2021 | Gaithersburg

Gaithersburg author of controversial novel: ‘I wanted to write a book I believed in’

Cummins spoke at Gaithersburg Book Festival about novel on Mexican migrant experience

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Author Jeanine Cummins, left, speaks with book critic Maureen Corrigan during a virtual discussion on Thursday night as part of the Gaithersburg Book Festival.

Screenshot via Youtube

Jeanine Cummins said that when she first started writing “American Dirt” in 2013, she hadn’t considered setting it in Mexico. But she changed her mind after a conversation with her father.

Last year, Cummins, an author and Gaithersburg native, wrote the book, which tells the story of a Mexican woman and her son who flee their native country following the murder of several family members. The book follows their journey to the United States.

Cummins spoke Thursday night with noted book critic Maureen Corrigan as part of the virtual Gaithersburg Book Festival.

The festival, with more than 100 authors, features virtual programming for children and adults and runs through the end of the month. Normally, the event is held in person near Town Hall, but the event has been virtual in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“American Dirt” garnered significant attention when it was released last year after Oprah Winfrey chose it as one of her book club selections. However, Cummins’ novel was also criticized for what some believed were inaccurate portrayals of the migrant experience in the book, and she faced allegations of plagiarism.

Cummins was originally scheduled to speak in person at Gaithersburg High School in March 2020, but the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cummins did not take questions from viewers during Thursday’s event.

Cummins told Corrigan that when she started working on the book in 2013, she first thought about setting it in the borderlands of California or Arizona. The idea of setting it in Mexico made her nervous, she said.

But Cummins said three years into the writing, she felt things weren’t working.

“I was aware of it and I was frustrated by it, but I was sort of trapped by my own fear,” she said.

Just before the 2016 election, Cummins’ dad died suddenly at 71. Her grief overtook the writing, but Cummins remembered a conversation they recently had about the book.

“He really was so proud of me, and we had talked just a week before about this book and how it was not working, and he said to me, ‘Keep going. You’re on to something important here, and it’s a subject that not enough people are paying attention to,’” she said.

Cummins eventually decided to set the novel in Mexico. About four months later, she started writing the final draft of “American Dirt.”

“In so many ways, I think grief can act like a springboard. And in that moment in my life, I was liberated from my fear. I had this brief experience where I honestly did not care what anyone was gonna say about this book. I wanted to write a book that I believed in,” she said.

When “American Dirt” was released in January 2020, some felt that Cummins did not have the authority to tell the story since she is white. Cummins, who has Puerto Rican heritage, also identifies as Latina.

One local critic was Montgomery County Council Member Nancy Navarro, a Venezuela native, who said she worried that the book perpetuates stereotypes about Mexican migrants.

Cummins’ novel also attracted controversy due to the use of barbed-wire imagery on the cover and as the centerpiece at a book launch party. Flatiron Books, the publisher, was forced to apologize for the rollout and canceled a speaking tour after threats were made against Cummins.

Cummins said the criticism was painful after spending years speaking with migrants, lawyers, scholars and others, as well as going to orphanages, shelters and other places in Mexico for her research.

“It felt like grief. You know, I spent five years writing this book,” she said. “And throughout the process of that five years of research, I was afraid of writing this novel.”

When Corrigan asked Cummins about those who think she doesn’t have the “authority” to write a novel about immigration due to being white, the author said she was upset that her “identity was put on trial” when the book came out.

“Spanish was my first language. My father spent half of his childhood in Puerto Rico. This is not a distant thing for me. In my life, I am Puerto Rican, and I have always considered myself Puerto Rican,” she said. “And it was a little alarming for me that that that was up for debate, as if it had some bearing on my capacity to write any novel. Being Puerto Rican does not make me a Mexican migrant or a Central American migrant, so why was that on the table as part of the conversation?”

Cummins said that although the novel is set in Mexico, the story of Lydia, the mother, and Luca, the son, fleeing from strife in their home country is one that could be applied to anyone.

“So often people have said to me, ‘I could never do what Lydia did.’ And I always say, ‘Don’t let yourself off the hook so easy there, sister. Because, yes, you could if you had to.’ And I want people to consider, what if I had to? That’s why I wrote this novel. For me it’s about empathy,” she said.

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