2021 | Gaithersburg

Gaithersburg author of controversial novel about immigration will be part of local book festival

Event will be virtual for second straight year because of pandemic

Logo from Gaithersburg Book Festival website

A year ago, controversy erupted when Jeanine Cummins was scheduled to speak in Gaithersburg about her novel on immigration.

Cummins, a Gaithersburg native, had just written “American Dirt,” which follows the story of a woman and her son who escape a drug cartel in Mexico and flee to the United States after several members of their family are murdered.

She was scheduled to speak at Gaithersburg High School, her alma mater, on March 31, 2020, but the event was postponed due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, the city is trying again, scheduling Cummins as a speaker during the Gaithersburg Book Festival in May. The annual event will be virtual for the second straight year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman last year encouraged people to ready “American Dirt” as part of a citywide reading campaign, which was to conclude with the in-person discussion with Cummins.

“American Dirt” drew ire from critics due to allegations that the book does not paint an accurate picture of the migrant experience. Some alleged that Cummins lifted passages from other books by immigrant authors.

Cummins, who is white and has Puerto Rican lineage, was also criticized over a remark in which she said she “wished someone browner than her” had written “American Dirt.”

Additionally, Cummins’ use of barbed-wire imagery on the cover of “American Dirt” and as a centerpiece at a book launch party led to backlash, and forced publisher Flatiron Books to apologize for an insensitive rollout. Flatiron canceled Cummins’ speaking tour due to threats made against her.

Montgomery County Council Member Nancy Navarro, a Venezuela native, told Bethesda Beat last year that she was surprised that “American Dirt” was selected for Gaithersburg’s reading campaign. Navarro said she was concerned that portions of the book perpetuated stereotypes about communities of color.

“I think that constantly reverting back to violence and narco-trafficking that have been glorified in the media as if that is the only dimension of people that comes from Mexico … those kinds of things come with this narrative,” she said last year.

Despite the criticism, Ashman and other city officials said it was important to hold the event because the controversial nature of the book and the topic of immigration merited the community discussion.

With the onset of the pandemic just weeks before the event last year, the controversy became temporarily moot because the event was canceled.

A year later, Cummins is one of more than 40 authors who will speak at this year’s virtual book festival.

Ashman told Bethesda Beat on Monday that the festival will do its best to replicate what would have been a lively discussion in person with Cummins.

“Obviously, it’s not gonna be the same as having everybody in person,” he said.

The book festival, going into its 12th year, announced on its website over the weekend that authors will give presentations starting May 1 and running through May 28. There will be programming on weekdays and weekends, the website stated.

The annual free event brings together both local and national authors, who speak about their recent works.

The event is normally held on one day outside near City Hall in mid-May. Last year’s festival was also held virtually due to the pandemic.

Ashman, who chairs the book festival committee, said he had hoped passionately to hold the book festival in person this year.

“We just didn’t think that the vaccine will be widely disseminated enough by May 15, which was gonna be our date,” he said. “So, it was a difficult decision — in fact, soul-crushing for me. I was really hoping we could do it in person. But we can’t responsibly do it in person at that time.”

Ashman said the book festival has drawn upwards of 20,000 people in past years, and it wasn’t realistic to safely hold an event of that size yet during the pandemic.

The website lists several of the authors who are scheduled to speak — such as Cory Doctorow, Michio Kaku, Susan Page and Carlos Lozada — along with short bios and information about their work. More authors besides the ones listed have been invited, Ashman said on Monday.

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