My Problem with Oprah and the American Dirt Debacle

A throwdown between Latinx Authors, the Publishers of American Dirt, and the Oprah Book Club turn into a heated and necessary debate on Apple TV.

On Friday, March 6th, Apple TV aired part one of Oprah’s Book Club featuring the controversial book club author, Jeanine Cummins. Cummins’s book, American Dirt, is the story of a mom and son who escape the violence at the hands of drug cartels in Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. The book has been ripped apart, practically spit upon, and adored all at the same time. It’s been called the modern-day Grapes of Wrath and on the flipside, teacher and writer, Myriam Gurba, called it, Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature. So what’s the truth?

The truth is complicated, and I’m not sure the publishing industry and Oprah understood the critical parts of this discussion. But let’s be real, Oprah isn’t going to allow this book to fail, not on her watch. It appears she wants to get to the bottom of things, but why? As if we’ve never been down this road before, a million little pieces ago. Does Oprah care about Latinx issues in both publishing and immigration? I can’t tell since capitalism complicates matters. But it appears that she needed this book to understand and empathize with the plight of Mexicans coming to the United States. In the opening of the American Dirt (Part One) episode of Oprah’s Book Club, she says, “What this has done for me, is open my eyes in ways that only books can do.” Considering that Oprah, a person of color, should know a thing or two about racism and oppression, why does she need a romanticized account of immigration to feel the pain? Isn’t she doing to Latinos what white folks have done to Black folks for ages? Isn’t this why in 2020, we use the word trauma porn to describe those folks who love watching the fictionalized atrocities of marginalized people while hiding in the comfort of their homes, eating popcorn from their couches, while participating in social justice via Twitter? If you listen carefully, Oprah told on herself. If she wanted to know what was happening at the border, couldn’t she have found a non-fictionalized account? Why does it always take a non-threatening fictional character to validate the real stories of pain? Why do so many people of color have a problem with white savior movies? Because we (people of color) are only valued when the white principal character validates our existence.

These are the issues raised by the Latinx authors who shared the stage with Cummins and Oprah: Esther Cepeda, Julissa Arce, and Reyna Grande. These talented Latina writers did a phenomenal job of voicing their concerns about the book’s lack of inauthenticity and political view. They also asked hard questions to the Flatiron publisher, Don Weisberg, who is also the president of Macmillan, and to Amy Einhorn, the editor. The three Latinx writers asked: What is it about this book (American Dirt) that makes it better than any other immigration book or story written? If Cummins’s surname was Latino, would she have received a million-dollar advance? Why do Publishers tell Latinx writers that their stories aren’t universal enough? Why aren’t Latinx stories valued in the same way that white stories are?

Why? Because of racism. That’s my take. And shouldn’t Oprah know better? She doesn’t seem to know enough about Latinx issues, period. Esther Cepeda, a Washington Post syndicated columnist, asked Oprah bluntly why there weren’t more Latinx authors in her book club selection, considering she’s the king and queen maker of writers. Oprah’s response, “Well, I am guilty of not looking for Latinx writers, I will now, because my eyes have been opened to see, to behave differently.” Well, Oprah takes cues from the publishing industry. She’s worked to sell those books that publishers hand-selected to become bestsellers. She’s been in bed with the publishing industry for some time. Let’s see if she means what she says.

As for Jeanine Cummins, the writer who wanted to be the bridge between communities, even though she felt she wasn’t brown enough to tell the story, I feel her pain. Imagine someone publicly calling you a pendeja and then destroying every word of the book you tried so hard to write? Couldn’t we have gone about this differently? I understand Myriam Gurba’s rage, but dang, that critique was over the top nasty and mean-spirited. The irony is she’s a teacher and well, so am I. Why do we bother to teach accountable talk to our students if we’re only going to do the complete opposite when we get to debate an issue? She set an example for her students, and I think she could’ve done a better job. The last thing we want to teach our kids is to bully people online. And once Gurba attacked Cummins online, Latinx Twitter followed suit. Cancel culture tried to destroy another creative soul, another woman with a voice, another human being seeking to make a change, with a level of vitriol that seems misdirected. The anger should have been targeted toward the publishing house, and not the writers (some who are also Latinx) whose praise and blurbs offended those who criticized the book.

