The Oprah's Book Club controversy, explained
In the more than two decades since Oprah's Book Club began in 1996, the program has faced its share of controversies. There was the time, in 2001, that Jonathan Franzen publicly threw a fit over his new novel being selected. There was the great sales flop of 2010, when the club disastrously picked two Charles Dickens books to the utter disinterest of its audience. And, most memorably of all, there was the A Million Little Pieces scandal of 2006, when Winfrey revealed she'd been "duped" by the purported memoir, and took the author to task on her show for "[betraying] millions of readers" with his "lies."
Now, once again, Oprah's Book Club has found itself in an imbroglio, with readers feeling betrayed. But unlike those other scandals, Winfrey and her team had plenty of time and warning to see this one coming — so much, that they never should have picked the book to begin with. Instead, it has become clear that for a second time since A Million Little Pieces, Oprah's Book Club needs to walk back its selection with an apology to its readers and to the very community the novel, American Dirt, claims to represent.
Best-selling author @jeaninecummins joins @Oprah and @CBSThisMorning live to talk about ‘American Dirt,’ the newest @oprahsbookclub selection. #ReadWithUs https://t.co/CEMuNAUKCB pic.twitter.com/lesnvzUYnR
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) January 21, 2020
The fourth book by author Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt, earned a rare seven-figure deal back in 2018 and, as a result, was included on many of this year's most-anticipated book lists (including the "noteworthy" section of my own). Described arrestingly on its cover as "a Grapes of Wrath for our times" and deemed "extraordinary" by Stephen King, the novel tells the story of a middle-class migrant family forced to flee Acapulco for the United States after finding themselves threatened by a vicious drug cartel.
Outcry over American Dirt picked up well before Oprah's Book Club announced the novel as its pick on Tuesday, the same day of the book's release. In a viral post for Tropics of Meta in early December, Chicana author Myriam Gurba excoriated the book, writing that "the nicest thing I can say about Dirt is that its pages ought to be upcycled as toilet paper, the editors hauled out the guillotine." Chicano writer David Bowles added his voice to the chorus over the weekend ahead of the Book Club's announcement, slamming American Dirt as being a "harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama."
Cummins' own identity is central to this controversy. Gurba noted in her blog post that while Cummins now identifies as Latinx due to her Puerto Rican grandmother, in a 2015 New York Times op-ed the author had labeled herself as white; The Washington Post clarified Wednesday that Cummins grew up in Maryland and that her Irish roots were a particularly "strong influence," as she's lived in Belfast and "her earliest works were set in Ireland." Cummins, seemingly, was aware of the effort she would need to put in to write something like American Dirt, and she describes in her author's note how she "traveled extensively on both sides of the border and learned as much as I could about Mexico and migrants, about people living throughout the borderlands."
Importantly, American Dirt has received the blessing of a number of members of the Latinx community, including prior to its release. Cummins writes in her note that Norma Iglesias-Prieto, a professor of Chicano and Chicana studies at San Diego State University, assuaged her doubts about being the right author to tell the story. Cummins also cited Iglesias-Prieto on Wednesday when she was asked about the "haterade" she was receiving on CBS This Morning; Oprah, who was also a guest on the show, did not directly comment.
But the pitfalls of a non-Mexican writer telling the Mexican migrant story make themselves glaringly obvious to "anyone who has spent significant time in Mexico," wrote author and translator David Schmidt for The Blue Nib. Schmidt goes on to list a number of head-slapping inaccuracies in American Dirt, from the misspelling of the main characters' names, to misguided references and assumptions about Mexicans, to the inclusion of "the most stereotypical cultural fetishes that Americans associate with Mexico." Perhaps most concerning of all is the language Cummins couches her own intentions in. In her vaguely anticipatory author's note, Cummins wrote, "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." Yet plenty of people have; Cummins' "wish" is also an admission of her own ignorance on the topic.
Cummins has been particularly dodgy about her "dog in the fight," too. In addition to her shifting ethnic identity, as called out by Gurba, Cummins uses odd phrasing in her American Dirt author's note to characterize her marriage to "an undocumented immigrant." She recounts that "[a]ll the years we were dating, we lived in fear that he could be deported at a moment's notice," specifically recalling a dramatic police stop for a broken taillight, during which "[w]e held hands in the dark front seat of the car. I thought I would lose him." But never once in the retelling does Cummins mention that her husband is an Irish immigrant, not a Latino one; linking her white European husband's plight to that of Latinx immigrants being terrorized in ICE raids and detained in inhumane conditions at the border is exploitative and gross.
Cummins' lack of personal connection to the story isn't entirely the issue either, though; none of American Dirt's critics are saying that writers can only write about their own experiences. "You don't have to be Latino [or] an immigrant or write about immigrants," is what the Los Angeles Times' Esmeralda Bermudez says. The problem, rather, is that "the book arena is ruled by white writers, agents, critics, gatekeepers." American Dirt's detractors are left wondering why its flawed and clichéd portrait of the migrant experience is the one now securing a movie deal and getting boosted by Winfrey's book club, rather than, say, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo's memoir Children of the Land, which comes out next week.
You don’t have to be Latino/an immigrant or write about immigrants. I’ve had white mentors who I respect because they’ve worked hard to see past their limitations, to understand the community. The problem is the book arena is ruled by white writers, agents, critics, gatekeepers. pic.twitter.com/t15XoyY9ij
— Esmeralda Bermudez (@LATBermudez) January 20, 2020
All of this has seemingly been missed by the book's non-Latinx reviewers, who have heaped on lavish praise. But "a book that 'turns migrants magnificently back into people' is problematic," tweeted the Texas immigration non-profit RAICES. "Amplifying it is harmful to the very communities you aim to 'humanize.'" So one can't help but wonder what Winfrey's team was thinking, because, more than even Cummins, it is the book's high-level proponents who are most at fault here — the editors who took Cummins' work over a real migrant voice, the publisher who promoted it with tasteless barbed wire centerpieces, and the celebrities who've hawked it, ignorantly, as an essential migrant story.
In a tweet sharing Schmidt's analysis for The Blue Nib, author Celeste Ng perhaps summed it best: "If you don't know this culture (as I don't)," she wrote, "listen carefully to the people who do."
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