FARMINGTON — In the opening remarks of her talk last week, author Ann Cummins said Farmington felt like a second home, even though she's never lived here.
On Wednesday, Cummins took to the stage at San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center to discuss her novel "Yellowcake," the college's One Book, One Community program selection. The book is set during the uranium boom at a mill in Shiprock, where Cummins grew up.
Events are planned throughout the semester to discuss the themes and setting of the book. A documentary was screened in August, and a panel in November will discuss the ramifications and history of the uranium mill. The One Book, One Community program aims to facilitate a discussion on the book's topics among students from various disciplines and the public.
Cummins, who teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., said it's been exciting to revisit her novel, which Houghton Mifflin published in 2007.
"It was interesting coming back to 'Yellowcake.' I had put it on the shelf, and I had moved on to other projects. I had to come back and become reacquainted with it," Cummins said in an interview before her presentation. "It's been a wonderful experience to revisit the characters I created for this book, remembering what drove me to write the book."
San Juan College freshman Celeste Begay was eager to hear Cummins talk about her book. Begay is reading "Yellowcake" in her English class and said her instructor suggested she attend the presentation to get a better understanding of the novel.
"How it takes place, it jumps from event to event," Begay said. "It's confusing. It's why I came out for this."
After an introduction by Traci HaleVass, the One Book, One Community committee director, Cummins held the stage for about 80 minutes, reading three passages from her book and taking breaks to discuss how her family's history intertwines with the story.
The book follows the lives of a Navajo and an Anglo family about 20 years after the closing of the uranium mill. It follows the mine workers as they suffer illnesses and struggle with the mine's effects on the area.
Cummins said her goal for the evening was to illustrate how her personal experience and memories inspired her to create the characters and discover the plot of the book.
Cummins said her first attempt at the novel was nearly 200 pages about an "old, tough marriage," loosely based on her parents' experience when her father became ill and fought a disease for nine years before he died in 1996.
"It was very hard on them, and (my siblings) and to me, a wonderful example of love through struggle," Cummins said.
When her editor asked Cummins to add more characters, she began to ruminate about her formative years growing up in Shiprock and living in company housing for the uranium mill with her family.
"Suddenly, I had a structure that was taking me back in time to our time on the reservation," Cummins said.
During a question-and-answer section of her talk, Cummins touched on a number of topics, including about which character she related to the most and how much of her mother was infused in a motherly character named Rosie.
Before Cummins took the stage, she said she researched uranium mining, uranium communities and the development of energy sources in the Southwest.
"What I have learned is to engage subjects that are interesting to me or troubling to me through characters," Cummins said. "It is a way for me to learn about those subjects and open my mind and create new questions."