped. “When I was 4, I was being trained to run drugs for the cartel but I knew I wanted to be a dancer. So, I started my trip to the US.”

During her “Oprah’s Book Club” reveal on Tuesday’s “CBS This Morning,” Cummins defended herself, explaining that even she questioned whether she had the right to tell this story, until she conducted extensive research on the subject, consulted with a Chicano studies expert and visited the border.

“I always knew that I wanted to write about immigration,” she said during the segment. “I was interested in that topic, and I resisted, for a very long time, telling the story from a migrant’s point of view because I was worried that I didn’t know enough — that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths.”

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