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Wrapping Up The Conversation Around 'American Dirt,' A Lauded Then Reviled Book


The new novel "American Dirt" hit shelves earlier this month. First, it was lauded, and then it was reviled. It's a page-turning tale of a woman fleeing Mexico with her son, trying to make her way into the U.S. The author is white, and many Latinos have called her out for missing the mark culturally. Maria Hinojosa from Latino USA spoke with four people who have found themselves at the center of this conversation, including the author Jeanine Cummins. Maria told us that writer Sandra Cisneros thought "American Dirt" offered an opportunity to share Latino stories, however imperfect.

MARIA HINOJOSA, BYLINE: She called it a Trojan horse. She said a lot of people may not pick up a novel written by Sandra Cisneros about the border or about migrants, but they may pick up this novel and see it as a kind of entertaining, you know, gripping thriller. And so she said that's...

CHANG: And that was OK? I mean, we should mention that Cisneros blurbed the book. And she was saying, that's OK, that - if it were just a thriller?

HINOJOSA: And she's saying that means that another audience is going to get to this book, and it's an audience that has maybe never thought about migrants and refugees in any sense that feels human, and so they're important to reach.

And then we spoke with the writer Luis Alberto Urrea. He is Mexican American. He's written about the border since the 1980s. He's written about migrants, both nonfiction and fiction. And he basically said, you know, what does it mean when those of us who have been kind of writing these stories and told by New York publishing houses like, no one really cares about this, when suddenly somebody who is not from this community gets paid, you know, a seven-figure sum to write this book?

CHANG: Well, what about Cummins? When you had a chance to talk to her, it was days into the controversy erupting around the book. Did you get the sense that she had regrets about the way she wrote the book?

HINOJOSA: I don't think that she expressed regret about the writing of the book or the way that she approached it. I think she expressed regret about the conversation not being broad enough or focusing on the book per se.

I think the problem, again, is when you read the novel, when you get to the end, there's an afterword that is written by Jeanine Cummins, in her own words. It's where she opens up this can of worms and kind of says, I don't know if I should have written this book. Maybe I'm not dark enough to have written this book. Should I have written this book? My husband's undocumented - dot, dot, dot - didn't say that her husband is European undocumented.

So that was where a lot of people were like, well, why didn't you just write the book and say it's a thriller, say it's a narco thriller, it's a great read for the airport, you know, and be done with it, instead of it's - you know, a kind of Latina writer that is, you know, being positioned now as writing the great American immigrant novel? And it's just like - that just goes to show, writ large, how the publishing industry is, in fact, tone deaf, that they don't kind of get it.

And so I hope, my greatest hope is that there is some actual listening that is happening and that actual change happens in terms of the industry being more representative.

CHANG: So now the publisher has announced that they have canceled this book tour. They say it's due to security concerns; it is not about the author trying to opt out of discussions concerning the book. Do you think it was a good idea for this book tour to get canceled?

HINOJOSA: I will tell you that in Latino-Latina Twitter world out there, people are saying, well, where's the proof? Where were the threats? Can we see them? Because I think now this is adding even more salt on the wound. It's like, look - Latinos and Latinas are angry in the United States of America, and people kind of need to understand that. You know, that's - we are targeted by this administration kind of on a daily. It's not made up; it's actually true. And so there is a tremendous amount of anger.

But this thought that we are not capable of having intense, intellectual, academic, literary discussions safely and respectfully - and therefore we can't do this; you guys are out of control; we've got to cancel this - it's like, well, this is definitely not where we wanted things to land, where it's like Latinos and Latinas can't handle their emotions? No, we can. And I would hope that the publishing house says, let's find a way to create more dialogue.

CHANG: Maria Hinojosa is the host of NPR's Latino USA.

Thank you very much for joining us.

HINOJOSA: Thank you, Ailsa. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.