Jeanine Cummins’ new novel American Dirt is on every “must read” list for 2020, has been described as “The Grapes of Wrath for our times”, and praised by John Grisham, Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros. It sold for a seven-figure sum after a nine-way bidding war and a movie is already in the works.
And yet, there are already critics saying that she had no business writing this book at all.
Even Cummins has her doubts.
It is the story of an Acapulco bookshop owner and her son on a desperate journey to escape Mexico after their family is killed by a drug cartel. Much of their dangerous journey to the US is made on the roofs of Le Bestia, the infamous Mexican freight train on which half a million migrants travel every year, often risking their lives jumping aboard while the train is moving.
It was, Cummins says, “quite natural” that she would write about immigration. “It is the story of our time” she says. “I come from a family, like most people in [the US], with mixed ethnicity. We are Irish or Puerto Rican. I’m married to an Irishman who was an undocumented immigrant for many years. I’m also a person who has lived in many places.” She recalls her father coming to her school in the US on St Patrick’s Day dressed in typical Puerto Rican clothes to sing Clancy Brothers songs at school assembly. “That’s how I grew up. I felt very much connected to both parts of his heritage.”
However, she had no intention of writing a book about Mexico. “I resisted it for four years, because I just didn’t want to stick my neck out. I was afraid. I didn’t know if I had the right to tell the story, I still . . . who knows. There’s a raging debate about that.”
She wrote drafts of American Dirt from various perspectives for years, reluctant to write from the perspective of a Mexican migrant, wary of accusations of cultural appropriation.
“I will get eviscerated, I know that.”
But those previous drafts “sucked”, she says, and something changed for Cummins when her father died unexpectedly in 2016, the week before Trump was elected.
Spur of trauma
“I’ve had trauma before in my life but I was completely undone. I think a lot of writers or artists would understand the notion that when you’re in a really bad place, the thing to get you out of it is your work. Four months after my dad died, I just dragged my laptop into bed with me one day and I wrote the opening scene of American Dirt. It was the first thing I had written, or even read since he had died.”
At that point, she had been “steeping in the research for three years”, visiting migrant shelters and orphanages in Mexico, “trying to get the humanity right. Then this awful grief that I had, it was like a springboard. It gave me this incredibly painful new perspective on what really mattered to me. And in the end, I was like, f*ck everybody else. I mean really, that’s where I ended up, I was like, I don’t really care what other people think of it. This is the story that I’m compelled to write.”
I was like, f*ck everybody else...This is the story that I'm compelled to write
She wrote the book in 10 months.
Regardless of this bravado, she is clearly preoccupied with the idea that she is not the right person to tell this story. This is a relatively new unease in literature, summarised by Kit de Waal with the cautionary phrase, “Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood.”
There is a lengthy Author’s Note at the end of Cummins’ novel, a sort of pre-emptive defence against accusations that might come, in which she writes that, being raised as white and Latina in Maryland, she wished this story would be written by “someone slightly browner than me”.
“I think the conversation about appropriation and representation is incredibly important,” she says now.
Stories of migration are, she says, already being appropriated by politicians and short-form journalists “talking about it in ways that rob the stories of their humanity. And what we are ending up with are these really hollowed-out caricatures where we don’t see them as people anymore. We just see them as talking points on the news. I feel like writers in this country should also be engaged in telling those stories in a way that reminds people that these talking points are actually human beings. When you tell white writers that they shouldn’t be engaging in these conversations, I feel like you’re letting them off the hook a little bit.”
She is aware, however, that “being Puerto Rican does not make me Mexican. And even if I was Mexican, that wouldn’t make me a migrant. I feel like it was an influencing factor but I’m not sure that I would have felt less compelled if I was 100 per cent Irish. It’s a dangerous sort of slippery fascist slope to start telling people what stories they are allowed to write because frankly what a tremendous detriment that would be. Would that mean therefore that I am only allowed to write stories about Irish Puerto Rican girls who were born in Spain and grew up in Maryland?
“The whole thing is ridiculous, but I also think it is an important thing to consider when you’re writing because it has so often been done badly. If you’re going to do it, you had damn well better be sure to do it right, and be sensitive to the cultures that you’re writing about and to do your best to represent them authentically.”
