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Review: Oprah tries to dig out of ‘American Dirt’ fray in fascinating ‘Book Club’ episode

Oprah’s Book Club discusses American Dirt
“American Dirt” author Jeanine Cummins, second from right, is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, right, in Tuscon, Ariz., while appearing on “Oprah’s Book Club.” They are joined by authors Esther J. Cepeda, left, Julissa Arce and Reyna Grande.
(Karen Ballard / OWN Communications)

Author Jeanine Cummins was visibly nervous when she sat down with the host of “Oprah’s Book Club” to discuss the controversy surrounding her hotly contested immigration story, “American Dirt.” Taking a deep breath, she physically braced for a heated discussion that had begun months before she ever stepped in front of the cameras with Oprah.

The interview, in an episode that premiered Friday on Apple TV+, was centered around the passionate debate sparked by Cummins’ novel when it was published earlier this year by Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan, and anointed a must-read title by America’s preeminent tastemaker and TV talk show goddess. Critics from the Latinx community and elsewhere accused Cummins of cultural appropriation, exploiting stereotypes and benefiting from white privilege in her fictional account of a mother’s harrowing journey from Mexico to the U.S.

The book garnered a seven-figure advance and was advertised by the publishing house as the definitive immigration tale. Cummins, who identifies as white, became the catalyst for a national argument over who has the right to tell a story — and was lambasted (especially on social media) for using the first-person voice of a fictional Latina protagonist named Lydia.

On Friday, the condemnation of cancel culture collided with an older mode of responding to hot topics: the daytime talk show, a forum where hashing out differences was the show. Reactive platforms like Twitter are today’s “Jerry Springer” and Kirkus Reviews rolled into one. Easy access allows thoughtful opinions, knee-jerk reproach and everything in between to tangle and inflame in the same space. Oprah’s style, on the other hand, is to mediate the argument in a controlled environment, with the goal of finding common ground.

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The combination of new vs. old media was fascinating to watch, and made for a refreshingly candid yet curated discussion about a complex topic that has been difficult to harness. Painful truths have been aired, amplified and distorted across social media. Now it was Oprah’s turn.

The two-part show, part of a larger series dedicated to the host’s literary recommendations, opened with Oprah announcing that several prominent authors had asked her to rescind her invitation to have Cummins on the program.

“I want you to know I have ... heard your concerns,” she said, and that’s why she opted to push ahead with the show and explore various sides of the argument. “I believe we can do this without having to cancel, to dismiss or to silence anyone,” she said.

A civil, passionate, informative and moving conversation is exactly what viewers got when Winfrey invited Latinx authors and “American Dirt” critics Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce and Esther Cepeda onstage after a one-on-one interview with Cummins.

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Audience members during the taping of Oprah Winfrey’s two-part episode with “American Dirt” author Jeanine Cummins and others.
Audience members during the taping of Oprah Winfrey’s two-part episode with “American Dirt” author Jeanine Cummins and others.
(Karen Ballard / OWN Communications)

The hourlong segment allowed for a face-to-face reckoning between Cummins; the three writers and activists; representatives from the publishing house, who sat at the front of the audience; and Latinx immigrants who had been asked on the show to give their own accounts of their journeys to America in the second half of the nearly two-hour production.

Grande, who told her affecting story about crossing the U.S. border from Mexico as a child, saying she prayed for wings so she could keep up with the adults and not get caught, voiced frustration that the publishing industry frequently chooses to elevate white voices above others.

Fans of “American Dirt,” such as Oprah and folks in the audience, said they recognized there were multiple issues with the industry and the book. But they countered that the novel was a moving account that opened their eyes to the suffering of real people — the women, children and men behind “crisis at the border” headlines — so it ultimately served a greater purpose.

And as the show demonstrated, the book was the catalyst for a long-overdue conversation about representation in literature, and in Oprah’s Book Club. Her guests pointed out that she too had overlooked narratives from Latinx authors, and the host vowed to be more aware in the future.

The show was taped in Arizona, near Nogales, where some of “American Dirt” takes place. In Part II, Oprah walked and drove along the border wall — passing U.S. Customs and Border Patrol SUVs during the segment — as she interviewed a woman who specialized in addressing the trauma in immigrants. Their discussion was augmented by clips of migrant caravans, children wading across dangerous rivers in the hope of making it into the U.S., and detainees held in cages in crowded facilities once they’d made it here.

Coupled with the firsthand stories of those who’d suffered deeply to live in America — they’d fled the violence of their hometowns only to be sex trafficked by the coyotes they’d paid to help smuggle them into the U.S. — it was a powerful presentation.

Cummins barely spoke after her initial interview with Oprah as the breadth of the controversy around her book, and the issues it brought to the fore, were unpacked — as much as they could be in the limited amount of time the show afforded.

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Was everything solved? Of course not. But the simple act of having an in-person dialogue rather than shouting matches across digitized echo chambers seemed progress enough.


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