The controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt is not dying down. Critics have called the novel, which focuses on a Mexican immigrant, exploitative. (Cummins, who is white, had a Puerto Rican grandmother.) The outcry over the novel grew louder last week when Oprah Winfrey made it her most recent book club selection. In response, Oprah has changed her plans for the book’s release to include a discussion in which viewers will hear from “all sides” of the debate. Now, however, 82 authors have sent Winfrey an open letter, calling on her to strip the novel of its book club seal.
The letter, well worth reading in full on Lit Hub, begins by praising Winfrey’s support for books and authors. “In light of all the good that you have done, we believe that American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins should not be honored as your book-club pick,” the letter continues. “The book club provides a seal of approval that can still, we hope, be changed.”
The letter notes that critics have called the novel out for over-simplifying its immigration story, and also pointed to the recent allegation that its strongest features were largely cribbed from Latinx writers.
“In the informed opinions of many, many Mexican American and Latinx immigrant writers, American Dirt has not been imagined well nor responsibly, nor has it been effectively researched,” the letter states. “The book is widely and strongly believed to be exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed, too often erring on the side of trauma fetishization and sensationalization of migration and of Mexican life and culture.”
The letter, its authors note, is not meant to be an attack on Cummins or her intentions, or a call for silencing or censorship. “But in a time of widespread misinformation, fearmongering, and white-supremacist propaganda related to immigration and to our border, in a time when adults and children are dying in US immigration cages, we believe that a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up.”
Winfrey first responded to the backlash against her pick on Sunday, in a video posted to Instagram.
“It has become clear to me from the outpouring, may I say, of very passionate opinions that this selection has struck an emotional chord and created a need for a deeper more substantive discussion,” Winfrey said in the video. “I’ve spent the past few days listening to members of the Latinx community to get a greater understanding of their concerns. And I hear them—I do.” And so, she said, she plans to “bring people together from all sides to talk about this book, and who gets to publish what stories.”
“I’m hoping that that’s going to resonate with many of you and your concerns,” Winfrey said, adding that the discussion will air on Apple TV+ in March. American Dirt publisher Flatiron Books, meanwhile, has canceled the novel’s book tour, citing safety concerns.