You couldn’t make it up: my immigrant novel predicted rise of Donald Trump
Sheila Agnew quit as a lawyer to write about a Latino immigrant and an extremist US president based on Trump. Publishers said it was too far-fetched. Now, supported by Andy Weir and Eoin Colfer, she has gone it alone
Trumped by reality, or stranger than fiction: publishers told Sheila Agnew that the premise that a Donald Trump character could become president and establish the DLA (Deportation of Latinos Agency) was too far-fetched. Photograph: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Sheila Agnew: I was in my local pizza parlour in Brooklyn when Donald Trump came on the TV and fired off a diatribe about his Hispanic immigrant round-up agenda. He was quoting directly from my book. It was one of the spookiest moments of my life
In July 2011, I walked out of my office on the 13th floor of the Chrysler Building, leaving behind the life of a lawyer. I had no desire to eat, pray, love; I just wanted to get as far away from my life as possible – the way lots of us feel every Monday morning. But it was a Friday. Maybe that’s why I actually did it. Like the author Sybille Bedford, I had “a great longing to move, to hear another language . . . to be in a country with a long nasty history in the past and as little present history as possible.”
I found what I sought in Argentina, the country at the end of the world. And it was in Buenos Aires that the seeds for my novel, The Exclusion Wars, were sown. I didn’t realise that at the time. I was too busy grappling with learning Spanish. I must have resembled King George VI, stuttering my way through the many cafes and bakeries, the bookstores, the supermarkets, the buses and the subte (subway), determined to speak and be heard, to listen and to understand.
Despite my poor language skills, I felt an instant rapport with the porteños, as the locals are known. Maybe the immigrant factor had something to do with that. It’s estimated that there are nearly a million Argentines of Irish descent, whose great-grandparents were part of the great wave of Irish immigration that surged between 1850 and 1870. The entire country is wallpapered with pictures of the most famous Irish descendent, Che Guevara, whose mother’s family came from Cork. A few years after his death, Che’s father announced, “In my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels.” Mentioning that bought me a smile from the locals or, more typically, a snort of laughter at my claim of kinship with their beloved icon.
I come from a family of immigrants. Although we moved from New York to Ireland when I was a child, we continued to celebrate the Fourth of July. In the Dublin where I grew up, there was an almost casual disdain for America. But my parents retained a great love and respect for the US, which they instilled in their children. We shuttled back and forth, never quite Irish, never quite American, but always pro-immigrant.
On a stormy night in 2013, after I’d left Argentina, I woke up with a compelling vision in my head. I picked up my laptop and began to write the story of Mateo, a teenage Latino immigrant in hiding in New York after a Donald Trump-type character has become president. I don’t know where the idea came from, except I’m certain that it must have been conceived in South America. Four or five feverish months later I had completed the draft novel. Now came the tricky part: publication.
Every door I knocked on had more or less the same response: the premise that a Donald Trump character could become president and establish the DLA (Deportation of Latinos Agency) was too far-fetched.
I shut down my novel but it didn’t seem to want to slide gently into a dark drawer. Stories can be like that. Sometimes they seem determined to stick around and steer us in a particular direction. Our writing is not just shaped by our life experiences; our lives are also shaped by our writing. Last April, I found myself working as a volunteer English teacher to Latino teenagers in a whitewashed chapel in an impoverished, rural part of the Dominican Republic. And I spent this past summer working as a teacher in a federal program for disadvantaged children in New York City. Most of the students were the children of Hispanic immigrants. I knew that I didn’t have any realistic chance of getting that job because I’m not a qualified teacher. But I sent my long-shot CV off into cyberspace where it happened to land on the desk of the program’s director, the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. The immigrant bond runs deep.
A few days after my summer teaching job ended, I was in my local pizza parlour in Brooklyn when Donald Trump came on the TV and fired off a diatribe about his Hispanic immigrant round-up agenda. He was quoting directly from my book. It was one of the spookiest moments of my life. I felt dizzy and disoriented. Eventually, I leaned on the counter and said, “I’ve changed my mind; I’ll take that slice to go.”
I went straight home and clicked open my manuscript. I had never considered publishing it independently for the simple reason that I never read self-published books myself. But one night in October, it occurred to me that, in fact, one of the best books I’d read that year had been initially self-published, The Martian by Andy Weir. Impulsively, I wrote to him, and when I woke up at six the next morning, I found his response blinking at me from my Gmail account. On the opening weekend of the smash-hit movie of his brilliant bestselling book, Weir had taken the trouble to give advice to a reader and a fellow writer. I can’t even get my eight-year-old nephew to answer that quickly; like most of us, he’s too busy. I felt humbled and inspired and empowered all at the same time. I sent the manuscript to another writer that I greatly respect, Eoin Colfer.
On a rainy November New York morning, as I was sitting in a pod in one of those dispiriting temporary jobs in the Fashion District where your pay gets docked for bathroom breaks, I received the kind of email that makes writers cry. “Agnew’s The Exclusion Wars is a book that needed to be written and needs to be read.” Go raibh maith agat, Mr Colfer.
The book has just been released in the e-book edition, and I’m writing a new novel. It’s about two British sisters who move to Buenos Aires in . . . March, 1982. The televised images of the Falklands War had a big impact on a little girl with an unfortunate pageboy haircut. I used to sing Don’t Cry for Me Argentina every time I clambered up or down the stairs in our house in Dublin. I managed to put quite a bit of emotion into it, and I got a lot of complaints from family members. I shrugged them off. They just didn’t get Argentina the way I did. They didn’t love her as I did. It wasn’t their fault. I guess that’s how seeds for novels are planted.