Oprah's New Book Club Pick Proves Controversial

'American Dirt' criticized for inauthentic portrayal of Mexican migrants
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 24, 2020 1:20 PM CST
Updated Jan 26, 2020 6:33 AM CST
Oprah's New Book Club Pick Proves Controversial
This cover image released by Flatiron Books shows "American Dirt," a novel by Jeanine Cummins.   (Flatiron Books via AP)

One of the most highly anticipated books of 2020 is out. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a selection of Oprah Winfrey's book club, follows a middle-class Mexican bookseller as she journeys to the US with her son after her journalist husband is killed by a drug cartel. "From the first page, the first sentence, I was in, I was open, I was shook up," Winfrey says, per CNN. "I feel that everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom." Except that's not at all the reaction of many immigrants, particularly those of Mexican heritage. More:

  • "My family fled El Salvador with death pounding on our door," yet "I see no part of myself reflected in #AmericanDirt, a book white critics are hailing as the great immigrant novel," says Los Angeles Times staff writer Esmeralda Bermudez. She notes the publishing industry "so rarely supports immigrants to tell our own stories."
  • In a biting review, New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal writes that "the book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider," as Cummins "has a strange, excited fascination in commenting on gradients of brown skin."

  • Chicana author Myriam Gurba says the protagonist "perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist," experiencing "shock after shock when confronted with the realities of México." Meanwhile, "italicized Spanish words like carajo, mijo, and amigo litter the prose, yielding the same effect as store-bought taco seasoning."
  • The criticism extends to Cummins, who secured a seven-figure deal with Flatiron Books, with some questioning her ethnic identity. The author has recently described herself as "Latinx." However, BuzzFeed notes Cummins, whose grandmother was Puerto Rican, identified as white in a 2015 essay in the New York Times.
  • Some critics have also accused her of deception in speaking of her husband, an Irishman, as an undocumented immigrant. In response, author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal notes "Mexican migrants are not held in the US—they're autodeported. It's just so much more complex."
  • Cummins understands why some might think she "had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among migrants," as she struggled with that same opinion. "I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it … but then, I thought, 'If you're a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?'" she writes in the book's afterword, per Slate.
  • Cummins elaborated in an NPR interview after taking flak for tweets showing celebratory floral arrangements wrapped in barbed wire and a manicure featuring the barbed wire design that's on the book's cover. Speaking of privilege and a predominantly white publishing industry, she said: "That's not a problem that I can fix, nor is it a problem that I'm responsible for. ... All I can do is write the book that I believe in."
(Read more books stories.)

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