American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins recently became the latest selection in Oprah’s Book Club. The pick quickly proved to be controversial, since the book’s release has been met with backlash because of its stereotypical content and marketing decisions that trivialize the experiences at the U.S.-Mexican border.
— Myriam Chingona Gurba de Serrano (@lesbrains) January 22, 2020
Many have also called out the author’s race and how quickly the industry has embraced a white woman’s vision of the migrant story despite the countless books by actual Latina authors who could’ve been praised to this extent—and Oprah’s Book Club isn’t exempt. (Sidenote: Cummins said Wednesday she also identifies as Puerto Rican and Latinx.)
Of the 82 books in Oprah’s Book Club since American Dirt, the list has only featured books from three Latin American writers, and only one of those was about the U.S. immigrant experience.
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat, which follows 12-year-old Sophie Caco as she moves from Haiti to New York City to live with her mother, was picked in 1998—that’s over 20 years ago.
Since Danticat’s novel, all of the books about the lives of Latinos have taken place outside the U.S. and have been from prolific Latin American authors whose experiences differ greatly from that of migrants. Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Nobel laureate Gabriel García Marquez were chosen in 2007 and 2004, and Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende was selected in 2000.
No worries, we did the math for you: representation in Oprah’s Book Club would be at 4%. And if we removed those two authors from Latin America, representation would be at 1%.
While some may think, well Latinos are a “minority,” U.S. Latinos constituted 18.1 percent of the population in 2018, and have been an integral part of the country’s culture, from Mexican communities in the Southwest to Puerto Ricans in New York City and the many other diverse groups in between.
The club then has become almost an institution, with authors and publishers boasting the Book Club sticker on the cover. And such a spot which grants validation has rarely been issued to Latino authors, and it’s unfortunate that now that it’s including a story about an issue that has been making headlines for years, it’s going to American Dirt.
When Oprah launched her book club on September 17, 1996, the literary world was skeptical. According to a New York Times piece, “many associated daytime television with lowbrow entertainments like soap operas and game shows.” Yet, soon enough skeptics were proven wrong and books included in the club became very successful, some selling over a million copies—and this is without a doubt something to be celebrated since it shattered stereotypes about The Oprah Winfrey Show’s demographics mainly comprised of women.
And while the Book Club has been diverse in some ways, like including first-time novelists effectively providing them with a platform for success, it is certainly lacking when it comes to a core U.S. demographic.