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Oprah picked a controversial novel for her next book club and a lot of people are not happy about it

American Dirt.
American Dirt.

Author Jeanine Cummins’ highly anticipated new novel, American Dirt , may have picked for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, optioned for a film adaptation, received advance praise from Stephen King and gotten plenty of rave reviews, but it’s also been the subject of a whole lot of controversy.

The novel tells the story of a mother and son who flee Mexico for the United States after the rest of their family is slaughtered by a cartel. This has prompted Mexican and Mexican-American authors to take to Twitter to call out the book for exploiting the immigrant experience, reducing it to stereotypes and offering up, essentially, “trauma and pity porn.”

In the novel’s afterword, Cummins writes about her frequent travels to Mexico in preparation for her writing, and of her hope to humanize “the faceless brown mass” — how she believes society has come to view immigrants.

Cummins, who is not an immigrant and, in a 2016 New York Times op-ed, identified herself as white, addresses the issue in the author’s note prefacing the novel: “I was worried that, as a non-immigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants. I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”

The criticism surrounding the novel has also been a source of controversy after Myriam Gurba claimed that her review in the academic blog Tropics of Meta was originally commissioned and then killed by Ms. Magazine . In an essay on the blog, Gurba writes, “(The editor) wrote that though my takedown of Dirt was ‘spectacular,’ I lacked the fame to pen something so ‘negative.’”

Gurba further explains that what this incident reveals most is the way white literary figures are granted a greater platform for stories that aren’t theirs, while writers of colour have to fight for attention. Via The Guardian, Gurba writes, “The machine that is supporting this book is dystopian in nature. Meanwhile, I have published three books through indie presses and have not made more than $5,000 on them. That gives you a sense of what value is being ascribed to authentic voices.”

Things only became more heated (and confusing) when the The New York Times ’ Books of the Times published a review by Parul Sehgal that panned the book, and then days later, the Times Book Review published another review by Lauren Groff that was less damning, and considerably conflicted.

When a tweet through the NYT’s Twitter account mistakenly shared an excerpt of an earlier, seemingly much more glowing draft from Groff, the author took to Twitter, writing, “I give up. Obviously I finished my review long before I knew of Parul’s — anyone who has gone through edits knows the editing timeline — but hers is better and smarter anyway. I wrestled like a beast with this review, the morals of my taking it on, my complicity in the white gaze.”

Just two days after all of this criticism began, Winfrey chose the book for her book club. Her choice was met with major pushback.

Writer Roxane Gay responded to the news, tweeting, “It’s frustrating to see a book like this elevated by Oprah because it legitimizes and normalizes flawed and patronizing and wrong-minded thinking about the border and those who cross it.”

For the record, Cummins reportedly received a seven-figure deal for American Dirt, and with all the attention, the book is poised to hit the bestseller list.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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