Dear Oprah Winfrey: 142 Writers Ask You to Reconsider American Dirt

Dear Oprah Winfrey,

As writers from diverse backgrounds, we deeply appreciate your support for books, and your lifting up of voices and authors. You have been and are a powerful force for good, a champion for justice, change, and literature. Thank you.

In light of all the good that you have done, we believe that American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins should not be honored as your book-club pick. The book club provides a seal of approval that can still, we hope, be changed. As you might know by now, there has been a widespread outcry from many writers—including Mexican American and other Latinx writers and thinkers—about the lack of complexity of this immigration story, and the harm this book can and will do. Others have already written many critiques that very persuasively lay out the problems inherent to this book; there will be many more. One of the earliest critiques is written by Myriam Gurba, and can be read here. Parul Sehgal also outlined her concerns about American Dirt in her recent review in the New York Times.

Many of us have firsthand experience with migration and its difficulties and traumas; some of us are Mexican immigrants, and have even more direct experience with the migrations Cummins purports to represent in American Dirt. Cummins’s book is, yes, a work of fiction. Many of us are also fiction writers, and we believe in the right to write outside of our own experiences: writing fiction is essentially impossible to do without imagining people who are not ourselves. However, when writing about experiences that are not our own, especially when writing about the experiences of marginalized people, still more especially when these lived experiences are heavily politicized, oppressed, threatened, and disbelieved—when this is the case, the writer’s duty to imagine well, responsibly, and with complexity becomes even more critical.

In the informed opinions of many, many Mexican American and Latinx immigrant writers, American Dirt has not been imagined well nor responsibly, nor has it been effectively researched. The book is widely and strongly believed to be exploitative, oversimplified, and ill-informed, too often erring on the side of trauma fetishization and sensationalization of migration and of Mexican life and culture. In addition, there are now accusations of heavy use of other Latinx writers’ work.

We, the undersigned, do not see a faceless brown mass. We, ourselves, are not faceless, nor are we voiceless.

As Cummins puts it in the author’s note to American Dirt: “At worst, we perceive [migrants] as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamoring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.” A painful, central question arises: who is this we imagined by Cummins, who is this them? We, the undersigned, do not see a faceless brown mass. We, ourselves, are not faceless, nor are we voiceless.

This letter is not written to attack Cummins, a fellow writer whose intentions we can’t know. But good intentions do not make good literature, particularly not when the execution is so faulty, and the outcome so harmful. Here is one example of ill-considered execution: already, at a celebratory American Dirt book party hosted by the novel’s publisher, with Cummins at the table, barbed-wire centerpieces were displayed as decorations, the machinery of US immigration used as festive adornment. Cummins publicized these photos herself, with evident delight. These images are difficult to look at, and for those of us who have undergone migration they are callous and insensitive. We can only imagine how many more such parties will take place if this novel continues its life as an Oprah book-club pick.

This is not a letter calling for silencing, nor censoring. But in a time of widespread misinformation, fearmongering, and white-supremacist propaganda related to immigration and to our border, in a time when adults and children are dying in US immigration cages, we believe that a novel blundering so badly in its depiction of marginalized, oppressed people should not be lifted up.

We are asking only that you remove the influential imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club, as you have in the past upon learning that a book you’d championed wasn’t what it first seemed to be. Your openness to changing your mind, to incorporating additional information, has been inspiring and powerful. We speak to that openness now.

The undersigned alphabetical list includes many prominent, bestselling, prizewinning writers. All of us know you to be a public figure who believes in change and empathy. We write with dismay, but also with long-standing admiration, and with hope.

Thank you for listening.