I can’t imagine being Cummins right now. I feel her pain. She’s been through a lot in life, and I’ve seen enough videos of her holding back tears to know that the loss of her father and the brutal rape of her cousins is something that haunts her often. I argued with a friend about this. She was suspicious of Jeanine’s every intention, every word, every tear, every excuse. I was not. She also thought that Jeanine shouldn’t have suffered trauma because she wasn’t present on that bridge when her cousins were raped and then subsequently thrown over. If I didn’t see the horrific event that involved someone I loved with my own eyes, I would still be traumatized by what they had experienced. Then Jeanine’s father dies suddenly at the dinner table, and Jeanine becomes lost in her pain, again.

I understand how trauma changes us in profound ways. I have experienced my own, and as a writer, I try to find the words to help heal wounds. I’m always grateful to the writing gods for blessing me with those stories that help me get through a difficult time. I believe Cummins when she says that the trauma of losing her father was the trauma she was trying to work through in her writing. She needed to save someone in this story, and she decided that the person to save was a woman named Lydia. Lydia needed to run away from the dark and violent past to a safer place. Cummins, I’m assuming, needed to believe in humanity again and part lives in Lydia. Maybe that was Cummin’s intent. Sometimes the characters who find us are in no way like us but share some commonalities. Sometimes they are from places we’ve never visited or places we can only invent or places we want to know more about. At some point, magic happens, and the character and writer take the journey together.

I see real pain in Cummins’s eyes and don’t see her as someone who took advantage of a situation. I see her as a writer who found a heroine that could help her through her pain. But not everyone feels the way I do. This book has divided people. Welcome to our new world. There was a time in our society that we’d pull back our heightened emotions and self-righteousness to deal with issues decently and thoughtfully. Those days are gone. We no longer care to filter our feelings and our words. We don’t have the patience because we’ve been in an exaggerated state of anxiety since 2016 when the future of our country never looked so bleak. When our leader is arguably the biggest or second-biggest bully in history. We’ve brushed aside our virtues to feed into the urge of public tantrums, at all cost. We go after other human hearts as if they aren’t human at all. Many of us have become defensive, unfiltered, and unkind. Are there some deserving targets? Well, here comes the hypocrisy. Yes. We see it play out on the political landscape every day. There are evil people in leadership positions who are trying to destroy our lives. Do we stay quiet or call them out? Do we use choice words or use whatever disgusting word there is to use to attack those people who are obviously attacking us? So how does this relate to the debate about American Dirt? The controversy surrounding this book isn’t about Oprah, Cummins, or Latinx writers as it is more about humanity.

Cummins intended to be the bridge. Well, yes, that’s exactly what happened but in a very unexpected way. I’m sure she saw it play out differently. Here’s what’s bothering me about Cummins: I wish she would fix her posture, sit up straight, and stop apologizing. She apologizes for not being brown enough; she apologizes for using Spanish words, and for the book jacket design. She apologizes for the photo she shared of the Australian woman who got her manicurist to replicate the book cover, barbed wire, and all. Stop apologizing, Jeanine Cummins. Own it. Defend your story the way Oprah and the Publisher are defending the book. Acknowledge the wrongs, make it right, and for god’s sake, it’s nobody’s business what you intend to do with the advance money.

The Twitterverse cannot become the killer of stories or the people who tell those stories. Aren’t we tired of hearing the word precedent? A book should fail because people hate it, not because a few loud folks make enough noise to scare the people in charge. Let writers write and let readers determine the success or failure of a book without the help of Oprah or her book club.

Educator, Writer, Puerto-Rican by way of NYC.

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