‘American Dirt’ author receives death threats amid national stir over novel

Following the publication of her novel American Dirt in January 2020, Jeanine Cummins received public criticism for allegedly whitewashing, monetizing, and mischaracterizing the narrative of border-crossing Mexican immigrants. Despite having also garnered significant literary acclaim, Cummins began to receive death threats because of the content of her novel. 

Key Players

Jeanine Cummins is an American author who has written several novels, including The Outside Boy and The Crooked Branch, as well as a memoir called A Rip in Heaven. She has also gained notoriety for declarations she made in the past regarding identity, such as a 2016 op-ed she wrote for The New York Times in which she said writing about race as a white author made her uncomfortable, and later, in 2019, when she self-identified in interviews as Latinx because her grandmother is Puerto Rican. American Dirt, Cummins’ most recent novel, tells the story of a mother and son escaping cartel violence in Acapulco, Mexico, by fleeing to the United States. 

Further Details

In the prepublication review stage, critics were divided in their views of American Dirt. Latinx author and critic Myriam Gurba’s review of the novel went viral, inspiring much of the subsequent social media rage. Gurba’s chief concerns, including Cummins’ “clumsy and distorted” use of a Mexican narrative as a white author and her perceived “white saviorism,” were shared by many on Twitter, with some critics and readers calling for a boycott of the novel. The book’s marketing campaign made matters worse, when photos from a late 2019 publishing event circulated on the internet, showing centerpieces decorated with barbed wire. Many found this decor decision offensive, according to Vox

But not everyone was opposed to Cummins’ work. Having chosen American Dirt as January’s book of the month, Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club continued to praise and publicize it, even as much of Winfrey’s fanbase protested, according to The Cut. Though several prominent authors of color wrote to Winfrey, asking her to reconsider hosting Cummins to discuss the book, Winfrey decided not to remove it from her list, stating on her Instagram, “It’s clear that we need to have a different kind of conversation about American Dirt and we welcome everyone’s thoughts and opinions in our community.” Other authors and critics, including Ann Patchett and Lauren Groff, defended Cummins’ novel, with Patchett writing to the Associated Press that “for the record, I loved ‘American Dirt.’ I’ve never in my life seen this kind of public flogging.”

Cummins’ publisher, Flatiron Books, did voice some concern about American Dirt before it was released, however. “Everyone saw this coming, but some people thought that the book’s politics were liberal enough that no one would attack it. They underestimated how the circular firing squad works,” Flatiron’s editorial director, told Slate.


American Dirt Book Tour canceled 

Following threats — mostly from anonymous Twitter accounts — and extreme public pressure, Cummins canceled her book tour in January 2020. In a statement from Flatiron Books, spokesperson Bob Miller said, “We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor. Unfortunately, our concerns about safety have led us to the difficult decision to cancel the book tour.” Miller also noted Flatiron Books’ intention to sponsor a series of town halls to discuss American Dirt and the lack of diversity throughout the literary and publishing industries, according to Vox. Those sessions never materialized, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the tour’s cancellation, Jeanine Cummins did stream an AppleTV discussion for Oprah’s Book Club on March 6, 2020. The virtual event focused on addressing the public backlash against the novel and featured three Latinx authors in a conversation on the book’s content, according to The New York Times. Cummins’ critics, especially her early opponents like Gurba, faced their own backlash from the Twitterverse. Gurba, in particular, became the target of death threats and hate speech focused on her own racial identity, according to The Baltimore Sun.