This isn’t so unusual: A writer walks into a room, reads from his work, answers a few questions from the assembled crowd and signs books. Typical literary reading event — a big night out on the town for nerds, even. The audience tends to be engaged, excited, perhaps a little goofily grateful to be in the presence of a writer — it’s not as though they’ve been assigned to read the book, after all.
Or maybe they have. Ever since Gregg Aamot’s first book, “The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees,” caught the attention of regional college professors, he’s been finding himself giving readings to audiences that know his work so well it’s as if they’re being graded on it.
And so they are.
Aamot didn’t set out to become a textbook author. He just wanted to go deeper into a topic he’d been studying for years. As a local reporter for the Associated Press (preceded by a brief stint at the Star Tribune), he has covered Minnesota’s immigrant community for more than a decade. The topic first caught his attention when he noticed that the Hispanic farmworkers who worked seasonally in his hometown of Willmar were beginning to stay and raise families, becoming an unlikely, but ultimately vital, component of this quintessential Midwestern small town.
Work soon broadened
First telling the stories of these once-migrant workers, he soon expanded his vision to include refugees from the former Soviet Union and Hmong and Somali refugees.
“These people are trying to assimilate into a culture that’s so incredibly different from where they’ve come from that there are all kinds of barriers they face fitting into society,” he says. “I kept finding that I couldn’t always say what I wanted to in a 1,000-word news story, so I started to write a book. Each chapter is kind of like a news story expanded into a 5,000-word chapter.”
Aamot caught the attention of local small press Syren Book Co., and with his editors there he envisioned the title could have a life in the classroom. They targeted professors with a direct-mail campaign. “I wanted to reach readers who are enthusiastic about Minnesota history, and I also thought it would be a natural fit for colleges teaching topics such as diversity, immigration or history,” he said. “I’m really happy that teachers have decided to use the book.”
Professors at the College of Gustavus Adolphus (Aamot’s alma mater), Minnesota State University Moorhead, South Central Community College in Faribault and others have assigned Aamot’s book for their English, Spanish or sociology classes. “It seems like it’s caught on with English teachers who are trying to teach about the immigrant experience or diverse communities,” he says.
About half of his readers are students
Aamot estimates that about half of his readers are “mass market” (the title is available at local Barnes & Nobles and independent bookstores) and half are students. “I wrote it for people like myself, lifetime Minnesotans who see all these different folks living in their community and wonder, ‘Who are these people? What’s it like for them to be here?’ I didn’t tweak it for a younger audience, although the introduction is a reminder of the immigrant story in Minnesota that began 100 years ago.”
Students like the book because it isn’t academic, Aamot says. The journalistic style is light and engaging, the 150-page paperback is a fast read, and the price of the book is a relief to students burdened by high textbook prices. “$15 and you can finish it in a couple nights? How can you go wrong there?” he says.
Of course, there is that bane of textbook publishers everywhere: The secondhand pile at the student bookstore. “I hope they are buying new copies, because it’s pretty inexpensive,” says Aamot, but he admits to contemplating the bane of bargain-hunting students everywhere: the updated new edition.
“There could be another crisis in some country that sends a couple thousand people here from the other side of the world, and we’d have a whole new set of issues. And a lot of students I’ve talked to have suggested I revisit some of the people I wrote about five or 10 years later, and see how they’re doing.”
Compare then and now? That would definitely be on the final exam.