TUSCON, Arizona — When Oprah Winfrey chose the novel “American Dirt” for her book club, she imagined engaging in an impassioned television dialog about the narrative, which follows a Mexican mother and her son fleeing to the United States.
Instead, Winfrey ended up organizing a show that put the book, author Jeanine Cummins and Winfrey herself on trial. After critics complained about the novel’s portrayal of Latinos, she turned the forum into a debate about the marginalization of Latino voices, the lack of diversity in publishing and the question of who is best suited to tell a given story.
Just a few months ago, the book was one of 2020′s most welcome releases, described as a modern-day version of John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath.” But criticism quickly mounted and made it Exhibit A in grievances against the industry. The Mexican-American writer Myriam Gurba condemned the novel as a “Trumpian” charade crammed with Mexican stereotypes.
Winfrey and Cummins were joined on the show by three prominent critics of the book. The Associated Press was allowed to attend the taping of the highly anticipated program last month in Tucson, not far from where Cummins wrote and researched parts of the novel. The program airs Friday, March 6th on Apple TV Plus.
Speaking to the AP after the show, Winfrey lamented the controversy.
“This has taken up a lot of my energy, a lot of her (Cummins’) energy, and it’s taken away my attention from why people want to read books,” she said.
Future book club picks, she said, will almost certainly include Latino authors — she has only chosen a handful since founding her club in 1996. She promised a more thorough approach that anticipated possible backlash, saying she was not going “to wade into that water” again.
“It was civil. I really understood where they were coming from,” she said. “I hope that they also understood where I was coming from.”
Published Jan. 21, the book has been a bestseller, fulfilling the hopes of the Macmillan-owned Flatiron Books, which outbid several competitors and paid seven figures for the manuscript. Sales have exceeded 200,000 copies.
But the publisher has retreated from any grand literary claims. The blurb comparing the story to “The Grapes of Wrath” has been removed from the cover, and Flatiron’s president and publisher, Bob Miller, apologized for the book’s promotion, including a luncheon last year that featured barbed wire centerpieces based on the book’s jacket design.
In her opening remarks, Winfrey defended her choice of “American Dirt,” saying the book had made her feel personally connected to the stories of immigrants. But she acknowledged the criticisms and said her response was to “lean in” and embark on a conversation without “having to cancel, to dismiss or to silence anyone.”
After introducing Cummins, Winfrey was openly sympathetic but directly raised the many issues of recent months.
Winfrey asked if Cummins regretted her author’s note, in which she speculated that someone “browner” might have been worthier to write the novel. Cummins called her language “regrettable” and said she had used “a very clumsy phrase.” She also did not dispute that she had enabled the “conflation” of her Irish husband’s wait for citizenship — she described him in the note simply as an “undocumented immigrant” — with the far more dire battles many face at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The two were then joined by Esther Cepeda, a Washington Post syndicated columnist; Julissa Arce, an activist, commentator and author of the bestselling “My American Dream”; and Reyna Grande, whose books include the bestselling memoir “The Distance Between Us.”
Grande said the industry was giving “American Dirt” a level of attention far beyond what she and other Latinos have received. Arce chastised Cummins for writing an essentially apolitical book, omitting any direct criticisms of the Trump administration.
“For some reason, someone who has a name like Jeanine Cummins can write about anything,” Cepeda said. “Someone with a name like ours, well, we can only write about immigration.”
Cepeda faulted Winfrey for the virtual absence of Latino writers in her club. “You are a king and queen maker,” Cepeda said.
“Well, I am guilty of not looking for Latinx writers,” Winfrey said. “I will now, because my eyes have been opened to see, to behave differently.”
During the taping, Winfrey called the show a “seminal moment” that she hoped would lead to lasting change.
Cummins is the author of three previous works, including a memoir about her cousins’ murder and two novels that draw upon her own Irish heritage and time lived in Ireland. The recent criticism has changed her future plans.
In a pre-publication interview with the AP, Cummins had said she was working on a novel set, at least in part, in Puerto Rico. She now expresses doubt about that book.
“I’m not a glutton for punishment,” she said, explaining that her greatest concern is in keeping her literary “voice” and “making sure that the experience of this moment doesn’t make me second-guess or subvert the stories that move my heart.”