Oprah Winfrey discussed her February book selection, American Dirt, with its author, publisher, and editor, as well as other guests in a special two-episode program on Apple TV that was classic Winfrey: the controversies surrounding Jeanine Cummin’s novel were discussed in a lively, but also emotional 40-minute exchange during the first, hour-long episode, nudged along by Oprah’s questions and comments; the second, 40-minute episode was more of a documentary that explored the travails experienced by immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, several of whom told their stories to Winfrey.
While the two episodes may satisfy many who have found fault with American Dirt, some of the book’s most vocal critics want Winfrey to do more to make amends for having selected American Dirt for her book club. And the publishing industry remains in the hot seat, both for its lack of diversity and for its failure to amplify the voices of writers from marginalized communities
Winfrey set the tone for the ensuing discussion during the first episode taped in Tucson, Ariz. on Feb. 13 before a studio audience of approximately 100 people by doubling down on her decision to select American Dirt for her book club.
“I have heard and understand the concerns,” she said, “We’re going to hear from different sides—not all sides, because that’d be impossible. I fundamentally believe in the right of anyone to use their imagination and their skills to tell stories. If one author or artist is silenced, we’re all in danger of the same.”
She then conducted a 20-minute interview with Cummins, pulling out the emotional backstory to Cummins’ writing American Dirt, her responses to the controversy, and even got Cummins to admit missteps she made that fueled the indignation against her.
“It’s not the conversation I anticipated having this week,” Cummins said, often on the verge of tears during the interview, explaining that she did not expect the backlash to American Dirt that emerged shortly before its release, and peaked in late January, as she was embarking on a 40-city national tour. The tour was canceled by Flatiron Books after Cummins made only a few appearances.
Admitting that describing Mexican immigrants in the book’s afterword as “a faceless brown mass” was a “clumsy” way to make the point that often immigrants are seen as a monolith, rather than as individuals, and that describing her husband as being at one time an undocumented immigrant without disclosing that he was Irish was another misstep, Cummins defended a 2016 New York Times op-ed in which she described herself as white, by explaining that the phrase was taken out of context in an essay about race and privilege in the criminal justice system.
“I said my grandmother was from Puerto Rico in that same essay,” she said, “If people actually read that essay, it stands as proof of my commitment to social justice issues.”
Making no secret of her enthusiasm for American Dirt, Winfrey told Cummins that she had “succeeded in being a bridge, there’s a swell of people who love the book” before introducing three Latina authors who did not love the book: Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce, and Esther Cepeda. While the three have written critiques of American Dirt that were published in different publications, they reserved their harshest words on the show for the book publishing industry – two representatives of which sat in the front row: Macmillan president Don Weisberg and Cummins’ editor at Flatiron, Amy Einhorn, who now heads Henry Holt.
“My issue is not with Jeanine’s book,” Arce said, “my issue is with the publishing industry that systematically silences us, that’s keeping us off the bookshelves.”
Weisberg and Einhorn acknowledged that mistakes were made in the marketing and promotion of American Dirt, including the floral table centerpieces at a May 2019 booksellers dinner for Cummins which replicated a border wall intertwined with barbed wire.
“I take full responsibility for that,” Einhorn said, “It was wrong; it was distasteful.”
Weisberg disclosed that Macmillan had been strategizing for the past few years on tweaking its hiring practices, in order to diversify its workforce. “Over the last two years, this has been the major initiative that has been going on in the company, and in the country,” he said.
Weisberg’s words did little to mollify Grande, Arce, and Cepeda, who demanded answers to allegations made by Flatiron Books that threats made against Cummins necessitated the cancellation of her book tour.
“To us, we’re criticizing the book, and all of a sudden, we’re a violent mob,” complained Cepeda. Arce added that it was “incredibly offensive that our thoughtful critique of the book and of the industry was minimized.”
In response to Winfrey’s question posed to Weisberg and Einhorn as to why Cummins’ book tour was canceled, Einhorn explained that while no death threats were received, other threats were made against Cummins, against booksellers hosting her, and against moderators participating in the events.
“Our first priority is the safety of our authors,” she said, “By no means did we mean to silence criticism of this book, or discussion. In fact, we’re having town halls. We want there to be discussions.”
In response, Grande said, “By elevating a white person to speak for [a marginalized] community, you are robbing that community of its right to speak for itself. I found it really offensive when the publisher proclaimed that this book defined the immigrant experience. This was so harmful, so disrespectful to those of us who are writing stories based on our experiences.”
But, as Einhorn pointed out, the controversy “transcends one book.” And Winfey herself came under fire for the lack of diversity in her selections for her book club. Arce pointed out that there have been no selections by Mexican-American authors since Winfrey started her book club in 1996, and there have been only four books selected by Latinx authors – including Cummins.
In response to Cepeda’s question, “What are you going to do?” Winfrey promised to “search personally for more Latinx writers,” but stopped short of promising to engage with #DignidadLiteraria, as the group of Latinx activists that emerged in the wake of the controversy demanded she do in an open letter in early February.
“I can’t say what my engagement is going to be,” Winfrey said, “What I can say is I am going to do better in terms of my own selection and I am going to do better in terms of how I feel I can push this conversation and the idea of hiring and having Latinx representation in publishing.”
Preempting the program’s streaming on Apple TV, #DignidadLiteraria issued a statement on Wednesday declaring that the organization’s leaders discussed the taping of the Feb. 13 Oprah Book Club with audience members, and that they consider that Winfrey is “failing to address the concerns that we and tens of thousands of people across the country have raised about her promotion of the book. We call on her, again, to help fix the damage to the Latinx community. It’s imperative that we discuss the actual problem: the continued, severe under-representation of Latinx authors in publishing and in Ms. Winfrey’s highly influential book club.”