Oprah, in typical Oprah style, could barely contain her emotions.
“I was opened, I was shook up,” she said. “It woke me up.”
She was talking about American Dirt, the first blockbuster novel of 2020 and her latest pick for her book club.
US author Jeanine Cummins’s book had sold to publisher Flatiron for a reported seven-figure advance. It got hype from The New York Times (which allocated space for two reviews), a blurb line from Stephen King, and the holy grail in book marketing: a spot on Oprah’s book club.
Then the backlash started.
Now, with a book tour cancelled over security concerns and a publisher regretting its “insensitive” marketing material, the novel has become the latest flashpoint in a recurring debate about which stories are given prominence in popular culture — and who gets to tell them.
What is the book?
America Dirt is described by its Australian publisher Hachette as “the unforgettable story of a mother and son fleeing a drug-cartel to cross the US-Mexico border”.
Cummins, who grew up in the US with Irish and Puerto Rican heritage, spent time on the border speaking with migrants, lawyers and aid workers while writing the book.
She has said that she wanted to humanise those people who cross the border fleeing violence — to bring into focus, at a time of strong political rhetoric, what she called a “faceless brown mass”.
The novel was hailed as an “unforgettable” page turner that would pull you in from the first page. Strong early reviews came not just from King and John Grisham but from the Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros.
“This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas,” Cisneros said.
“This is the international story of our times.”
Where did the backlash come from?
In the lead-up to the publication, as the book was appearing on most-anticipated lists, a major marketing campaign was underway and a movie adaptation was revealed, the Mexican-American writer Myriam Gurba penned a harsh essay on the book.
She called the characterisation of Lydia, the mother, “absurd”, and said the book, which “bombards with cliches from the get-go”, “fails to convey any Mexican sensibility”.
“[Lydia] perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist.”
Sujatha Fernandes, a writer and sociologist at the University of Sydney, is reviewing the novel for the Sydney Review of Books. She spent 18 years in the US, including conducting research in New York City with Mexican migrants.
“As somebody who knows more about Latin American culture, and Mexico in particular, I found it a bit of a slog because there are many errors, there are many inconsistencies, the Spanish is very stilted, and the characters are very stereotypical,” she said.
In an afterword to American Dirt, Cummins — who has published three other books — acknowledged that she had been hesitant about exploring the struggles of members of a culture that was not hers.
But ultimately, she said, despite wishing that someone “slightly browner than me would write it”, she decided the story was too important to ignore.
“I do think that the conversation about cultural appropriation is incredibly important, but I also think that there is a danger sometimes of going too far toward silencing people,” she said.
“Everyone should be engaged in telling these stories, with tremendous care and sensitivity.”
In addition to her research, she said, she consulted with Norma Iglesias-Prieto, a professor at San Diego State University, who reportedly told her that “we need every voice we can get telling this story”.
What’s behind the controversy?
There’s a growing awareness, across popular culture, about who has the right — or who is given the platform — to tell which stories.
The problem for Gurba and other Mexican-American writers like David Bowles is not that, in their opinion, the novel is bad.
It’s that a work that they argue poorly represents their community — and was clearly written for a white audience — is being shown significant investment from a publishing industry that doesn’t understand its blind spots.
More than three-quarters of the US publishing industry is white, according to the Lee and Low 2019 Diversity Baseline survey released last week. (The Australian Publishers Association said it did not have industry-wide data on diversity.)
Michael Mohammed Ahmad, an Arab-Australian writer whose novel The Lebs was a finalist for the Miles Franklin Award, told RN’s The Book Show that the idea the publishing industry was a meritocracy — that who or what gets published was a question of talent — was inherently racist because so few non-white authors are published.
“To say that it is all about talent is to mean that you think, genuinely, that naturally white people are more talented than people of colour,” he said. “That’s just factually untrue.”
Robbie Egan, chief executive of the Australian Booksellers Association, said he suspected there was a little bit of reluctance from Australian booksellers to promote American Dirt, but stressed the book had only just been released.
The association has kept American Dirt as its inaugural book of the month, though acknowledged there were a number of complex issues that had arisen after making that decision.
Flatiron, Cummins’ US publisher, has now apologised for the way it handled the marketing of the book, including by claiming it “defined the migrant experience” and for hosting a book party featuring barbed-wire-fence decorations.
“We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them,” Bob Miller, the company’s publisher, said.
Following the backlash, Oprah said she had spent time listening to the concerns of members of the Mexican-American community and would “bring people together from all sides” to discuss the issue in a TV special next month.