Jeanine Cummins, the author of American Dirt, which is being celebrated by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, who selected it for her book club, while at the same time receiving negative reviews in The New York Times and other media outlets, and is being criticized on social media, this morning made her first public appearance since the controversy reached its peak this past week. Bookseller Javier Ramirez, a veteran in the industry who has worked at almost every indie in the Chicago area, and who is on the verge of opening Madison Street Books in the Windy City, conducted a Q&A with Cummins that drew a standing-room-only audience of about 120 people at Winter Institute in Baltimore. While most of the audience was clearly supportive of Cummins, there were booksellers present who were, and remain, critical of American Dirt and its author.
The session was billed as “Events: Creating Conversations Around American Dirt,” but the questions posed by Ramirez primarily revolved around Cummins’ background and the research and writing processes for the tale of a Mexican bookseller who is forced to flee Acapulco with her young son for “Los Estados Unidos,” with a drug cartel in pursuit. The novel received a starred review from PW.
Cummins noted that she spent seven years working on American Dirt from start to finish, which included five years of research and writing, discarding two complete previous drafts. Besides watching documentaries and films, and reading books by contemporary Mexican and Mexican-American authors, she said she visited Mexico several times, with stops at migrant shelters and orphanages and other places to interview people, “to listen to their stories.” She also interviewed people who were assisting migrants and asylum-seekers – including a woman in her 70s who drives into the desert to leave water there for people.
But of course, Cummins had to address the controversy at some point and did so indirectly initially by speaking of her love for the “magic of fiction,” which “puts readers in the skin of another person” – including “people who have to leave their homes and endure precarious conditions in the hope of finding a new home.”
“The whole point is that this could be anyone,” she said, “These are uncertain times. Any one of us could fall out of our middle class lives.”
Cummins also spoke of the impact of an experience in her past that she had written about in her 2004 memoir, A Rip in Heaven, when two cousins were raped and murdered on a bridge in St. Louis, while her brother survived, though traumatized.
“I wanted to take that story back from the violent men who seemed to dominate that story,” she said, “And I wanted to write a love letter to my cousins.” Comparing that real-life trauma to her tale of the immigrant experience, Cummins explained there are stereotypes in this country about immigrants, and she wanted tell another side of that story, and “to get at the truth of the humanity of the people involved.”
Disclosing that the death of her father and the subsequent grief played more of a role in the book’s development than did U.S. immigration policies, Cummins noted that “the inhumane way we treat people at the border predates this administration.” Cummins described the essence of the novel as a story of the love of a parent for their child, and that she wrote “my grief [for her father] on the page.”
Ramirez’s last question finally directly addressed the controversy, when he asked what gave Cummins “the right to tell this story?” Insisting that she had resisted writing such a book, Cummins said that she has “lived in fear for this moment, being called to account.” Cummins defended herself by noting that many indie booksellers have endorsed the book, as has Barnes & Noble, which selected it for its latest book club pick. A number of prominent Latinx authors have also provided her with positive feedback, including Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros, she said.
“I know this book is going to engender a lot of conversations about who has the right to tell whose story,” she said, “I wrote fiction that I hoped would be a bridge, because screaming into the abyss wasn’t working. The tenor of the conversation has been untenable at times, but I’m glad to be part of it.”
While several of the questions and comments from the audience were supportive and encouraging, made by booksellers who obviously intend to handsell American Dirt, some booksellers asked pointed questions, including a young bookseller from North Carolina who did not want to be identified, later telling PW that her employer is “a big fan” of American Dirt. This bookseller noted that Cummins received a seven-figure sum from Flatiron Books for it, and asked if the money could have been put to better use, including being donated to organizations serving migrants.
“Can you tell us the names of any organizations that some of this money has been directed to?” the woman asked, prompting Cummins to respond, “I’m not going to turn down money someone wants to pay me for a book that took me seven years to write.” Noting that she could indeed provide a list of organizations she “gleefully” wrote checks to with her first large advance, Cummins added, to applause, “But I don’t think I should have to do that.”
Another bookseller asked Cummins how she responds to the charges leveled against her, including by Mexican writers, that her portrayal of Mexico and Mexicans is “hurtful, harmful, and dangerous,” that it is a “celebration of trauma porn.” Cummins answered that “it is for the readers to decide, not everyone needs to love my book.” She expressed the hope that people would judge American Dirt “on its own merits” rather than on what its detractors say about it.
Stephanie Rose Csaszar, a bookseller at Books Around the Corner in Gresham, Ore., who is reading American Dirt now told PW afterwards that she is “really upset that there is so much hate towards an author who is being vulnerable and has done extensive research for a fictional book. "She’s Puerto Rican and she has done five years of research,” Csaszar said, “She was riveting, emotional, and real. She’s a strong woman and an inspiration.”
A group of four booksellers from different bookstores talked to PW afterwards, asking not to be identified; one noted that the “marketing push and hype for this book has been so intense. A lot of us feel frustrated at the amount of resources allocated to it.” Another said, while American Dirt is a good story, she wondered if someone who has lived the immigrant experience could be found by publishers to write about it. "Why can’t resources go towards authentic voices who could tell the same story?," she asked. A third bookseller, who said she is in her 20s, said that she is “not shading the older folks, but there’s also some resistance [on their part] in seeing that everything America does is not always good. I think we younger folks are way more aware of this.”