Although her characters are Mexican and Central American, “the whole point of the story is that they could be anyone. They could be from Syria, they could be from Afghanistan. The fact of the matter is that compulsory migration is a global issue right now. And motherhood is a global lens.”
The fact of the matter is that compulsory migration is a global issue right now. And motherhood is a global lens
American writer Anne Patchett has described Cummins as being at the beginning of a wave of writers “using the full strength of their talent to effect social change”. Cummins has seen a certain apathy kick in in relation to the crises at the US southern border; the stories there are viewed at a remove. “The great magical thing about fiction is that it obliterates that distance.”
Another reason Cummins felt compelled to write American Dirt: she is far more interested in the stories of victims than those of perpetrators.
In 1991, when Cummins was 16, two of her cousins were brutally raped by a gang strangers and thrown over a bridge in St Louis, Missouri. One of the bodies was never recovered. Cummins’s own brother was also thrown over the bridge on the same night.
Three men were condemned to death for the murders. One man was executed.
In 2004, Cummins wrote about the murders in her memoir, Rip in Heaven. It was not a story she had ever intended to tell. She had been working in publishing, bartending at weekends, and writing “terrible poetry”, when her brother Tom asked her to write it. “My first answer was, no thanks. It felt like there was a whole lot of details about that night that I didn’t want to know,” she says.
She was also reluctant to put herself forward as the spokesperson of her family. “I was afraid, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned after book number four, it’s that that fear is always well-founded. There are always going to be people who attack you and your efforts. Ultimately, the fear serves you well because it also makes endeavour to make sure you get the story right.”
Fear is always well-founded. There are always going to be people who attack you and your efforts. Ultimately, the fear serves you well
Her family eventually came to terms with it. “It took some of them a couple of years, some were very much like, this is our private grief. We’ve been trying to process this for years. Why are you airing it publicly? Why is it in People magazine?”
Cummins describes her memoir as “a love letter” to her cousins who died. “Even though it would be insufficient as a memory stone to the real people they were, it was better than people knowing nothing about them except for the fact that they were raped and killed.
“I think this actually is something I haven’t thought about too much before now but the story of my cousin’s murders has been wholly usurped by the perpetrators. They had a very loud voice in the media. Not only did they rape and murder my cousins and try to murder my brother, then they were on death row, and they had a whole lot of reporters giving them a platform to talk about their suffering as a death-row inmate. And it made me feel so impotent with rage that once Tom asked me to write the book, it was like a fire in me when I got started. I was like, No, I am going to be the loudest voice in this room.”
After her memoir, she wrote two novels that drew on her Irish heritage: The Outside Boy, about an Irish Traveller boy set in 1959, and The Crooked Branch about the Famine.
These books, she now realises, where an attempt to move far away from her experience with memoir. “The tour for the memoir was so painful. Going around the country and being on TV and sitting down with people whose job it was to get me to cry on camera. To relive it over and over again. I was pretty young at the time. I had a lot of encouragement, because that book was a bestseller here, to write another true crime. And I was like, no way. Never again.”
Going around the country and being on TV and sitting down with people whose job it was to get me to cry on camera
Nevertheless, her cousins’ murders fundamentally altered her psychology as a writer. “When I see a story that I feel is being misrepresented in the media or insufficiently humanised, I always want to go to that place. I’m more interested in telling those stories of people who have survived tremendous hardship and trauma, the fortitude that it takes to be a survivor. I just think those stories are more compelling and they’re very infrequently told compared the stories of the perpetrators.”
In how this bears out in her latest novel, she believes that “a lot of the stories about contemporary Mexico that are written by people from [the US] tend to be incredibly violent and super macho, stories of cartels and law enforcement. They are very glamorised violence, and women and children, where they exist at all in those novels, are just kind of props.”
In American Dirt, no one is Breaking Bad – the story stays largely with the women and children.
Cummins took care too to detail the kindnesses shown to migrants on their journey – the meals and medical care offered, the physical protection given to the more vulnerable. It was something of a balm for her, that “despite how deeply disappointed I am right now in our country, I was reminded what [it] still represents to so many who are risking everything to get here – that there is still hope of refuge, there’s still a hope of that we can be, somehow, a better version of ourselves.”