'American Dirt' publisher cancels bookstore events with Jeanine Cummins

Following criticism that the book is racist toward Latinos, Flatiron Books canceled events with Cummins at two California bookstores this week.
Image: American Dirt J3anine Cummins
'American Dirt' by Jeanine Cummins.Flatiron Books

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By Gwen Aviles

Three of seven bookstores scheduled to host "American Dirt" author Jeanine Cummins this week have canceled their events — two under the direction of the novel's publisher — following an onslaught of social media criticism from Latino critics, who categorized the book as "racist" and "stereotypical."

The much-anticipated "American Dirt," which was released last Tuesday, was met with a slew of negative reviews and immediately inspired memes and a social media campaign called #DignidadLiteraria, or "literary dignity," that calls for Latinos to share their stories and stage actions to raise awareness in a publishing industry that is 80 percent white.

The book is about a Mexican bookstore owner who migrates toward the U.S. border with her son after her journalist husband and other family members are killed by a ruthless drug cartel.

Following the backlash, prominent Latino stars like Salma Hayek, who had touted the book online, backtracked and apologized for promoting it. Even Oprah Winfrey, who gave the novel her coveted stamp of approval by picking it as her February book club pick, pretty much guaranteeing it to be a bestseller, appears to be moving away from her initial praise. She posted a video Sunday on Instagram saying that while she was "moved" upon first reading the book, she believes "we need to have a different kind of conversation" after reading the various criticism.

Flatiron Books, publisher of "American Dirt," a division of Macmillan, told NBC News on Tuesday that it understands and respects that people are discussing the book and that it has sparked "passionate conversations," but said it had still canceled events at two California bookstores this week — an unprecedented move given that publishers are responsible for marketing their authors' work.

The first event was scheduled for Monday evening at Warwick's, in La Jolla, California. The owners of the bookstore declined to comment, but provided NBC News with a statement from Flatiron Books, which attributed the cancellation to "safety concerns." The second event was scheduled for Tuesday evening at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, which posted a brief online statement confirming that Flatiron Books had canceled the event.

Flatiron Books did not immediately respond to NBC News about either of these cancellations.

"In the end the publisher has canceled the event but not before our staff and our community engaged in critical conversations about immigration, the horrible atrocity happening at the U.S. border by the U.S. government, freedom of speech and own voices," read the statement from Vroman's Bookstore. "For these conversations we are grateful and we hope they continue."

Another author event, scheduled for Sunday at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, was also canceled. The decision, however, was made by the bookstore's owners, not Flatiron Books.

Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, told NBC News that although the staff initially attempted to "adapt the format of the event to address the reasonable criticisms raised by members of the Latinx community," the bookstore ultimately didn't have the resources, including facilitators and a de-escalation plan, to make the event "meaningful." Instead, she said the bookstore is looking at future programming to make sure it "makes space for all" as it "processes community feedback."

Not everyone was thrilled with Left Bank Books' decision to cancel the event, however.

"We've been criticized for enabling censorship and caving into cancel culture," Kleindienst said. "I feel strongly that we did neither and that, instead, we postponed this conversation until we could have it in a responsible way, a way that doesn't inflict more pain."

According to a representative from Book Passage in Corte Madera, an event set for Wednesday with Cummins will take place as scheduled.