UPDATE: Flatiron Books canceled Cummins's appearance at Warwick's in La Jolla, Calif., scheduled for tonight, and at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, scheduled for Tuesday evening. While Warwick's simply posted on its website that the publisher canceled tonight's event "due to safety concerns," Vroman's posted the following statement on its website: "This event has been canceled by the publisher. Months ago when booking the event, we believed we were booking a novel about an important issue of our time and hoped it would spark needed discussions about immigration. The controversy surrounding this book has ended up sparking another important conversation about own voices. In the end the publisher has cancelled the event but not before our staff and our community engaged in critical conversations about immigration, the horrible atrocity happening at the US border by the US government, freedom of speech, and own voices. For these conversations we are grateful and we hope they continue."
As Jeanine Cummins continues her 40-city national tour for her hot-off-the-presses novel American Dirt, the uproar about it and its author shows little signs of abating. In St. Louis, Left Bank Books canceled an offsite author event scheduled for Sunday afternoon at the Ethical Society. Hours before the cancellation, Left Bank had announced on social media that it was adding a group of Latinx members of the St. Louis community to the event with Cummins to engage in a discussion about the book, as well as “the humanitarian crisis on the border and local Latinx issues.”
According to an open letter posted on its website and on social media, Left Bank stated that it had hoped by scheduling the event with Cummins discussing American Dirt, that it would “promote a topical book written by someone who has deep St. Louis connections.” The letter continued: “We sincerely believed it would be an opportunity to have an overdue public conversation about the deplorable actions of our country towards people at the border.... We sincerely believed that Cummins’ novel was as good a starting place as any for folks who have not been fully aware of the issues and suffering. That the book could put a human face on the headlines.”
But, Left Bank added, some people on social media, including those who identified as Latinx, insisted that the store should not host a white author who has written about the Latinx immigrant experience from a Latinx perspective. “Where are the Latinx voices, where are those authors?” Left Bank’s open letter claimed these people asked.
Even after Left Bank’s announcement that it was adding Latinx speakers to the program, emotions remained high. “Some in the community pushed back harder,” the open letter stated, “Posts on social media, calls to our venue partners and others were made insisting we cancel the event. It felt like the struggle we've been a part of for years [was] aimed back at us. It hurt. And it felt like a challenge to do better.”
Co-owner Kris Kleindienst said in a telephone interview on Sunday afternoon that “there were not actual threats, as in ‘I am going to hurt you.’ But the conversation got so ugly so quickly; it went from zero to one thousand in less than a week. We weren’t sure that we could provide what we had envisioned: a safe, respectful, and meaningful conversation. We were not prepared for what might happen, and I didn’t want to put my staff and the Ethical Society staff through that.”
Kleindienst said that she and store events coordinator Shane Mullen were both en route from Baltimore and WI15 on Saturday at the height of the social media frenzy, and were both monitoring the situation and maintaining contact with store personnel. “The decision was made before the plane landed,” she said. “And by the time we deplaned, it had been canceled. We wanted it to be thoughtful, but we felt rushed and pushed. We knew we weren’t going to be able to put on the event we wanted, so why?”
Left Bank will ship the book “free freight,” Kleindienst said, to the 200 people or so who were expected to attend the event. Some of those people paid for copies of American Dirt and, she added, don’t want the refund Left Bank is offering them.
During a lively Q&A during WI15 between Chicago bookseller Javier Ramirez of Madison Street Books and Cummins, Kleindienst was one of the audience members who took the microphone to defend American Dirt to her fellow booksellers, describing it as a novel “about life and about trauma,” about the love of a parent for her child and determination to protect that child from harm. “We get a lot of things through this book, besides the immigration story,” Kleindienst said from the floor.
As for other bookstores on Cummins’ tour—which is making stops on its first leg primarily at indies and at the Savannah Book Festival on Feb. 15—Parnassus Bookstore in Nashville, which hosted Cummins Saturday night, reported that the event went well, bringing out a large crowd.
“Social media has been brutal,” said Sissy Gardner, assistant floor manager, “so we were pleasantly surprised: it was really calm and people listened to her. She had a lot to say especially about things she had no control over during the publishing process. She said she wrote the book, she didn't publish the book. It was a really good event.”
A few of the indies on the American Dirt tour circuit that PW was able to reach on Sunday reported that they were taking steps to protect Cummins and to prevent disruptions to their event by adding security that one store said had been requested. But Pamela Klinger-Horn of Excelsior Bay Books, which is hosting Cummins and three other authors on Feb. 7 at an offsite venue as part of its Literature Lovers' Night Out series, said that organizers are proceeding as usual. Klinger-Horn added that the police can arrive "in an instant" if need be to the suburban Minneapolis church in which the event will take place.
“I am tired of dealing with this mess,” Klinger-Horn said. “People should read the book or not read the book. It is one of many voices, and in America, we all have the right to speak.”