There’s a reason Oprah Winfrey can turn any controversy into compelling television.
In the latest episode of Oprah’s Book Club, which debuted Friday on Apple TV+, she confronts drama of her own making: the outcry over the novel American Dirt.
Oprah selected the book for her famous club after feeling moved by its story of a middle-class Mexican woman who flees cartel violence with her young son. She celebrated its release by appearing with the author, Jeanine Cummins, on CBS This Morning. The promotional juggernaut was supposed to continue with a huge author tour until numerous Latinx authors made headlines with serious concerns about the book.
They argued that Cummins’ tale relied on harmful stereotypes, trafficked in “trauma porn,” and was riddled with cultural gaffes and mistakes that spoke to the author’s status as an outsider. More than 100 writers petitioned Oprah to rescind her endorsement of the book. She refused.
Instead Oprah spent an hour, as she described it, leaning into the controversy.
She moved deftly from painting a sympathetic portrait of the author, Jeanine Cummins, to grilling her about past regrettable statements. She welcomed the book’s critics on-stage, giving them ample time to talk, yet seemed to firmly believe that challenging a book’s authenticity amounts to a dangerous attack on the author’s freedom of expression. She criticized the publishing industry’s lack of diversity but essentially shrugged when asked to explain why few Latinx authors have been inducted into her book club.
“I am guilty for not looking for Latinx writers. I will now, because my eyes have been opened to see, behave differently.”
The answer, according to Oprah, is that she’s relied on recommendations from a single person (Leigh Haber, Books Editor for O, the Oprah Magazine) for years.
“I am guilty of not looking for Latinx writers,” Oprah said, noting that she just seeks out books she likes, regardless of the author’s background. “I will now, because my eyes have been opened to see, behave differently.”
Only Oprah could get away with such a breathtaking admission.
The episode would’ve easily slipped into a wrongheaded meditation on so-called cancel culture without the participation of the Latinx and Mexican-American authors Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce, and Esther Cepeda. Each of them published op-eds or columns questioning why American Dirt received industry praise and resources when stories by authors with lived experience of migration are never published or are put into the world with little fanfare. That is the central question that critics of the book want answered.
Don Weisberg, president of Macmillan, whose Flatiron Books division published American Dirt, said from his seat in the audience that the company knows it urgently needs to create a culture of inclusion and diversity and find different ways to reach authors of color. David Bowles, a Mexican-American writer who criticized American Dirt and watched the episode Friday, said Grande, Arce, and Cepeda pushed Oprah and Miller to grapple with problem.
“They did ask some hard questions and ultimately forced people to give answers that they might not have volunteered of their own accord,” he said.
Bowles co-founded the #DignidadLiteraria movement, which has called on Oprah to “repair the harm caused to the Latinx community.” When asked by Cepeda whether she’d work with #DignidadLiteraria, Oprah avoided saying yes.
Her noncommittal response may be the kind of reply you get from a billionaire who runs a content empire, but Oprah seems overly invested in the notion that the intense criticism of American Dirt is a form of censorship, and thus appears loathe to engage with the book’s most vocal critics. Grande, however, elegantly dispelled the misconception that critics want to silence Cummins.
“I think storytellers can write any story that speaks to our heart as long as we do it with honesty, with integrity, and also do it responsibly.”
“When I read American Dirt, I never once questioned your right to tell this story,” Grande said to Cummins. “I think storytellers can write any story that speaks to our heart as long as we do it with honesty, with integrity, and also do it responsibly. I believe in freedom of expression. What I don’t believe in is these institutions that silence some voices while elevating others.”
For her part, Oprah missed a valuable opportunity to press Cummins to explain what she’s learned from this experience.
Cummins has cited years of extensive research, along with good intentions, as a defense of her artistic choices. She knew writing American Dirt from a migrant’s point of view, without any personal firsthand experience, was an extremely risky choice, and that she might fail. The reception to the novel indicates she did fail in significant ways but can’t admit it. If only Cummins — and Oprah — could understand that taking stock of and talking about that failure is not a weakness.
Instead, what we’re left with is a portrait of Cummins as a put-upon author whose lofty dreams of building a “bridge” between Mexican immigrants and the average American have been cruelly attacked. No doubt plenty of white Americans see themselves in Cummins, and wish being an ally to a marginalized group wasn’t so hard. But, as Grande points out in the episode, it’s not enough to read a book that makes you empathetic to a group of people you once viewed as the other.
“I would really like to see you transfer your concerns and your compassion for [American Dirt characters] Lydia and Luca to the real mothers who have been turned away at the border, to the real children who are locked up in cages, to the real families whose lives are in peril, to our undocumented youth in this country whose futures are at risk, and, also to hold our president accountable for all the pain and suffering that he’s been causing,” said Grande.
If Cummins did indeed build a bridge for some American Dirt readers in the audience, it wasn’t Oprah, but Grande instead, who showed them how to actually cross it.
UPDATE: March 6, 2020, 4:13 p.m. PST This story has been updated to correctly identify Don Weisberg, president of Macmillan.
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