The controversy around “American Dirt” is heating up.
About a week after its release, the remainder of the promotional tour for the book has been suspended, citing concerns for author Jeanine Cummins’ safety. And Oprah Winfrey, who selected the controversial novel for her book club, recognized the need for “substantive discussion” about the work, to stream on Apple TV+ in March.
The novel is about a Mexican mother and her young son fleeing to the U.S. border after numerous family members are murdered in drug cartel-related violence. It was praised before its Jan. 21 release, but Mexican-American writers, activists and others have criticized “American Dirt” for what they argue are stereotypical depictions of Mexicans. Cummins is of Irish and Puerto Rican background.
“I was deeply moved, it had me riveted from the very first sentence and I could hardly wait, really, to share it with all of you,” Winfrey said in a video posted to her book club’s Instagram page earlier this week. “Now, it has become clear to me from the outpouring of, may I say, of very passionate opinions that this selection has struck an emotional chord and created a need for a deeper, more substantive discussion.”
But some want more than just to talk. A letter published to Literary Hub Wednesday, which says it has been endorsed by 124 writers, calls for Winfrey to “remove the influential imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club, as you have in the past upon learning that a book you’d championed wasn’t what it first seemed to be.”
The day of the book’s release, Winfrey appeared on “CBS This Morning” where her bestie, Gayle King, serves as co-host. Cummins sat beside Winfrey and addressed criticism of the book.
“I always knew that I wanted to write about immigration,” said Cummins, who has described herself as white. “I was interested in that topic, and I resisted for a very long time telling the story from a migrant’s point of view because I was worried that I didn’t know enough, that my privilege would make me blind to certain truths.”
She also said during the appearance that she’d received the blessing of a one-time chair of the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at San Diego State University, who told her, “Jeanine, we need every voice we can get telling this story.”
The book that debuted at No. 2 on USA TODAY’s Best-Sellers book list be?
But despite getting Winfrey’s endorsement, the book has drawn controversy from reviewers and social media.
In USA TODAY’s own review, Barbara VanDenburgh wrote the novel “reeks of opportunism, substituting character arcs for mere trauma.”
She went on to say that Cummins’ author’s note attempting to explain why she wrote the book, made the situation worse.
“I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants,” Cummins wrote in the author’s note. “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”
“Lots of someones ‘slightly browner’ than Cummins did write it,” VanDenburgh wrote in response, noting several recent examples.
Mexican American actress Sara Ramirez, who played Dr. Callie Torres in “Grey’s Anatomy” didn’t like the news of Winfrey’s book club pick and asked the book club maven on Twitter to read an article about “fake-(expletive) social justice literature.”
Author Julissa Arce Raya wrote of the book on Twitter: “As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented, I can say with authority that this book is a harmful, stereotypical, damaging representation of our experiences. Please listen to us when we tell you, this book isn’t it.”
But Winfrey praised the book for being unique on “CBS This Morning.”
“I thought this humanized that migration process in a way that nothing else I had ever felt or seen had,” she said on the morning show. “This is one story, and I’m saying let everybody else tell your story, but this story really changed me and changed the way I see what it means to be an immigrant trying to come to this country.”
Salma Hayek has apologized for promoting the controversial novel.
Winfrey is not alone in her compliments. In a tweet that appears to have since been deleted, Mexican American actress Salma Hayek thanked Winfrey for sending her the book.
“Now more than ever we need stories of hope & encouragement, endurance & the beauty of the human spirit. I can’t thank @Oprah enough for sending me #AmericanDirt. I continue to be in awe of her commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless & for loving harder in response to hate,” the tweet read.
She has since walked back her praise, sharing on Instagram that she had not read “American Dirt,” nor was she aware of the backlash.
“I thank all of you who caught me in the act of not doing my research, and for setting me straight, because that means you know me and gave me the benefit of the doubt,” her statement read, “and I apologize for shouting out something without experiencing it or doing research on it.”
Contributing: Barbara VanDenburgh and Sara M. Moniuszko