The media mogul will have an in-depth conversation about representation in literature with author Jeanine Cummins and others on her Apple TV+ series

By Sam Gillette
March 04, 2020 05:59 PM

Oprah Winfrey was swept up in controversy when she selected Jeanine CumminsAmerican Dirt, a novel about a Mexican family’s escape to the U.S. border, for Oprah’s Book Club in January.

Rather than rescind her decision (as she was asked to do by several Latino authors), the media mogul decided to use her Apple TV+ series of the same name to have an in-depth conversation about representation in literature with the author and others with varying perspectives.

PEOPLE has an exclusive first look at a clip from the episode, in which Winfrey walks along the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona — the same spot where American Dirt‘s heroine crosses over.

Winfrey’s interview with Cummins will air as a two-part episode on Apple TV+ that will begin streaming at midnight on Friday.

“If you read the book, there is no doubt you heard about the controversy around it,” Winfrey says in the preview. “I heard and understand the concerns and wanted to bring together many voices to lean into this conversation, because for 25 years on The Oprah Show I learned that is the only way I think we can actually gain a better understanding of one another.”

American Dirt follows the story of Lydia, a Mexican bookstore owner, who is forced to flee with her young son to the U.S. after they become targets of a drug cartel.

Ahead of the book’s debut, several high-profile literary figures praised the novel, which Cummins spent five years writing. Stephen King called it “extraordinary,” while Don Winslow deemed it “a Grapes of Wrath for our times.”

Luz Maria Garcini (left) and Oprah Winfrey
Courtesy of Apple
Oprah Winfrey (right) with the American Dirt author and others
Courtesy of Apple

When Winfrey made her initial book club announcement, she wrote that American Dirt “is a novel not for our times, but for THIS moment in our times,” she wrote on Instagram on Jan. 21. “This story changed me and hopefully it will change you, too.”

But others were discomfited by what they saw as problematic depictions of Mexican immigrants, especially considering that Cummins identifies as white. (She has a Puerto Rican grandmother and reportedly identified as Latina in the past.)

Critics also called out the royal treatment the book received from its publisher, Flatiron Books, arguing that writers of color and those of the Latino community rarely get such support.

Chicano author David Bowles wrote op-eds to explain all of the reasons he was critical of the book. In an essay for Medium, he described American Dirt as a “harmful, appropriating, inaccurate, trauma-porn melodrama.”

“It’s not so much who tells the story, but who gets to sell the story,” Ilan Stavans, the general editor of “The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature,” told The New York Times in January. “If out of 100 titles that were published by mainstream publishers, 25 were by Latinos, no one would be complaining.”

Jeanine Cummins (left) and Oprah Winfrey
Courtesy of Apple
Oprah Winfrey
Courtesy of Apple

When Flatiron Books announced it was canceling the American Dirt book tour on Jan. 30 due to safety concerns, the publisher’s president and publisher, Bob Miller, admitted there were mistakes in rolling out the book.

“We should never have claimed that it was a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland,” he said, adding, “We can now see how insensitive those and other decisions were, and we regret them.”

Winfrey also got flack as soon as her selection was announced. More than 100 authors signed a letter urging her to rethink her selection of American Dirt for her famed book club. While Winfrey stands by her decision, she hopes featuring the novel on Oprah’s Book Club will create space for much-needed discussion.

“In Part 1 of the interview, Winfrey and Cummins will be joined by authors Reyna Grande, Julissa Arce and Esther Cepeda, and members of the Latinx community for an in-depth discussion of the book and real-life migrant experiences,” explains the show’s press release. “For Part 2 of the interview, Winfrey speaks with Latinx people who saw themselves reflected in the book and share their insights into real-life migrant experiences.”

In the Oprah’s Book Club clip, Winfrey walks next to Dr. Luz Maria Garcini, an expert who studies the trauma experienced by Latino immigrants. (Garcini herself fled Mexico in 1993 at the age of 23.)

Flatiron Books
Audience members
Courtesy of Apple

“There it is, the wall,” Winfrey says to Garcini in the clip. “I want to know what it represents, because there are some people who said, ‘We shouldn’t even come here, we shouldn’t talk, we shouldn’t show this because it’s like trauma porn.’ Is it trauma porn, or is it reality?”

“Yes, I think you’re right. It’s a reality and it’s something we need to talk about, because it’s not going away,” Garcini replies. “And I also think that walls are complex, because they represent different things to different people. For some people, they represent safety and boundaries that are needed to keep safe.”

WATCH: Oprah’s Book Club American Dirt Trailer

“For other people, it represents divisiveness and loss of opportunity. It depends on the perspective of the viewer,” she continues. “We need to be careful when thinking about walls and, when talking about it, understand not only the purpose but the consequences of the context.”

Winfrey’s interview with Cummins will air as a two-part episode on Apple TV+ that will begin streaming Friday (midnight ET).

Advertisement