Fifteen-hundred-plus members of the trade–just under 800 of them US booksellers–are gathered this week in Baltimore for the 15th annual Winter Institute (WI) of the American Booksellers Association. On Wednesday, in a far-too-small standing-room-only space, a hundred or so crammed together to hear Jeanine Cummins explore and defend her much-trumpeted, just-published and explosively debated first novel, American Dirt (Flatiron/Headline). The author garnered a seven-figure advance, and her book more Indie Next recommendations than any in the programme’s recent history, as well as that most valuable cherry-on-top–Oprah’s next book-club pick. Of the 30 British booksellers attending WI this year, several expressed a conviction that Cummins’s book will be “huge” on both sides of the Atlantic.
Yet it wasn’t just enthusiasm–many booksellers had read and fallen in love with galleys widely circulated in advance–that coursed through the electricity in the air. The session, originally billed as “Creating Conversations Around American Dirt,” was supposed to centre on helping booksellers develop discussion points for stores around immigration and the refugee crisis, tying into the novel’s story of a middle-class Mexican bookseller and her young son, who are forced to flee and endure the frightening journey towards “El Norte” after a terrible family tragedy puts their lives in imminent peril. But after the glowing reviews began to mix with others raising troubling questions about cultural expropriation and exploitation–Cummins is American-born, three-quarters white/one-quarter Puerto Rican Hispanic, and was a former field sales manager for Penguin–many more were drawn to attend.
The format consisted of Chicago bookseller Javier Ramirez posing questions to Cummins, who proved a compelling, emotional, yet polished speaker. She discussed her research and trips made to the borderland; the seven years she spent on the novel, during which she threw out two full drafts; and her previous book, A Rip in Heaven, a memoir about “intimate loss and trauma” –an assault on her brother (who survived) and two female cousins (who didn’t). Only in his final question, “What gives you the right to tell the story?” did Ramirez address the controversy directly, and opened the door to a slew of related questions from the audience.
“I asked myself that for five years, and lived in fear of this moment when I’d be called to account,” Cummins responded, “but to be afraid of writing this book felt like cowardice... it should engender conversation on who should tell these stories.” She wanted to be, and felt she had the capacity to be, “a bridge.”
She wrote her first book as a way to take her family’s story “away from the violent men who dominated it,” to reclaim it for her brother and memorialise her cousins; a similar motivation vis-à-vis the stories of refugee women and children, along with a need to process overwhelming grief after the sudden death of her father, finally freed her to “write my grief on to the page,” turning her novel ultimately into “a conversation about parental love.” Clearly, that is the kind of universality that was palpable to Cummins’s publisher, and her fans.
Yet some questions from the audience were hard and raw: was the novel “a celebration of trauma porn?” Would it have been “more helpful” if some of the advance had gone to struggling Central American writers? While recognising the “tremendous inequity” in the book industry, Cummins not surprisingly demurred, on both counts. In the end, “it’s for the reader to decide,” she said, acknowledging that she didn’t try to write the “definitive” refugee story, though also acknowledging that some of the marketing around it may have tried to encompass certain things the book is not. What’s certain: the conversation will continue, along with a real need to help booksellers navigate its rockier shores.