American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has remained comfortably perched at the top of various bestsellers lists since its January 21 release and subsequent selection as the February pick for Oprah's Book Club. This success came in spite of Flatiron Books's almost immediate cancellation of Cummins's nationwide tour following threats allegedly made against the author and the booksellers hosting her. The controversy surrounding the novel, which sold for seven figures, and its author has abated somewhat since Macmillan executives met last month with a group of Latinx activists objecting to the book's stereotypical portrayals of Mexico and Mexican immigrants. Still, tonight's Oprah Winfrey interview with Cummins on Apple TV's new Oprah’s Book Club streaming series may prompt another eruption of complaints—or it could mollify critics.
The two-part episode focusing on Winfrey's February selection will begin streaming on Apple TV at midnight tonight. According to Winfrey's production company, Harpo Productions, and the Oprah Winfrey Network, Winfrey and Cummins will be joined in the first half of the program by Latina authors Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce, and Esther Cepeda, as well as “members of the Latinx community for an in-depth discussion of the book and real-life migrant experiences” that will be “raw, revealing.” In the second half, Winfrey will lead a discussion “with Latinx people who saw themselves reflected in the book,” who will “share their insights into real-life migrant experiences.”
In a reference to claims by her critics that Cummins had appropriated a Mexican immigrant experience that she herself has not lived, Winfrey, who selected American Dirt for her book club just as the controversy over the book was building, said that she had “heard and understand the concerns and wanted to bring together many voices to lean into this conversation” because “for 25 years on the Oprah Show, I learned that is the only way I think we can actually gain a better understanding of one another.”
The program was taped on Feb. 13 in Tucson, Ariz., with a carefully selected audience of Oprah Book Club members, who were not informed of the location of the taping until 24 hours before it took place. Attendees were asked not to tell anyone of the location, to bring only small bags or purses, and to leave cell phones in their cars. The closely guarded taping has been taken by some of the book's fiercest critics as an attempt to protect the author rather than to encourage a serious narrative.
“Oprah’s trying to drag the conversation back to Cummins and the white victimhood narrative,” complained Roberto Lovato, a founding member of #DignidadLiteraria, the grassroots organization that emerged in response to the controversy and met with Macmillan last month. The group's representatives, Lovato told PW before the show's taping, were not invited to participate in the discussion. He added: “The control and secrecy are astounding.”
In an open letter to Winfrey published on Literary Hub the day before the taping of this evening's episode, #DignidadLiteraria called for Winfrey to meet with its leaders to discuss "the actual problem: the continued underrepresentation of Latinx authors in publishing and in your highly influential book club." Winfrey was also asked "not to play into tried and true narratives of white victimhood that paint Latinx people as a violent, barbarian horde of censorship" in the episode that airs tonight.
More recently, another grassroots organization of Latinx activists, Presente.org, partnered with #DignidadLiteraria to formally request that New York governor Andrew Cuomo instruct the state’s Human Rights Division to open an investigation into potential discrimination against Latinx people in the Big Five’s hiring and employment practices, as well as in the lack of representation in books published by and about Latinx peoples. “The U.S publishing industry may be systematically discriminating against Latino communities,” the letter to Cuomo stated. “The century-long patterns of exclusion...intimates pervasive, structural racism that the industry itself cannot be trusted to correct without supervision.”