Oprah’s Book Club’s Latest Pick Has People Asking: Who Gets to Tell Our Story?
On January 21, Oprah announced her latest book club pick: American Dirt. In the week since, the novel has garnered incredible amounts of tension and criticism, unveiling a real-life telenovela about the publishing industry. The story centers on Mexican bookstore owner Lydia Quixano Pérez who flees to the U.S. with her son. While it’s timely given the current administration’s ongoing hateful rhetoric and policy targeting the Southern border, the context surrounding the novel reveals many tensions regarding race, ethnicity and the dynamics of storytelling.
The criticism of the book is varied, but much of it centers on the question of why author Jeanine Cummins, who is a white-identified Latina with a Puerto Rican grandmother, wrote a sensationalized story about a Mexican family. Cummins said in a discussion with WBUR reporters Shannon Dooling and Cristela Guerra that she knew she was an “imperfect messenger” for the book. She admitted that she expected the criticism, but it is still “incredibly painful” to find herself in the crosshairs of the conversation. “I think I understand the criticism,” Cummins said during the conversation. “There’s nothing I can do to address that criticism except not write the book, and I already wrote the book. This is a novel at the end of the day.”
Chicana writer Myriam Gurba told Luz Collective is that she feels that Cummins was the “safe” choice. “Her work is shrouded in the white gaze, so it seems to me that is why she was chosen,” Gurba said in a phone interview with Luz Collective. “Her work was centered at the expense of much better writers.” Gurba has been at the forefront of the backlash. She initially brought to light her issues with the book in a now-viral review that she was asked to write for Ms. Magazine. She wrote that Cummins failed to convey any Mexican sensibility as the main character is constantly surprised by her own country. “Despite being an intellectually engaged woman, and the wife of a reporter whose beat is narcotrafficking, Lydia experiences shock after shock when confronted with the realities of Mexico, realities that would not shock a Mexican,” Gurba writes in the review.
Ms. Magazine didn’t publish the review. Instead, Gurba received an email from the publication that said that while her review was a “spectacular takedown,” they couldn’t justify publishing a negative review from a “relatively unknown or new writer,” and that the point of the book review section is to “steer readers to books they should read, rather than avoid.” Gurba tweeted that Ms. Magazine reached out to her this weekend saying it was a misunderstanding.
“I was like what the fuck,” said Gurba. “No, that’s not ok. My voice matters and I’ll figure out a way to make it matter.” Gurba instead posted the review on Tropics of Meta in December, a month before the book was released. She heard from some friends in publishing that there was going to be a big marketing campaign behind the book and she wanted to deter people from reading it. “We don’t need some shoot ’em up narco novel where Mexico is evil,” said Gurba. “The U.S. is bad in the context of the terrorism that is being perpetuated against Latinos in the U.S. We don’t need to pour kerosene all over the situation and that’s what this book does.”
Once the publicity began for American Dirt, the criticism snowballed. Gurba’s review was shared all over the internet. The attention on Cummins resurfaced a few photos from her Twitter. Cummins posted photos from a bookseller dinner last year in honor of her book with centerpieces replicating the border wall complete with barbed wire.
“It’s bonkers,” said Gurba. “It makes you wonder like what is happening in that head of hers where it never registers that there might be some sort of backlash.”
Latinos parodied the use of cultural stereotypes with #WritingMyLatinoNovel as a snarky response to Cummins’ book. Some publications, such as the Texas Observer, released their own list of Latinx writers to read instead of American Dirt. McAllen Public Library director Kate Horan tweeted that she declined the offer to partner with Oprah’s Book Club after reading the negative reactions from the Latinx community and talking to her predominantly Latinx staff. She wrote that she’s not endorsing the book, but she is also not censoring it. There are still 12 books and an e-book available to check out at her library.
People aired their grievances by responding to both Cummins’ and Oprah’s social media accounts as well as some of the Latina actresses and writers that endorsed the book online. Salma Hayek deleted her Instagram post and posted an apology for endorsing the book without doing her research. She also admitted that she hadn’t read it.
Oprah posted a video on the book club’s Instagram saying that she spent the past few days reading the comments and listening to the Latinx community’s concerns over the book. As a result, she will host a conversation with people from both sides of the issue that will stream on Apple TV+ in March. “Now it has become clear to me from the outpouring, may I say, of very passionate opinions, that this selection has struck an emotional cord and created a need for a deeper, more substantive discussion,” Oprah said in the video.
Cummins hasn’t updated her social media accounts since January 21 but has done a few interviews. In an NPR interview, reporter Rachel Martin read to Cummins LA Times reporter Esmeralda Bermudez’s criticism that said her book was “hollow, harmful, an adrenaline-packed cartoon.” Cummins took a brief pause before responding and said she didn’t know how to respond to that, but then added, “not everyone has to love my book, you know?”
She also answered a question at the Winter Institute in Baltimore last week. Bookseller Javier Ramirez asked her what gives her the right to tell the story. According to LitHub, she responded that she has thought about that question for a long time, but later added that the question needs to be directed towards publishers.“I think this is an important conversation,” Cummins said at the event. “I feel like it is a question that needs to be directed more firmly toward publishers than at individual writers. I was never going to turn down money that someone offered me for something that took me seven years to write.” Hollywood Reporter announced that Cummins also received a seven-figure advance from Flatiron Books through a bidding war as well as a movie deal with Imperative Entertainment.
Cummins has shown a reluctance to engage with her critics. She’s blocked some of those who are the most vocal against her novel on Twitter, including Gurba and Bermudez. But Cummins’ book tour is scheduled for this week, and Gurba had planned to attend one at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena, California until it was cancelled ahead of her appearance.
Two other events were cancelled over the weekend, but Gurba is encouraging people to show up and protest and let people know that this isn’t about the book. “This is about people who live as a minority in the United States who have been suppressed,” said Gurba. “The dam has broken, and our frustration is pouring forth. We ought to publicize that rage and frustration. We ought to do it in the streets and we ought to do it in the bookstores and wherever it is that we see fit.”