Nearly a week after she announced Jeanine Cummins’ buzzy novel “American Dirt” as her latest book club pick, Oprah Winfrey broke her silence on the mounting backlash the title has sparked.
In a video shared to her book club Instagram last Sunday, Winfrey commented on the brewing controversy surrounding Cummins’ migrant tale and acknowledged the concerns many in the Latinx community have voiced about the selection. Though hailed by some — including Winfrey — as a moving story of a mother-son duo’s daring journey to the United States, the book has amassed a growing chorus of dissenters who are slamming it as an offensive act of cultural appropriation.
Some of the criticism got so heated, the book’s publisher said Wednesday that it has canceled what’s left of Cummins’ national book tour. Citing concerns about threats of violence to Cummins and booksellers, the publisher, Flatiron Books, will instead have town hall-style discussions between the author and her critics.
Winfrey, in her video, said, “There’s been a lot of talk about this book, lately, and I just wanted you all to hear, directly from me, that I read an advance copy of ‘American Dirt’ last summer, before it even was an official book.”
“It was a visceral experience for me — a migrant story being told from a mother’s perspective about the lengths that she would go to to protect her child to get to freedom in America. I was deeply moved. It had me riveted from the very first sentence, and I could hardly wait, really, to share it with all of you.”
Then came the “but.”
“Now, it has become clear to me, from the outpouring — may I say — of very passionate opinions, that this selection has struck an emotional chord and created a need for a deeper, more substantive discussion,” the TV mogul continued.
“When I first started to hear your comments opposing the selection, I was asking the question in earnest: ‘What is offensive?’ 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.”
Written by Cummins — who was born in Spain, raised in Maryland, has a Puerto Rican grandmother and identifies as both white and Latina — “American Dirt” follows Lydia as she flees Mexico with her 8-year-old son, Luca, after a drug cartel murders several of their family members at a quinceañera.
Several Latinx critics have argued that the pages, filled with italicized Spanish words and references to Mexican culture, are littered with damaging stereotypes and inaccurate portrayals of the people it claims to represent. In a recent commentary, Times staff writer Esmeralda Bermudez traced the representation issues back to the U.S. publishing industry, which she noted is 80% white and often fails to extend opportunities to authors of color.
“What made me cringe was immediately realizing that this book was not written for people like me, for immigrants,” Bermudez wrote. “It was written for everyone else — to enchant them, take them on a wild border-crossing ride, make them feel all fuzzy inside about the immigrant plight. … it’s strange that a novel so many are praising for its humanity seems so far from all the real-life immigrant experiences I’ve covered.”
As a sort of solution to the firestorm Winfrey’s choice helped fuel, she proposed a new plan for a forthcoming “American Dirt” episode of her new Apple TV+ series, “Oprah’s Book Club.”
“What I want to do is bring people together from all sides to talk about this book and who gets to publish what stories,” she said. “And I’m hoping that is going to resonate with many of you and your concerns. … I think it’s going to allow us to open up the conversation in unexpected and — I really hope — meaningful ways.”
The “American Dirt” edition of “Oprah’s Book Club” launches on Apple TV+ in March.