Oprah Winfrey addresses backlash over book club pick 'American Dirt'

Chelsea Ritschel

Oprah Winfrey has addressed the backlash surrounding her latest book club pick, Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt.

Last week, Winfrey announced she’d chosen the novel, which tells the story of a mother and her son who leave Mexico for the United States after they are targeted by one of their home country’s most powerful drug cartel leaders, on Instagram.

“This book gutted me,” she said at the time. “Everything about this book was so extraordinary.”

However, not everyone had the same praise for the book, as the majority of reviews for American Dirt have been overwhelmingly negative - especially from members of the Latinx community.

Following an outpouring of criticism over her pick, the former talk-show host has acknowledged that the book requires a “deeper, more substantive conversation”.

In a video posted to her book club Instagram, Winfrey said: “There’s been a lot of talk about this book lately. And I just wanted you all to hear directly from me, that I read an advance copy of American Dirt last summer before it even was an official book. And it was a visceral experience for me, a migrant story being told from a mother’s perspective about the lengths she would go to to protect her child, to get to freedom in America.

‘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.

“Now, it has become clear to me, from the outpouring, 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.”

According to Winfrey, when she first began hearing criticisms of the novel and her decision to choose it, she initially questioned: “What is offensive?”

“I’ve spent the last few days listening to members of the Latinx community to get a greater understanding of their concerns, and I hear them. I do,” she continued. “So what I want to do is bring people together from all sides to talk about this book, and who gets to publish what stories. And I’m hoping that is going to resonate with many of you and your concerns.”

Winfrey’s hope is that the ensuing discussion, which will be streamed on Apple TV+ in March, will “allow us to open up the conversation in unexpected, and, I really hope, meaningful ways”.

Criticisms of the book pointed to the use of Latinx stereotypes, as well as whether Cummins, who previously said she identifies as white, could authentically write the story. In a 2019 interview with Shelf-Awareness, the author identified as Latinx.

“As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented, I can say with authority that this book is a harmful, stereotypical, damaging representation of our experiences,” author Julissa Arce Raya wrote on Twitter. “Please listen to us when we tell you, this book isn’t it.”

Amid continued backlash surrounding the book, its publisher Flatiron Books has cancelled two scheduled bookstore events with Cummins, reportedly due to safety concerns.