On CBS This Morning last Tuesday Oprah announced Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt as the latest addition to her book club. The novel, a fictional story about a mother migrating from Mexico to the U.S with her son, has been praised by several authors—including Stephen King, John Grisham, and Sandra Cisneros, who referred to it as “the great novel of las Americas.” In her book club announcement, Oprah said in an Instagram video that the book had “gutted” her. But writers of color and members of the Mexican immigrant community had an entirely different experience with American Dirt, writing scathing critiques about white gaze and its stereotyping of Mexican culture.
The outrage over the book and its author, Jeanine Cummins, reignited the ongoing debate of who gets to share what stories in the Latinx community, and how. It also brought the absence of diversity in publishing front and center. In response to the criticism, Oprah posted an Instagram video on Sunday explaining that she had been reading the many comments and critiques coming from the Latinx community and felt that the best way to address the “outpouring” as she called it was to turn to her latest revenue source, Apple TV+, and stream a discussion.
The discussion has been set for March and Oprah promised to include voices “from all sides”—which is nice in theory but in the hands of someone so far removed from the subject matter, one has to wonder if she is the best person to facilitate or produce this discussion. Latinx readers and writers, however, have no intention of waiting to see how Oprah will guide her disciples to an awakening on the human status of migrants.
In an effort to seize on the current conversation and garner positive results, a petition has gone up online asking Oprah to add more Latinx and immigrant authors to her book club this year. According to the petition, created by Cristina Jimenez, “only 4 of the 83 authors in Oprah’s Book Club are Latinx, including Jeanine Cummins.” On Twitter, a call to action has gone out under the tag dignidad literaria (literary dignity in English) to elevate the voices of those who have been left off of the bookshelves. Some actions include telling more stories, posting more artwork, and visiting libraries to demand more Latinx books be made available.
Here’s one of mine: The first long and very awful story I wrote was in high school during a particularly boring religion class. I still wanted to be a lawyer at that point in my life, and writing stories was just a hobby I had to pass the time. I worked on that one story for a full year. It was utter garbage. But when I gave it to someone to critique, she held onto it as if it were the best thing she’d read that year. I would later learn it was the first story she’d ever read by anyone where every single character was Latinx, just like the both of us.
There is still such a hunger for Latinx writing that goes beyond the narrative of trauma or drug trafficking. Stories about our cultures and differences, our lives, our youth, and everything in between deserve the same treatment and value that get placed on stories about white people and vampires. For readers still confused about the degree of uproar American Dirt has provoked, this is the context in which Latinx writers are operating: This book is an overwhelming reminder that the publishing industry, much the like the rest of the world, still seems to prioritize the voices of white people, as long as they claim some minuscule percentage of minority status, sensationalizing brown stories for profit and false sympathy.