Critics of Jeanine Cummins’ divisive new novel American Dirt aren’t slowing down their attempts to convince Oprah Winfrey, who recently selected it for her famed book club, to reconsider her decision.
In an open letter, 82 diverse writers joined forces to send a unified message to the mogul about the issues with supporting a book that has received criticism for its quality of writing, “trauma-porn melodrama” structure, and questionable identity politics. The letter opens with the authors — who include best-selling authors Alexander Chee, Jasmine Guillory, R.O. Kwon, Carmen Maria Machado, Daniel José Older, Luis Alberto Urrea, and many more — thanking Winfrey for “lifting up of voices and authors” and being “a powerful force for good, a champion for justice, change, and literature.” They then detail the reasons why they view her support of American Dirt as deeply problematic.
“As you might know by now, there has been a widespread outcry from many writers — including Mexican American and other Latinx writers and thinkers — about the lack of complexity of this immigration story, and the harm this book can and will do,” the open letter posted on Lit Hub reads. (Another author who signed, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, published the memoir Children of the Land this week, about his family’s migration from Mexico to the U.S.)
The letter continues, “In the informed opinions of many, many Mexican American and Latinx immigrant writers, American Dirt has not been imagined well nor responsibly, nor has it been effectively researched. The book is widely and strongly believed to be exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed, too often erring on the side of trauma fetishization and sensationalization of migration and of Mexican life and culture. In addition, there are now accusations of heavy use of other Latinx writers’ work.”
Winfrey addressed the controversy on Sunday, before the letter was released via an Instagram video.
She said in the video’s caption, “We’ve read and continue to read your comments. It’s clear that we need to have a different kind of conversation about American Dirt and we welcome everyone’s thoughts and opinions in our community.”
Throughout the video, Winfrey explains how her plans have shifted in how she’ll support the selection. Rather than interviewing Cummins at the border, as previously announced, she now plans to hold a larger discussion about the book for an upcoming episode of her Apple TV+ series Oprah’s Book Club. Whether or not it will take place on the border, which has also been a point of contention, is as yet unknown.
“What I want to do is bring people together form all sides to talk about this book and who gets to publish what stories. And I’m hoping that’s going to resonate with many of you and your concerns,” she said.
Representatives for Apple TV+ did not respond to requests for comment.
Since announcing Cummins’ latest novel as her Book Club selection in January, American bookstores have canceled her appearance in support of the controversial title. While some have expressed their desire to support authentic voices, others have stated that safety was a major concern, further enraging members of the same community — many of which hoped to attend and have Cummins address their concerns in person.
On Wednesday, Flatiron Books announced that Cummins’ tour was officially canceled. Publisher Bob Miller cited “specific threats to booksellers and the author,” including some “threats of physical violence.” Miller added that “we believe there exists real peril to their safety.” Miller further admitted to being caught by surprise, writing, “The fact that we were surprised is indicative of a problem, which is that in positioning this novel, we failed to acknowledge our own limits. The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them.”
Flatiron posted the statement via Twitter, and EW also received it from the publisher.
The Lithub letter argues that the book contains irresponsible and even dangerous stereotypes of a community that is currently facing heavy scrutiny under the current presidential administration.
“This is not a letter calling for silencing, nor censoring,” it reads. “But in a time of widespread misinformation, fearmongering, and white-supremacist propaganda related to immigration and to our border, in a time when adults and children are dying in US immigration cages, we believe that a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up.”
The full letter is available on Lithub.
This post was updated to reflect that Cummins’ book tour was officially canceled on Wednesday afternoon.