Why Oprah's New Book Club Pick Is Drawing Controversy
As criticism continues to escalate, Oprah has so far kept quiet.
On Jan. 20, Jeanine Cummins's much-anticipated new novel American Dirt hit bookshelves in the U.S. The release was paired with a now-controversial announcement that Oprah Winfrey had selected it as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick.
"Like so many of us, I’ve read newspaper articles and watched television news stories and seen movies about the plight of families looking for a better life, but this story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant in a whole new way," Oprah tweeted.
Along with that glowing endorsement, Cummins's novel landed on plenty of "most anticipated" books lists of 2020, despite the initial critiques it received when readers first reviewed advance copies. The issue raised by some critics was that the book, which follows a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders their family, portrays Latinx people as stereotypes. Critics have also argued that American Dirt engages in "brownface," being that it's a book from a Mexican perspective, written by an author who, at least in 2015, identified as white. In an interview in 2019, however, Cummins said she identifies as Latinx (and has mentioned having a Puerto Rican grandmother).
While the discussion has brought up questions about who should be allowed to tell stories about marginalized people, the issue is more complex than readers being angry about one white writer — and it's certainly about more than just American Dirt itself.
“I think the problem is even bigger than one white person pretending to be Latina writing this book,” Julissa Arce, author of Someone Like Me, tells InStyle. “I think that the bigger issue here to me is that the attention the book is receiving sends the message that your stories are only valid and important and are only able to be humanized when they're told through this vantage point.”
Cummins herself seems to have acknowledged that she may not have been the best person to write this particular story. According to BuzzFeed News, she wrote in the afterword of the novel, "I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it."
But Arce points out, “people who are actually brown have actually told their stories and none of those books, including mine, have received the kind of praise and attention or money that her book has received.”
Arce, who read an early advance copy of the book, says what stood out to her was the “lack of authenticity and her lack of understanding of the culture or being in the culture.”
“I know Oprah said the first sentence got her, and I'm reading the first page, and the inaccuracy, especially from a cultural standpoint, is so terrible,” Arce says. “To give you one example, a quinceañera, it's something that is a huge thing in Mexican culture. Here [in the book], you have only 16 people at a quinceañera and they're listening to the radio — that would never happen. Especially if there's like a middle class family, believe me, at the very least it would have a DJ and there would have been some mariachis, and at the very least the neighbors would have been invited to this party.”
John Paul Brammer, author of the forthcoming memoir ¡Hola Papi!, says that while he hasn’t finished reading American Dirt, “I can say for now that I think any book that deals with real world traumas and that purports to bring new clarity and empathy to those problems ought to seriously consider its gaze.”
“In other words, it ought to really interrogate the way it looks at human suffering and whose appetites it is catering to,” he tells InStyle. “My understanding based on what I've read so far, and how many Latinx people have responded to it, is that this book flattens out that suffering to appeal to a mass market. I think that can happen even with good intentions, though I can't speak for the author.”
Brammer points to Cummins’s reported seven-figure advance and the barbed wire centerpieces at the book’s launch party as instances that “feed into the notion that Latinx pain is up for commodification while Latinx people are overlooked.”
“This has opened up a broader conversation for Latinx people in publishing,” he says. “I think you're seeing a dam breaking because people have been frustrated for a long, long time at the lack of institutional support for our stories and the American Dirt story is a kind of perfect catalyst for that.”
At this point in the controversy cycle, neither Oprah nor Cummins herself have responded to the book's backlash. Though, according to The Hollywood Reporter, American Dirt has already been optioned for a movie adaptation. At the end of the day, the controversy surrounding the book has opened up a conversation about who should be given a platform to tell stories about people of color.
“I think this conversation will continue around it because so much has gone under-discussed, and I guess we'll just have to wait and see where that goes,” Brammer says. “I hope it ends up doing something productive.”
InStyle has reached out to Cummins for comment and will update if we hear back.