As writers and critics reveal the death threats they’ve received in the wake of the uproar surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ novel, American Dirt, Roxane Gay has called for people to “realise what real censorship looks like”.
Authors began sharing the threats to their life following the cancellation of Cummins’ tour for her controversial novel American Dirt, over concerns for her safety. The novel has been widely criticised for its stereotypical portrayals of Mexico and Mexicans, with the Chicana writer Myriam Gurba one of the first to condemn Cummins for her “overly ripe Mexican stereotypes”, and for her prose “taint[ed]” by the “white gaze”.
Cummins’ publisher Flatiron cancelled her tour in late January, citing “threats of physical violence”. “We don’t threaten writers with violence. Not in America,” tweeted Stephen King, an early fan of American Dirt, in response.
But the Latinx group Dignidad Literaria, which was formed by writers in response to the controversy, claimed that while critics of Cummins’ work have received death threats, Flatiron had admitted the author herself had received none. When asked for confirmation, Flatiron insisted on the accuracy of the statement they issued in January, which described “specific threats to booksellers and the author” that constituted “real peril to their safety”.
Led by Gurba, who has written about the threat to her life she received after publishing her critical review of American Dirt, authors have now come together to reveal the multiple death threats they have received for their writing in a “death quilt”. Already numbering dozens of attacks, the quilt shows, say the authors, that “being a writer in the United States, in particular one who is situated on the margins, makes one extremely vulnerable to threats of violence and death”.
“Inspired by the Aids Quilt, we have created a Death Threat Quilt to illustrate that speaking truth to pwr from the margins is dangerous,” wrote Gurba on Twitter. “Death threats r a fact of life for those of us who don’t live in ivory lighthouses.”
Gurba told the Guardian she was “not at all surprised” by how rapidly the “quilt” had grown. “My friends and I have been sharing horror stories like those that the quilt is made of, for years,” she said.
Gay, who explained that she receives death threats every week, and pays for a security service to monitor and protect her, said that it was “important to acknowledge the death threats people receive for daring to have opinions, for daring to be black or brown or queer or disabled or women or trans or any marginalised identity”.
“People need to realise what real censorship looks like. They need to understand how unsafe it can be to challenge authority and the status quo,” she said. “These are not things that should be taken lightly, nor should this level of harassment be dismissed as mere trolling. You never know when one of those so-called trolls is going to take his rage from the internet into the physical world.”