But dozens of other writers and critics said “American Dirt” promoted racist stereotypes and demonstrated the publishing industry’s ignorance of the Latinx experience. They had petitioned Oprah to rescind the imprimatur of her book club and cancel the show. Oprah refused, claiming the novel had moved her and that she would use it to inspire a deep discussion about immigration.
She did — in a remarkably well-designed two-part presentation on Apple TV Plus. The conversation that Oprah conducted in Tucson is civil, smart, empathetic and illuminating — a stirring reminder of what’s still possible even in our contentious society.
Oprah, being Oprah, started by acknowledging the criticisms that the novel and she have received. But she went on to note, “If one author, one artist is silenced, we’re all in danger of the same. I believe that we can do this without having to cancel, to dismiss or to silence anyone.”
Cummins, looking crushed and joyless, came onstage. Her countrywide book tour had been canceled in late January over concerns for her safety. “I know actually what it feels like to be attacked in the public eye,” Oprah said. “It’s not easy, and it’s hurtful, and it’s stressful.” But then she began to ask Cummins firmly about the complaints that have been lodged against her, the book and the way it was marketed. Cummins said, “I never meant to suggest that people haven’t already written their migrant stories.”
Oprah shifted expertly from interrogator to fan, saying, “One of your intentions was to be a bridge, and I think actually you have succeeded because there’s a big swell of people . . . who love the book and were opened up by it.” The novel has gone on to tremendous popularity, so far selling 325,000 copies in all formats.
The conversation grew richer when Oprah invited three Latina writers onstage: Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce and Esther Cepeda, who is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. Each of them spoke of the frustration and hurt they felt as they read “American Dirt” and heard about its seven-figure advance and its lavish marketing campaign.
“The publishing industry does not have the same attitude with our immigrant stories as they did with your story,” Grande said.
Arce agreed. “My issue is not Jeanine’s book, really. My issue is with a publishing industry that systematically silences us by keeping us off the bookshelves.”
On cue, Oprah introduced representatives from the book’s publisher and imprint: Don Weisberg, Macmillan’s president, and Amy Einhorn, an editor and publisher who worked at Flatiron when Cummins’s book was purchased. Weisberg readily acknowledged that the industry is too white, and he said he and others are working hard to diversify his company. Einhorn said she loved “American Dirt,” but she took full responsibility for the clumsy and sometimes tasteless way the novel had been marketed.
In one of the best moments of the first hour, Cepeda turned to the host and asked, “Oprah, was this a wake-up call for you? How are you going to respond to the call?” Oprah raised her hands and said, “I love that question!”
Arce followed up with a tough fact: “Since 1996, there has been zero books in your book club — zero — that have been written by Mexican Americans.”
Oprah readily admitted: “I am guilty of not looking for Latinx writers. I haven’t looked for any particular race or for any book. I just look for the book that I particularly like or that somebody recommends to me. I will now — because my eyes have been opened to see — behave differently, and that’s the most I can say.”
The first hour closed with Grande making a rousing plea to the audience members, many of whom had expressed high praise for “American Dirt”: “I would really like to see you transfer your concerns and your compassion . . . 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.”
During the second hour, Oprah presented graphic examples of that suffering and pain. Riding and walking along the wall on the border in Nogales, Ariz., she spoke with Luz Maria Garcini, a professor who studies immigration and trauma.
Oprah also spoke with several women who told death-defying stories of crossing into the United States. The abuse these women suffered and the risks they took to save their children left the audience visibly shaken.
We couldn’t have asked for a more thoughtful and searching discussion about this book, the publishing industry and America’s immigration crisis. Our political culture could learn so much from Oprah.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.