What you need to know about Oprah Winfrey's controversial new book club pick American Dirt
The novel, which tells the story of a family's border crossing, has elicited sharp criticisms from the Latinx community.
On Tuesday, Oprah Winfrey announced Jeanine Cummins’ new novel American Dirt as her latest Book Club selection, but the title has been on the receiving end of much criticism by the Latinx community over the past week.
The story follows a mother and son who are forced to flee their native Mexico and head to the United States as migrants. Winfrey explained why she chose the book during her Twitter reveal: “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.”
Cummins has been touted as one of the year’s potential breakout authors, receiving praise for American Dirt from outlets including NPR, and best-selling novelists such as Stephen King and Don Winslow. But she’s also been on the receiving end of negative reviews from high-profile critics who’ve panned the quality of the writing, a “trauma-porn melodrama” structure, and the story’s questionable identity politics.
One reply to Winfrey’s tweet offered a comparison of American Dirt to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, a novel that was heavily criticized for its stereotypical and derogatory portrayal of African-Americans. “Many (I would dare to say most) Latinx [people] are upset about the stereotypes and other not-so-great stuff in this book,” Latinx writer Jessica Laine replied to Winfrey’s tweet. “This is like Gone With the Wind for brown people.”
Grey’s Anatomy alum Sara Ramirez also responded to Winfrey, suggesting other titles the popular TV host should check out instead by Latinx authors, including The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande and A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez.
Chicano writer David Bowles argued that the issue at hand is not that Cummins is not Mexican, but that she is exploiting the migrant crisis to sell books. “Nothing wrong with a non-Mexican writing about the plight of Mexicans,” he wrote. “What’s wrong is erasing authentic voices to sell her inaccurate cultural appropriation for millions.”
Chicana author Myriam Gurba called the novel “dangerous, cruel and smug” in a tweet. Gurba wrote an essay detailing her issues with the novel after being asked to review it for an outlet she only identified as a “feminist magazine,” which declined to run her final critique due to it being so “negative,” according to the author, who provides several excerpts from the killed review, including:
“Cummins bombards with clichés from the get-go. Chapter One starts with assassins opening fire on a quinceañera, a fifteenth birthday party, a scene one can easily imagine President Donald Trump breathlessly conjuring at a Midwestern rally, and while Cummins’ executioners are certainly animated, their humanity remains shallow. By categorizing these characters as ‘the modern bogeymen of urban Mexico,’ she flattens them. By invoking monsters with English names and European lineages, Cummins reveals the color of her intended audience: white. Mexicans don’t fear the bogeyman. We fear his very distant cousin, el cucuy.”
Los Angeles Times journalist Esmeralda Bermudez, who emigrated with her family from El Salvador, thanked Winfrey for “trying to do good” and explaining why “American Dirt” is not worthy of her support. “I am an immigrant. My family fled El Salvador with death pounding on our door,” said Bermudez, who covers the lives of immigrants in Los Angeles. “The terror, the loss, the injustice of this experience shaped everything about me. I see no part of myself reflected in [American Dirt], a book white critics are hailing as the great immigrant novel.”
She added, “What I do see: A book industry that’s so out of touch — that so rarely supports immigrants to tell our own stories — eager to make money off of our suffering with a cheap, stereotypical thrill. #ImNotAmericanDirt. Neither is any immigrant I’ve known in 17 years of journalism.”
Some Mexican and Latinx authors have praised the book, with a few high-profile names supporting American Dirt. Award-winning The House on Mango Street author Sandra Cisneros’ blurb on the cover of American Dirt reads, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of Las Americas. It’s the great world novel! This is the international story of our times. Masterful.”
And In the Time of the Butterflies author Julia Alvarez further called the book “riveting, timely, a dazzling accomplishment. Jeanine Cummins makes us all live and breathe the refugee story.”
In an author’s note for American Dirt, Cummins — who until recently identified as white but now references having Irish and Puerto Rican ancestry in her Twitter bio — writes: “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.”
In an interview with Cummins and Winfrey on CBS This Morning, Gayle King seemed to dismiss the critics. “Jeanine, this is so fascinating to me about the book because already you have a little bit of haterade against you, people are drinking it about you,” King said.
“I resisted for a very long time, telling the story from a migrant’s point of view,” Cummins responded. “I was worried that I didn’t know enough, that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths.”
“I felt very compelled and it was five years of research and two failed drafts that convinced me that I needed to go into Lydia’s point of view,” she added. “There was a point very early on in that research that I was speaking to a very generous scholar, a woman who was chair of the Chicano studies department at San Diego State University at the time, and she said to me…I expressed my concerns about this and she said, ‘Jeanine, we need every voice we can get at telling this story.'”
Winfrey also revealed that she plans to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to film the book club for Apple TV+.
American Dirt is now available for purchase.
EW has reached out to reps for Cummins and Winfrey for further comment.