_____________________________________________________

Chantel Acevedo, author of The Distant Marvels
Xhenet Aliu, author of Brass
Eloisa Amezcua, author of From the Inside Quietly
Alice Bag, author of Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story
Jennifer Baker, editor of the short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life
Rosebud Ben-Oni, author of turn around, BRXGHT XYXS
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge
Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants
Sara Borjas, author of Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff
Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man
F. Douglas Brown, author of ICON
David Campos, author of Furious Dusk
Sara Campos, writer, lawyer, co-director of The New American Story Project
Jennine Capó Crucet, author of Make Your Home Among Strangers
Joseph Cassara, author of The House of Impossible Beauties
Steph Cha, author of Your House Will Pay
Cathy Linh Che, author of Split
Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
Kirstin Chen, author of Bury What We Cannot Take
Chiwan Choi, author of The Yellow House
Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know
Eduardo C. Corral, author of Guillotine
Naima Coster, author of Halsey Street
Rachelle Cruz, author of God’s Will for Monsters
Carolina De Robertis, author of Cantoras
Anjanette Delgado, author of The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho
Juli Delgado Lopera, author of Fiebre Tropical
Jaquira Díaz, author of Ordinary Girls
Omar El Akkad, author of American War
Tongo Eisen-Martin, author of Heaven Is All Goodbyes
Patricia Engel, author of The Veins of the Ocean
Alex Espinoza, author of Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime
Kali Fajardo-Anstine, author of Sabrina & Corina
Chris Feliciano Arnold, author of The Third Bank of the River
Carolyn Forché, author of What You Have Heard is True
Katie Ford, author of If You Have to Go
Caribbean Fragoza, author of Eat the Mouth That Feeds You (forthcoming)
Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane
Denice Frohman, co-organizer #PoetsforPuertoRico
M. Evelina Galang, author of Her Wild American Self
V.V. Ganeshananthan, author of Love Marriage
Ángel García, author of Teeth Never Sleep
Suzi F. Garcia, author of Dear Dorothy: A Home Grown Fairytale, executive editor at Noemi Press
Amina Gautier, author of The Loss of All Lost Things
Dagoberto Gilb, author of Before the End, After the Beginning
Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name
Michelle Cruz Gonzales, author of The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band
Estella Gonzalez, author of upcoming 80s East Los
Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman
Jean Guerrero, author of Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir
Jasmine Guillory, author of The Wedding Date
Myriam Gurba, author of Mean
Juan Luis Guzman, organizing committee member of CantoMundo
Daisy Hernandez, author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of Children of the Land
Brandon Hobson, author of Where the Dead Sit Talking
Mitchell Jackson, author of Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family
Michael Jaime-Becerra, author of Every Night Is Ladies’ Night
Luis Jaramillo, author of The Doctor’s Wife
Randa Jarrar, author of Him, Me, Muhammad Ali
Stephanie Jimenez, author of They Could Have Named Her Anything
Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Reckonings
Zeyn Joukhadar, author of The Map of Salt and Stars
Laleh Khadivi, author of A Good Country
Porochista Khakpour, author of Brown Album
Christian Kiefer, author of Phantoms
Lydia Kiesling, author of The Golden State
Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek
Crystal Hana Kim, author of If You Leave Me
Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries
Mary Ladd, author of The Wig Diaries
Stephanie Land, author of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive
Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir
Alberto Ledesma, author of Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer
Christine Lee, author of Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember
Aya de León, author of Side Chick Nation
Muriel Leung, author of Bone Confetti
Ada Limón, author of The Carrying
Kenji C. Liu, author of Monsters I Have Been
Roberto Lovato, author of Unforgetting: A Memoir of Revolution and Redemption
Valeria Luiselli, author of the novel Lost Children Archive
Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
MariNaomi, author and illustrator of Turning Japanese
Terese Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir
Lauren Markham, author of The Far Away Brothers
Caille Millner, author of The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification
Fatima Farheen Mirza, author of A Place for Us 
Tomás Q. Morín, author of Patient Zero
Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us
John Murillo, author of Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry
Jennifer Nelson, author of Aim at the Centaur Stealing Your Wife
Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen, author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the novel The Sympathizer
Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee
Idra Novey, author of Those Who Knew
Achy Obejas, author of The Tower of the Antilles
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper
Daniel A. Olivas, author of The King of Lighting Fixtures
Tochi Onyebuchi, author of War Girls and Riot Baby
Tommy Orange, author of There There
Wendy C. Ortiz, author of Excavation: A Memoir
Daniel Peña, author of BANG: A Novel
Frances de Pontes Peebles, author of The Air You Breathe
Isabel Quintero, author of My Papi Has a Motorcycle
Luivette Resto, author of Ascension
Joseph Rios, author of Shadowboxing: Poems & Impersonations
Gabby Rivera, author of Juliet Takes a Breath
Lilliam Rivera, author of Dealing In Dreams
Melissa Rivero, author of The Affairs of the Falcóns
Suzanne Roberts, author of Almost Somewhere
Ivelisse Rodriguez, author of Love War Stories
Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree
Elizabeth Rosner, author of Survivor Café
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, author of Barefoot Dogs
Raquel Salas Rivera, author of lo terciario / the tertiary
Aida Salazar, formerly undocumented child, author of The Moon Within
Steven Sanchez, author of Phantom Tongue
Carina del Valle Schorske, author of The Other Island
Alex Segura, author of Miami Midnight
Shanthi Sekaran, author of Lucky Boy
Namwali Serpell, author of The Old Drift
Rebecca Solnit, author of Whose Story is This?
Analicia Sotelo, author of Virgin
Susan Straight, author of the In the Country of Women
Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes to the Rain
Natalia Sylvester, author of Everyone Knows You Go Home
Tanaïs (née Tanwi Nandini Islam), author of Bright Lines
Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People
David L. Ulin, author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles
Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
Laura van den Berg, author of The Third Hotel
Azareen van der Vliet Oloomi, author of Call Me Zebra
Jose Antonio Vargas, author of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen
Vickie Vértiz, author of Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut
Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor of Zyzzyva 
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, daughter of formerly undocumented Mexican immigrants, author of Beast Meridian
Esmé Weijun Wang, author of The Collected Schizophrenias
Naomi Williams, author of Landfalls
Desiree Zamorano, author of Amado Women
Javier Zamora, emigrated from El Salvador when he was nine, author of Unaccompanied
Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks






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