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St. Louis Booksellers, Wash U Prof And Community Members Reflect On ‘American Dirt’ Controversy

From left, Kelly Von Plonski, Ignacio Sanchez Prado and Kris Kleindienst joined Tuesday's program.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Twenty-nine years ago this spring, Jeanine Cummins lost two of her cousins in a brutal attack on the old Chain of Rocks Bridge that spans the Mississippi River about 10 miles north of downtown St. Louis — now a popular pedestrian bridge. Her brother was also a victim in the incident. He survived, but the impact on the Cumminses and their loved ones reverberated for years.

In 2004, Cummins published a memoir about the aftermath of that crime, “A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath.” But the strong attention it got pales in comparison to the press Cummins’ latest book, a work of fiction titled “American Dirt” (January 2020, Flatiron Books), has garnered in recent days. 

Oprah Winfrey endorsed the novel for her book club, and the New York Times’ book review gave it a rave. But not all of the press has been good. Some critics blasted it, saying its ascent came at the expense of authentic Latino voices. The outcry led Left Bank Books to cancel Cummins’ planned appearance on Jan. 26 at the Ethical Society of St. Louis.

In a public letter, co-owner Kris Kleindienst explained that the local bookstore had initially viewed the event as “an opportunity to have an overdue public conversation about the deplorable actions of our country towards people at the border.” The novel follows the character Lydia, a Mexican woman who flees threats of violence and organized crime with her son Luca as they attempt to find safety in the U.S.

“We sincerely believed [the] Cummins novel was as good a starting place as any for folks who have not been fully aware of the issues and suffering,” Kleindienst’s letter continued. “That the book could put a human face on the headlines. [But when] we announced the event, some in our community pushed back. Why, they asked, would we promote a white author who writes about a Latinx experience? And where are the Latinx voices? Where are those authors?”

The bookstore’s decision to cancel the author’s reading ignited heated responses online, with many applauding Left Bank Books for listening to community concerns. Others expressed concern about the implications for other writers, topics and fields. Some angrily accused Left Bank Books of participating in a kind of censorship. Since then, Cummins' publisher has canceled the author's whole book tour.

On Tuesday, the St. Louis on the Air team sought to take the conversation that the situation has sparked and push it forward in productive ways.

Host Sarah Fenske talked with Kleindienst and with Ignacio Sánchez Prado, a professor of Spanish, Latin American Studies and Film and Media Studies at Washington University who was born in Mexico. Also joining the discussion was Kelly Von Plonski, owner of Subterranean Books.

The segment also included comments from Christina Rios and Alicia Hernandez, who are both members of the local Latinx c0mmunity. Rios was until recently the longtime artistic director of R-S Theatrics, and Hernandez is a local community organizer working on immigration issues.

Listen to the conversation:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.