Controversy erupts as Gaithersburg gets ready to read together

Controversy erupts as Gaithersburg gets ready to read together

Local author’s novel about Mexican immigrant family has drawn scrutiny

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American-Dirt-resizedfixed

"American Dirt," by Gaithersburg native Jeanine Cummins, has attracted controversy from some reviewers and critics in the past week. The city will hold a book discussion with Cummins on March 31 at the Gaithersburg High School Performing Arts Center.

Courtesy of Flatiron Books

Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman doesn’t want his city to judge a book by its critics.

Ashman has organized a citywide reading campaign for the next two months. He is encouraging the 70,000-plus residents to dive into a novel written by a local author, about a Mexican immigrant family’s journey to the United States.

The book has come under scrutiny in the past week from critics who feel it is inappropriate for a white author to tell the story of an immigrant of color.

The book, “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, follows the lives of Lydia Quixano Perez and her son Luca as they make their way to the United States after the rest of their family is murdered by a drug cartel.

Ashman said in an interview with Bethesda Beat last week that Cummins, a Gaithersburg High School graduate, has spoken in the past at the city’s annual spring book festival. Ashman, who read an advance copy of the book, said the story of a migrant’s journey is compelling, particularly in a diverse community.

“We are a city in Gaithersburg and, more broadly, in Montgomery County where an enormous percentage of our residents were born somewhere other than the United States, and so I thought, ‘This is gonna resonate in our community,’” he said.

Asked initially if he thought the book might cause controversy due to the fact that it addresses the hot-button issue of immigration, Ashman said it’s possible, but the book isn’t “overtly political.”

This week, former talk show host Oprah Winfrey chose “American Dirt” as the latest selection of her book club. Since then, the book has garnered mixed reviews, with some criticizing Cummins, who is white, for inadequately portraying the lives of immigrant minorities due to her lack of firsthand experience.

The Washington Post reported this week that Cummins wrote in the book that she “wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”

Cummins, during a lecture at the Washington, D.C., bookstore Politics and Prose on Wednesday, said she was initially resistant to writing the book, but was urged to do so by a professor of Chicano studies at San Diego State University.

“When I expressed my reservations and my concerns to her, she said to me, ‘Jeanine, we need every voice we can get telling this story,’” Cummins said during the book talk. A video of the talk is posted online.

Cummins said she spent five years conducting research for the book, including going to the U.S.-Mexico border and visiting orphanages.

Cummins said at the event that she hopes people will read her work before they decide how they feel about it.

Cummins, who lives in New York, could not be reached for comment through multiple messages left with her literary agent for the past week.

Winfrey also was not available for comment.

Ashman, in another interview this week following the controversy, said he was surprised at the pushback.

“I read the book last summer. I think Jeanine wrote something that’s thoughtful and I found the story compelling. I thought she brought up a perspective that really resonated with me, so I was surprised to see the pushback after months of praise and buzz,” he said.

Ashman said Cummins’ telling of another culture’s story isn’t uncommon, pointing out that authors at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in the past have written about subjects such as the Holocaust, despite not living through the events themselves.

“It’s part of the DNA of a novel that a novel is exploring something other than themselves,” he said.

Ashman wrote on Twitter Tuesday that “I see some backlash against #AmericanDirt on Twitter right now. I’m not saying other viewpoints aren’t legit, but it’s interesting to see how many people have strong opinions on a book that LITERALLY came out today. Have they read it?”

Gaithersburg will conclude the reading movement on March 31 with a community book discussion with Cummins at the Gaithersburg High School Performing Arts Center.

Ashman said in the interview he can respect the opinions of those who read the book and aren’t satisfied, but is asking everyone to at least give Cummins’ work a chance first.

“It’s just like any piece of art. It will be subjective and it’s going to stimulate that conversation,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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