Posts Tagged ‘Oprah Winfrey’


They’re at it again. The new novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has drawn lots of attention. Following a major publicity campaign by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, American Dirtreceived a number of terrific reviews. Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club (Flatiron published four of Oprah’s books), the ultimate U.S. sales driver. Then the dirt flew.

Although bestselling crime/mystery author Don Winslow (published by William Morrow) cover-blurbed, “A Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and other leading writers praised the novel, a number of Latino/Latina/Latinx authors, critics and social commentators stomped on American Dirt.

Many of those opposed to American Dirt haven’t read it. (Neither have I.) The issue: Jeanine Cummins is white with a single Puerto Rican grandparent. That should disqualify her from writing about Mexicans fleeing to America. Imagination? Empathy? Writing chops? Not in play.

From what I’ve read about American Dirt, the novel offers an inventive take on the Mexican migration story. The heroine, Lydia, owns a bookstore in Acapulco. She gets involved—at least regarding books—with a charming man, who turns out to be the head of a drug cartel. Lydia’s husband, an investigative reporter, writes about the drug lord. Cartel gunmen then slaughter Lydia’s family. Only she and her son Luca survive.

One critic asked why Lydia didn’t fly to Canada since she had the means. It seems there’s an answer. The drug lord can reach any nation but the U.S. (Why, I don’t know.) Traveling with poor migrants offers Lydia and Luca cover. But they discover that they must face the same horrors encountered by the poor and defenseless migrants whom they accompany.

So, Cummins offers a rationale for the story. Does American Dirtstand equal to The Grapes of Wrath? No idea. I suspect Cummins never asked for all the hype but, like all writers, welcomes it. I would. Of course, only by reading a novel can you judge it.

But these days, a story and writing skills aren’t enough. Opponents of cultural appropriation insist that particular stories can be told only by writers of proper race, ethnicity, sex or gender identification or preference.

Some critics of American Dirt don’t mind Cummins writing the novel she did. They just don’t want her to profit from it. (She received a seven-figure advance). A New York Times article quoted Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose new memoir covers crossing the border and growing up undocumented in California: “The problem isn’t that a non-Mexican wrote about migration.” It’s “the gross bastardization of the subject and the erasing of others who have written about this and are writing about it.

In short, American Dirt is being heavily promoted by its publisher and heading for great commercial success. Why should Cummins cash in and not Castillo and true Latinx?

Of course, the novel may be a literary dud. Times reviewer Paruhl Seghal writes, “The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.”

Fair enough. Ultimately, readers and awards committees will decide the worthiness of American Dirt. I hope their decisions will be based on the content of Cummins’ characters, not the color of her skin.

Or am I, as an Ashkenazi Jew, appropriating Martin Luther King?

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Pharaoh never gets it. Even hail, locusts and darkness fail to move him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. It takes a tenth plague, the death of the firstborn males—his own son included—to prompt Pharaoh to recognize his wrongdoing. Which brings me to Lance Armstrong.

How interesting that Armstrong’s long-awaited “confession” to Oprah Winfrey regarding performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) came during the week in which we read the Torah portion Bo (Come). For years, Armstrong denied doping accusations. The stronger the evidence grew, the greater his denials—and attacks against his accusers. According to media reports, he allegedly bribed cycling agencies and threatened teammates and others who spoke out.

For his part, Pharaoh eventually seems to get the point and relents to a greater power. He releases all the Israelites along with their herds and flocks to worship God in the wilderness.

Perhaps Lance Armstrong finally recognized the scope of his wrongdoing—he flat-out cheated then lied. Perhaps he could no longer live with his conscience. I won’t deny him that possibility. Or perhaps he can no longer tolerate his lifetime ban from cycling and triathlon, and believes a confession enough for reinstatement—although officials want him to admit his guilt under oath before considering his case. True, there’s a difference between being king of an empire and king of the cycling world. Regardless, Armstrong may share a great deal with Pharaoh.

As we learn, Pharaoh’s change of heart leaves much to be desired. Even before Moses returns to Egypt, God says, “Yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a greater might” (Exod. 3:19). God gets Pharaoh. In Egypt, God informs Moses, “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 7:3). Is Pharaoh fated to do evil? The biblical text reveals that Pharaoh hardened his own heart after each of the first five plagues. Only after the sixth plague did God harden Pharaoh’s heart. According to Maimonides and others, Pharaoh ultimately forfeited his right to repent.

And after that dreadful tenth plague? Next week’s portion (BeShellach—In Sending) shows Pharaoh undergoing yet another change of heart. He harnesses his chariot and leads six hundred wheeled terrors in pursuit of his former slaves. The Egyptian army follows the Israelites right into the Reed Sea—and drowns.

So which stage along the continuum does Lance Armstrong occupy? Has he genuinely repented? Or does he fear a cascade of legal actions—from monetary to potential prison time? Many people in the spotlight get caught violating trust and the law. Mea culpas are easy to mouth but not always believable.

The lure of success and power can warp anyone’s judgment. We can choose to start down the slippery slope and take our chances. Or we can draw a line based on moral and ethical principles.

If we undertake the former—if we harm others of our own volition—and are discovered, the least we can do is not only acknowledge our guilt but also accept the consequences.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at SAN CAFÉ is available at, and

Also, read “What We Wish for Our Children”—Part 1 and Part 2—on the blog pages of