Why Is Everyone Arguing About the Novel American Dirt?

American Dirt was released on January 21, 2020. Photo: Vulture

On January 21, Oprah Winfrey announced her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick, the new novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Winfrey tweeted: “From the first sentence, I was IN … Like so many of us, I’ve read newspaper articles and watched television news stories and seen movies about the plight of families looking for a better life, but this story changed the way I see what it means to be a migrant in a whole new way.” Winfrey also posted a video of her endorsement to the Oprah’s Book Club Twitter account, saying, “I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up, and 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. So I want you to read. Come read with us, and then join the conversation with Jeanine Cummins on Apple TV+ coming this March.”

Book Twitter reacted to the announcement with swiftness, although perhaps not in the way Oprah’s team would have wanted, citing the recent #OwnVoices movement. American Dirt has been the subject of controversy and criticism since 2019, when early readers first offered their opinions after seeing advance copies. The book has been called “stereotypical,” and “appropriative” for “opportunistically, selfishly, and parasitically” telling the fictional story of a Mexican mother and son’s journey to the border after a cartel murders the rest of their family. One of the more common knocks is that the book engages in “brownface,” incorporating a nominally Mexican perspective that was written by a woman who — as recently as 2016 — identified as “white.” In the lead-up to American Dirt’s release, Cummins revealed she has a Puerto Rican grandmother. The conversation surrounding American Dirt’s “ripped from the headlines” approach to telling this migrant story in an American voice for American readers places it within ongoing debates in the lit world about who can tell what stories.

Some professional critics also had at American Dirt in the days before its January 21 release. New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal said that the “rapturous and demented praise” the book has received in the press might be owed in part to the fact that “tortured sentences aside, American Dirt is enviably easy to read” and “determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach.” Some of that praise also comes from the Times; in the Book Review, Lauren Groff was ultimately ambivalent but called the book “propulsive” and “swift,” and regarded its polemical “uncomplicated moral universe” as a feature rather than a bug. Groff (who, for the record, is white) praises Cummins’s efforts and excuses her appropriation, whereas Sehgal (who is not) questions Cummins’s stated motivation in writing this story:

Shouldn’t the story matter, her effort to individuate people portrayed as a “faceless brown mass” (her words)? In the book’s afterword, she agonizes about not being the right person to write the book (“I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”) but decides that she has a moral obligation to the story.

Groff caused an even further Twitter stir when the New York Times Books account tweeted a link to her review with this (since-deleted) pull quote: “‘American Dirt’ is one of the most wrenching books I have read in a few years, with the ferocity and political reach of the best of Theodore Dreiser’s novel.” Groff responded: “Please take this down and post my actual review.” Apparently this quote was from an “early version” of her review, to which she had made “radical changes.” Still, this gaffe was enough to ignite Twitter discourse about who should have the platform to review certain stories, in addition to who should write them.

After Oprah announced Jeanine Cummins’s controversial American Dirt as her latest Book Club pick, immigration reporter Aura Bogado shared a tweet the author posted back in November, showcasing a “pretty” nail-art interpretation of her book jacket, which features a barbed-wire design. Bogado critiqued Cummins’s “vulgar pleasure of proudly wearing this exact symbol of oppression as a fashion statement,” sparking a new wave of outrage over what’s seen as a blatant visual representation of how Cummins is insensitively capitalizing on immigrant trauma.

Then on January 26, Oprah posted a two-minute video to the Oprah’s Book Club Instagram, announcing that as a response to the “outpouring … of very passionate opinions,” she spoke with members of the Latinx community about their concerns with American Dirt and will air an Apple TV+ event in March to “bring people together from all sides to talk about this book, and who gets to publish what stories. I’m hoping that that is going to resonate with many of you and your concerns.”

After this announcement, writers Roberto Lovato, David Bowles, and Myriam Gurba began tweeting under the hashtag #DignidadLiteraria as a “call to politico-literary action,” and many authors and activists are using the hashtag along with #ownvoices in their calls for better representation. Vox reported that Immigrant Youth Group United We Dream is petitioning Oprah to include more Latinx and immigrant authors in the Book Club. On January 27, the Oprah’s Book Club Instagram account moved forward as usual, posting the reading schedule for American Dirt. The account posted the schedule with the caption: “Over the next several weeks we will be using this platform to share a diverse array of content, including books by Mexican and Latinx authors. More to come.”

On January 29, American Dirt’s publisher Flatiron Books released a statement from its president, Bob Miller, about how they were “surprised by the anger that has emerged from members of the Latinx and publishing communities” in response to the book’s release and Flatiron’s role in tone-deaf publicity. Miller acknowledges “serious mistakes,” such as barbed-wire centerpieces at a bookseller dinner, and that they “should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland.” In the statement, Miller announced that Flatiron will cancel the book tour, citing “concerns about safety” and “specific threats to booksellers and the author.”

Many replies to this statement find it to be inadequate, using language of “white privilege,” “victimhood,” and “dog whistling” to frame Latinx concerns about the book as violent and scary, rather than simply writing an apology with a promise to improve their practices. Many commenters took issue with passages from the statement, like “it’s unfortunate that she is the recipient of hatred from within the very communities she sought to honor. We are saddened that a work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor.”

At the end of the statement, Miller announced that in place of the book tour, Flatiron Books will organize a town-hall series “where Jeanine will be joined by some of the groups who have raised objections to the book.” There are no further details yet about this series of meetings.

On February 4 at a pre-Oscars brunch event in Beverly Hills called “Defining Women: The Power of Lifting Up Women’s Voices From Hollywood to Washington, D.C.,” Eva Longoria drew a connection between the American Dirt controversy and similar concerns over white gatekeeping in Hollywood. InStyle quoted her saying:

“I have not read the book. I will not read the book. It’s just parallel and synonymous with what’s happening in entertainment, what’s happening in government. The gatekeepers of the industries do not reflect the people and the consumers that they serve,” Longoria said. “That’s the problem.”

“There’s a bidding war over this book, which means all the publishers wanted this book. And they wanted some sort of way in to a different community. The problem with that is that the publishing industry is 80% white, from agents to editors and publicists.”

Longoria also critiqued Flatiron for the way it handled concerns from the Latinx community about American Dirt, saying, “What made me really upset was when the publisher said, ‘We had to cancel the book tour because of safety concerns,’ which made my community look like we’re crazy people going to cause trouble. We’re not. We’re just being outspoken about the inaccuracies of what this book represents.” Longoria also endorsed novels that depict similar stories to American Dirt that were actually written by Latinx authors — Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario, and The Beast by Óscar Martínez. But, as Longoria pointed out, “Oprah didn’t pick them.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, American Dirt has already been optioned for a movie adaptation by Charles Leavitt, the writer of Blood Diamond, and Imperative Entertainment, the production company behind Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. While you wait for that come out, you can add your name to a 150-plus person hold list for American Dirt at your local library and catch Oprah’s Apple TV+ feature on it in March.

This post has been updated throughout.

Why Is Everyone Arguing About the Novel American Dirt?