When Oprah Winfrey selected “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins as her January book club pick, the novel seemed poised to be one of the year’s major releases. It follows a mother and son fleeing Mexico for the United States to escape cartel violence and was described by its publisher as a modern-day version of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
But the conversation surrounding the book quickly turned sour. After a scathing review by the writer Myriam Gurba, who said it relied on racist stereotypes, other Latinx writers and community members expressed similar criticism. “American Dirt” became a best seller, but its publisher, Flatiron, canceled a planned book tour and more than 100 writers signed an open letter asking Winfrey to reconsider her pick.
Winfrey decided instead to “lean in” to the conversation, she said. In an episode of her Apple TV Plus series, “Oprah’s Book Club,” that became available on Friday, she addressed the book, her decision to feature it and the backlash to both.
The two-part episode features Cummins in conversation with Winfrey, but in a departure from most “Oprah’s Book Club” episodes, it includes three Latina writers critical of the book: Julissa Arce, an activist and author of “My (Underground) American Dream”; Esther Cepeda, a syndicated Washington Post columnist; and Reyna Grande, who has written several books about her experience crossing the border, including the memoir “The Distance Between Us.”
Opening the show, Winfrey explained why she chose the book and defended the right of Cummins, who isn’t Mexican, to write it. “I fundamentally, fundamentally believe in the right of anyone to use their imagination and their skills to tell stories and to empathize with another story,” Winfrey said.
When asked whether she anticipated the negative reaction to it, Cummins said, “I definitely worried about this moment, about being called to account for having written the book.”
She said she regretted a widely criticized line in the book’s author’s note, in which she wrote that she wished someone “slightly browner” had written the story. Talking with Winfrey, Cummins called it a “clumsy phrase,” adding that it was “indicative of my own sort of grappling with my identity in these pages.”
Cummins also drew criticism for writing about her husband’s immigration to the U.S. from Ireland without noting his ethnicity. During the episode, she said his background was “absolutely relevant in why I was drawn to writing about immigration issues, and I felt like it was a thing that I wanted to mention,” but said she regretted conflating her husband’s experience with that of asylum seekers at the Mexico-U.S. border.
When Arce, Cepeda and Grande joined the discussion, they criticized the book as well as the broader publishing industry and its treatment of Latinx writers.
Reading “American Dirt,” “I felt hurt and I felt undervalued,” Grande said, “because the publishing industry does not have the same attitude with our immigrant stories as they did with your story.” The books by Latinx writers that are published, she said, are “to little fanfare.”
Cepeda said that writers of color are often expected to write solely about issues such as race and immigration, while white writers have much more liberty. “We have lots of other stories to tell than immigration stories,” she said.
Don Weisberg, the president of Macmillan, which operates Flatiron, and Amy Einhorn, the editor who acquired “American Dirt,” were in the audience. Weisberg said that increasing diversity in the company was a priority and that it had hired strategists to help. “Did those people suggest you hire more Latinos?” asked Cepeda.
“It sounds simple, but it’s not simple,” Weisberg said, adding that change was required on all levels at the company.
Despite the criticism of “American Dirt,” the book has been a commercial success, spending six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list for combined print and e-book fiction and selling nearly 200,000 copies, according to NPD Book Scan. Being named a book club pick by Winfrey continues to be a boon for writers and typically all but ensures their work will land on the best-seller list.
But after the backlash to her selection of “American Dirt,” Winfrey recently dropped her March pick, “My Dark Vanessa.” Winfrey, through a spokeswoman, declined to say why, but after the taping of the “Oprah’s Book Club” episode she told The Associated Press, “I’m not going to play it safer, but I’m not going to wade into water if I don’t have to.”
Missing from the conversation released Friday was Gurba, one of the first critics of “American Dirt.” Arce pointed out her absence at one point, saying she wished Gurba was there to speak for herself.
In a phone interview on Friday, Gurba said she was disappointed that Winfrey kept the book as her pick. “The book didn’t become problematic when the criticism was communicated to her, the book was problematic when she read it,” Gurba said. “I’m disappointed that she doesn’t want to engage privately regarding the issues raised by critics.”
She, along with the writers Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, founded the media campaign #DignidadLiteraria amid the fallout over “American Dirt” and met with Flatiron and Macmillan last month to discuss diversity at the company.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Lovato said. But to Gurba, “the commitment that they made is very vague,” she said, “and until they put real meat in that commitment, I’m not going to put much stock in it.”
In a report released this week, Flatiron’s president, Bob Miller, said the company had taken steps to address its lack of diversity, including hiring a new H.R. employee focused on recruitment from underrepresented groups and creating a database of “authenticity readers” for use on future titles. Miller also said that Flatiron is considering fellowships and mentoring programs for Latinx writers, adding, “Our hope is to continue to expand our outreach efforts in other underrepresented communities as well.”