If “American Dirt” has the Oprah Winfrey seal of approval, how controversial can it be?
Jeanine Cummins’ new novel, released Tuesday, is the latest choice for the legendary talk show host’s book club. The day of the book’s release, Winfrey appeared on “CBS This Morning” where her bestie, Gayle King, serves as co-host. Cummins sat beside Winfrey and addressed criticism of the book.
“I always knew that I wanted to write about immigration,” said Cummins, who is a European-born woman. “I was interested in that topic, and I resisted for a very long time telling the story from a migrant’s point of view because I was worried that I didn’t know enough, that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths.”
She also said during the appearance that she’d received the blessing of a one-time chair of the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, who told her, “Jeanine, we need every voice we can get telling this story.”
"American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins (Photo: Flatiron)
But despite getting Winfrey’s endorsement, the book has drawn controversy from reviewers and social media.
In USA TODAY’s own review, Barbara VanDenburgh wrote the novel “reeks of opportunism, substituting character arcs for mere trauma.”
She went on to say that Cummins’ author’s note attempting to explain why she wrote the book, made the situation worse.
“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,” Cummins wrote in the author’s note. “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”
“Lots of someones ‘slightly browner’ than Cummins did write it,” VanDenburgh wrote in response, noting several recent examples.
Mexican American actress Sara Ramirez, who played Dr. Callie Torres in “Grey’s Anatomy” didn’t like the news of Winfrey’s book club pick and asked the book club maven on Twitter to read an article about “fake-(expletive) social justice literature.”
Author Julissa Arce Raya wrote of the book on Twitter: “As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented, I can say with authority that this book is a harmful, stereotypical, damaging representation of our experiences. Please listen to us when we tell you, this book isn’t it.”
#Americandirt is now an @oprahsbookclub selection. As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented, I can say with authority that this book is a harmful, stereotypical, damaging representation of our experiences. Please listen to us when we tell you, this book isn’t it.
But Winfrey praised the book for being unique on “CBS This Morning.”
“I thought this humanized that migration process in a way that nothing else I had ever felt or seen had,” she said on the morning show. “This is one story, and I’m saying let everybody else tell your story, but this story really changed me and changed the way I see what it means to be an immigrant trying to come to this country.”
Winfrey is not alone in her compliments. In a tweet that appears to have since been deleted, Mexican American actress Salma Hayek thanked Winfrey for sending her the book.
“Now more than ever we need stories of hope & encouragement, endurance & the beauty of the human spirit. I can’t thank @Oprah enough for sending me #AmericanDirt. I continue to be in awe of her commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless & for loving harder in response to hate,” the tweet read.
In a review filled with praise, Pam Houston writes for the Los Angeles Times, “‘American Dirt’ is a vital, well-crafted, compelling and compassionately told story. With a little luck, it might motivate some critical mass of women to rise up and take back the world.”
Love it or hate it, the book has certainly caught people’s attention. One popular Maryland book festival invited an entire city to read the novel, as first reported by The Washington Post.
Contributing: Barbara VanDenburgh
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