In Oprah Winfrey’s new streaming special on the controversial novel “American Dirt,” its author Jeanine Cummins sits calm and humble, taking every direct-hit question from Winfrey with visible discomfort but an air of composure that almost never breaks.
Three Latina co-panelists join her — Esther Cepeda, Reyna Grande and Julissa Arce — and the author breathes deep, seemingly measuring each word as she weathers the face-to-face criticism for her story about a middle-class bookseller in Mexico escaping with her son to the U.S. border. The book shot to the top of bestseller lists but faced intense backlash over what some termed stereotypical depictions of Mexico or for cultural appropriation, because Cummins is white.
In a black jacket and hoop earrings, the dark-haired Cummins is apologetic throughout the episode, which began streaming Friday on Apple TV+. “It feels painful to have my integrity questioned, it feels a little bit like grief,” she says. “It pains me to be in the middle of it.”
“I hope we can have a conversation about migrantes,” she says, switching to accented Spanish for a single word. “And I still think we can.”
And for the next hour or so Winfrey, the panel, and audience members hash it all out: Cummins’ identity as partly Puerto Rican; her authorial intentions; Winfrey’s role in the books industry; and, albeit briefly, the plight of migrantes themselves. (Winfrey addressed migrant stories and child separation in Part 2 of the special.)
In an interview on Friday, Arce, author of “Someone Like Me” and “My (Underground) American Dream,” said that she was mostly satisfied with the experience of being on the show. She said it was neither positive nor negative, but “necessary.”
As she says in the taping, Arce wished L.A. writer Myriam Gurba were onstage with her, as Gurba was the catalyst who raised early warning signs about “American Dirt.” Gurba has since co-founded a group in the aftermath of the controversy, #DignidadLiteraria, with fellow writers Roberto Lovato and David Bowles.
Winfrey and the panelists make frequent mention of the trio in the program, rendering their absence more notable.
“There’s a lot of talk about how orchestrated the conversation was, and to be honest, we orchestrated it,” Arce said. “We talked about it, we made notes. Reyna and I talked about what we wanted to say. We prepared to be there.”
Gurba, reached in San Antonio while attending the AWP literary conference, confirmed that she was not invited to the panel. Representatives for the production did not disclose why.
“They went out of their way to produce the show around us,” Gurba says.
A sticky affair
From the start of the “American Dirt” controversy, its vocal critics have argued that the novel is yet another moment in a history of white authors capitalizing on the trauma and tragedy of non-white peoples, such as immigrants from Central America who are trying to cross Mexico.
A secondary, equally sticky issue is the question of who gets to tell whose story.
“I definitely worried about this moment, about being called to account for writing this book,” Cummins says on the show, but also says, paradoxically, “It has been a surprise from beginning to end.”
The author also allows herself some flashes of gratification. At one point, Cummins goes for a chuckle and says that, nope, she would not have returned the reported seven-figure advance at auction for the novel.
Her first three books were published “modestly,” she says, so despite the backlash, she suggests she should be welcome to enjoy the spoils that come with achieving the modern fiction writer’s ultimate dream — “thanks to Macmillan” — a million dollars or more for a single title, with a movie deal attached. After all, she’d been a struggling writer at some point too. She notes that she now donates to the organizations she visited in the course of her research for the novel.
Oprah faces scrutiny as well.
In her to-camera introduction, Winfrey lets everyone know what is at stake: her undisputed perch as the publishing industry’s ultimate “king- and queen-maker,” as Cepeda says in the show, over a quarter-century promoting titles through her Oprah’s Book Club.
“Writers have been my rock stars, I’ve always been in awe of an author’s ability to create different worlds with words,” Winfrey says, adding that those authors’ calls to rescind her selection of “American Dirt” made her “pause” and think seriously about the criticism.
Although the media mogul displays her usual mastery of television hosting, with her open-armed and fair approach, she is also directly taken to task and listens to those accusing her of ignoring Latino voices. As the panelists point out in the show, Winfrey has rarely invited brown authors to her stage to enjoy the bounties bestowed by her book club.
They counted only four in 24 years, Cummins included.
One author who had been overlooked was Grande herself, an immigrant from the city of Iguala, Mexico, who won an American Book Award in 2007 for her debut novel “Across a Hundred Mountains,” based on her personal experience crossing the border. Grande, too, seems uncomfortable on the stage, but for clearly different reasons than Cummins.
“I felt hurt, and I felt undervalued,” Grande says to Cummins. “Because the publishing industry does not have the same attitude with our immigrant stories as they did with your story. When we approach a publisher with our stories, we are told that our stories don’t matter, that our stories don’t sell well. And they make us feel ashamed about our immigrant experiences.”
If “American Dirt” becomes one of the biggest sellers of the year, it is likely that the #DignidadLiteraria network will also take a firmer hold in the conversations it has sparked.
The issue of under-representation within commercial publishing is being taken directly to Macmillan, with more scheduled meetings over concrete actions the publishing house has promised to take in addressing its lack of Latino voices, said Lovato, one of the #DignidadLiteraria co-founders.
In the show, however, Winfrey sidesteps a question from Cepeda on whether she would engage directly with the founders of the group. “I can’t say what my engagement is going to be,” she responds. “What I can say is that I’m going to do better in terms of my own selection.” Asked about why the group co-founders weren’t invited onto the show, a spokesperson for the Book Club said they had “no further comment at this time.”
After viewing the program, Lovato says all the central critiques about “American Dirt” and the publishing industry at large were laid bare, again, but not fully resolved in the special.
“It was like theater of disembodiment,” he says. “Think about it, it’s primarily a Central American story, but you place Mexican voices to tell it, then you have this white writer who is this disembodied Latina, and then you have Oprah, who moves to understand an issue that she’s ignored for decades.”
For her part, Winfrey offers a frank apology as Cepeda, Grande and Arce challenge her on the book club’s track record.
“I am guilty for not looking for Latinx writers,” Winfrey says. “I will now behave differently, and that’s the most I can say.”