This Is What Jeanine Cummings Said Wednesday About ‘American Dirt’ Controversy

Jan 23, 2020
7:46 AM

In a Wednesday story posted by, author Jeanine Cummings was asked about the controversy surrounding her American Dirt novel. Cummings was at Baltimore’s Winter Institute during an American Booksellers Association session called “Creating Conversations Around American Dirt.”  It was part of the Bookseller Javier Ramirez asked Cummins the following question at the end of the session: “Many people are asking, what gives you the right to tell the story?”

This is what she said, according to LitHub and the PublishersLunch official transcript of the session:

This is a hard question to answer. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to answer it. The fact is that that is a question that I asked myself for five years. I struggled with that question for a very long time. I resisted writing this book. I threw out two complete drafts. And I lived in fear of this moment, of being called to account for myself: “Who do you think you are?”

And in the end, the people who I met along the way, the migrants who I spoke to, the people who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect vulnerable people, they showed me what real courage looks like. They made me recognize my own cowardice. When people are really putting their lives on the line, to be afraid of writing a book felt like cowardice.

. . .

I think this is an important conversation. I feel like it is a question that needs to be directed more firmly toward publishers than at individual writers. I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write.

I acknowledge that there is tremendous inequity in the industry, about who gets attention for writing what books . . . I’m aware that in the court of public opinion on my ethnicity at this point I am the white lady. I am also Puerto Rican. I am a Latinx woman. And I’m not a migrant. But I feel like putting that so central to the conversation makes me—I’m in such an uncomfortable position about how to identify myself and how to account for things that are beyond my reckoning.

When asked about how her book is only harmful for inaccurate portrayals of Mexico and Mexicans, Cummins said this: “I don’t know if I want to say anything to that. I feel like it’s for the reader to decide. I understand where the criticism comes from. I think I understand where it’s born. I feel like the book needs to stand on its own merits. If people read it on its own merits and then decide that they hate it based on what is in the pages, that’s OK. Not everyone needs to love my book.“

Publishers Weekly also filed a story about the session, noting, “While most of the audience was clearly supportive of Cummins, there were booksellers present who were, and remain, critical of American Dirt and its author.“