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Oprah's Latest Controversial Bookclub Pick Faces Sharp Criticisms Of 'Brownfacing'

Oprah's Latest Controversial Bookclub Pick Faces Sharp Criticisms Of 'Brownfacing'

Not every literary piece Oprah Winfrey touches turns to gold.

The latest entry for her infamous book club is Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt.

And it is dividing avid readers with critics calling it "extraordinary" while others are saying it is "cringe-worthy."

The media mogul endorsed the novel, which earned high marks from renowned authors like Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros, and Don Winslow.

Winfrey invited everyone to read the book and follow the discussion with the author on Apple TV+ in March.

"From the first page, first sentence, I was in. I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up, and I feel that everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom."

She concluded her endorsement with:

"So I want you to read."
"I promise you, you won't want to put it down."

However, her last presumptive comment failed to resonate with all readers.

American Dirt follows bookstore owner and mother Lydia Quixano Pérez who is forced to flee from Acapulco, Mexico, with her son, Luca, after their family is slaughtered by order of a new cartel kingpin.

Readers accused Cummins of "brownface" for her portrayal of Mexican migrants after critics drew attention to the Irish-Puerto Rican author's proclamation of identifying as White in TheNew York Times four years ago.

In a Medium review, writer David Bowles called the book:

"harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama."
"Cummins has never lived even within five hundred miles of Mexico or the border....Latina or no, Cummins certainly isn't Mexican or Chicana. That's a problem."

Cummins wrote in the afterword about her four-year writing process that included extensive travels and interviews in Mexico.

"I wish someone slightly browner than me would write it."
"But then I thought, if you're the person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge."

But avid readers noticed a disconnect.

Myriam Gurba wrote in the Tropics of Meta blog:

"That Lydia is so shocked by her own country's day-to-day realities […] gives the impression that Lydia might not be … a credible Mexican."
"In fact, she perceives her own country through the eyes of a pearl-clutching American tourist."

Writer David Schmidt challenged Stephen King's praise of the novel as being "extraordinary" by asking, "is it?"

Schmidt wrote:

"As someone who has spent half a lifetime in Mexico and on the border, I can only pray that this book doesn't go down in history as 'the great migrant novel'."
"anyone who has spent significant time in Mexico, however, will find this novel to be laughably inaccurate."

Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez lent her authentic voice as an immigrant to condemn Cummins' work and blasted an industry that denies opportunity for other immigrants to share their stories.

Cummins admitted to writing two failed drafts of American Dirt.

She said in an interview with Shelf Awareness:

"I was resistant, initially, to writing from the point of view of a Mexican migrant because, no matter how much research I did, regardless of the fact that I'm Latinx, I didn't feel qualified to write in that voice."
"Because these are not my life experiences. So I spent several years trying to write the book from a variety of perspectives, and all those perspectives failed."
"They were terrible. Because, ultimately, they were an inappropriate lens for the telling of this story."

Despite its share of criticisms, other readers lauded American Dirt as being a page-turner.

Woman's Day said the novel was "Destined to be a classic," and Esquire called it:

"Heartfelt and hopeful, American Dirt is a novel for our times. Thrilling, epic, and unforgettable…."
Currently, American Dirt is ranked at number three on Amazon's Best Sellers Rank.