Julissa Arce, Esther Cepeda, and Reyna Grande appeared on Oprah's Book Club to discuss American Dirt. Now they tell EW about the experience.

By Rosy Cordero
March 06, 2020 at 07:53 PM EST

American Dirt

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Latinx authors Julissa Arce, Esther Cepeda, and Reyna Grande felt anxious about appearing on Oprah’s Book Club on Apple TV+ to discuss Jeanine Cummins’ controversial novel American Dirt. They also felt a responsibility.

When the book, about a Mexican mother and her son fleeing their country for the U.S., was released in January, members of the Latinx, Mexican-American, and Chicano communities reacted with sharp criticism. American Dirt launched with the wind of a huge advance and blurbs from literary figures like Stephen King in its sails. Further, it was lauded by publisher Flatiron Books as a definitive account of the migrant experience — despite Cummins' lack of personal connection to the Mexican-American experience.

Arce, Cepeda, and Grande all spoke out against the book in recent weeks. Once the two-part episode of Oprah’s Book Club about American Dirt dropped Thursday evening, they had the chance to watch themselves and reflect on the experience — both discussing the book with Oprah Winfrey, who has praised the novel but also acknowledged the debate around it, and of the larger conversation that’s recently sparked.

“Before I went on the show, I had written about American Dirt and my biggest criticism of the book was how it pretended like immigration isn’t a political issue,” Arce, author of the best-selling 2016 book My (Underground) American Dream, tells EW. “It wants to make immigration a feel-good story. For a lot of us that are immigrants that have been undocumented, we know the experience is not that.”

Cepeda, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, says her feelings after the episode have not changed: “I read the book and it was fine. I didn’t care about the book or her in terms of its literary value or whether she had the ‘right’ [to write it] — because everyone should have the right to write whatever they want. I was more concerned with the publisher picking her and elevating the story as being representative of the migrant experience, which it’s not.”

For Cepeda and others, the main issue is the praising of American Dirt at the expense of other #ownvoices books. “My issue is, why her and why this story?” she asks. “Why do people of color who have stories to tell from real experiences never even get their foot in the door to get a literary agent? Much less get their book pitched and have people fighting over how much they’re going to pay for it. Why does it have to be that way? None of that has changed.” (Cummins was born in Spain; her grandmother is Puerto Rican.)

Grande (who documented her experiences as a migrant in 2019’s A Dream Called Home) appreciated aspects of American Dirt, and says she is satisfied with her experience on Oprah’s Book Club. “Before we went up on the stage, Oprah came into the green room to tell the three of us — Julissa, Esther, and me — that she wanted us to say what we came here to say, to not hold back,” she says. “I believe the three of us were given enough time to express ourselves and say what was in our minds and hearts.”

Arce questioned Cummins directly on stage about who she wrote the book for and what she plans to do for immigrants, once all has been said and done. “At one point, she said that she now donates a lot of money to organizations, and she’s able to do that because of Macmillan,” Arce recalls. “That really rubbed me a certain way. Like, really? You’re going to rub your money all over our faces?” (Cummins' quote in the episode: “I continue to be involved with the organizations that I visited when I was doing my research. I am actively involved with several of them. I donate a lot of money to them; thanks to Macmillan I’m able to do that now.”)

Amid debate around American Dirt, the movement #DignidadLiteraria has taken shape, led by Mexican-American authors Myriam Gurba, David Bowles, and Roberto Lovato. In the Apple TV+ special, Winfrey credited Gurba with sparking critical conversations around the novel, via a negative review posted online; she also mentioned Bowles. Both claimed on social media that they were not invited to participate in the Oprah’s Book Club panel discussion.

Karen Ballard

“They deserved a seat at the table, and it was unfortunate that they were not invited,” Grande says. “I believe that all of us in the Latino community have to do our own part to speak up and advocate for ourselves and our community. We can't let Myriam, David, and Roberto be the only ones doing all the work. We all have to take responsibility, use our own voice to speak up and fight.”

Cepeda adds, “I felt bad that #DignidadLiteraria was not invited. I felt that at least Myriam should have been invited. I struggled [knowing] that I was and she wasn’t.” She spoke out about this on the panel, though it was edited out. “During the show, I said, ‘I wish Myriam were here to speak for herself,’” says Arce. “I wish she had been on that stage and that she had been invited.”

Apple TV+ declined comment for this story.

Cepeda also has her mind planted firmly in the future. She took the opportunity to talk to Macmillan president Don Weisberg and book editor Amy Einhorn, who were in the audience, after the show wrapped, about how they could work together to increase diversity in publishing. “Don said during the episode that he was committed to diversity and had paid a lot of consultants to figure out how they could diversify publishing. He came up to me after the taping and said he really wanted to connect with me, and he gave me his email address.” (They’ve since gone back and forth via email.)

For her part, Arce feels hopeful, if a bit torn. “There were so many segments that were clearly there to justify the book and to justify Oprah picking the book,” Arce says. “What I was there to say is that we deserve books to see ourselves in.”

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