Oprah Winfrey’s latest book club pick, American Dirt, sparked a furious backlash basically as soon as she announced it. The novel tells the story of a mother fleeing Mexico with her son, after a drug cartel kills her husband; its author, who is notably not Mexican and who has openly identified herself as white, has been accused of trafficking in stereotypes while appropriating a culture to which she does not belong. Despite her initial enthusiasm for the book, Oprah has now declared her intention to host a “deeper, more substantive discussion” about the selection, one that incorporates perspectives from “all sides” of the controversy.
Announcing Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt as her next book club read last Tuesday, Oprah explained that, “from the first sentence, [she] was IN.” She felt “opened” and “shook up,” she said, predicting that “everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom.” A number of reviewers disagreed. Parul Sehgal at the New York Times, for example, had already opined that the book presented a narrative on “forced migrations” that felt deliberately easy to swallow, so that “the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach.” Plus, Sehgal pointed out, Cummins herself writes that she “wished someone slightly browner than [her] would” tell the story. (Cummins has a Puerto Rican grandmother.) The book has been described as “a brownface novel” and “trauma porn that wears a social justice fig leaf,” and Cummins received a seven-figure advance to write it.
In an Instagram post on Sunday, Oprah assured viewers that she has heard “the outpouring of very passionate opinions,” and is reimagining her upcoming Apple TV+ event — planned around American Dirt and scheduled for March — in order to “open up the conversation in unexpected and … really meaningful ways.”
“I’ve spent the past few days listening to members of the Latinx community to get a greater understanding of their concerns, and I hear them, I do,” she says in the video. “So what I want to do is bring people together from all sides to talk about this book, and who gets to publish what stories. I’m hoping that that is going to resonate with many of you and your concerns.”
Meanwhile, as Vox reports, some Latinx activists are taking a different approach: United We Dream, an immigrant youth group, is petitioning Oprah directly to pick more books by Latinx and immigrant authors for her wildly popular club, while writers Roberto Lovato, David Bowles, and Myriam Gurba are organizing digital and real-time “politico-literary” actions under the hashtag, #DignidadLiteraria.