American Dirt is already shaping up to be one of the books of 2020. By setting out to humanise the plight of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, author Jeanine Cummins has opened up a dialogue that has the potential to shape how people will vote in what promises to be a brutal Presidential election.
Timing is everything. American Dirt is Jeanine Cummins fourth novel and it has struck a chord like nothing she has ever written before.
In 2013, when I decided to write a book about migrants, I didnt expect people to care so deeply, Jeanine explains. That was way before the issue was in the national zeitgeist. But even since its become a hot button issue, the conversation tends to be incredibly superficial in the U.S. I didnt know if a novel about migrants would resonate so its tremendously gratifying to see the response. Resonate is putting it mildly. American Dirt has been greeted with international acclaim, including rave reviews from literary giants like Stephen King and Don Winslow. Lauded as a Grapes Of Wrath for the modern age, the gripping novel follows a middle-class Mexican woman and her son, who find themselves on the migrant trail to the US border, after surviving a massacre carried out by a local drug cartel.
Cummins begins the book with a letter to the reader. In 2017, a migrant died every twenty-one hours along the United States-Mexico border. That number does not include the many migrants who simply disappear each year. It is a shocking revelation. But, she adds, statistics cannot conjure individual human beings.
By telling the compelling story of mother-and-son protagonists Lydia and Luca, Cummins aims to humanise the migrant crisis for middle American readers. These characters happen to be Mexican and Central American, but the whole point of the book is that they could be anyone, she tells me. They could be from Syria or California or Australia. We could all find ourselves in Lydias shoes in these uncertain times.
Cummins observes that the conversation about immigration has been marked by a singular lack of humanity. Even in 2013, before Trump and the resurgence of casual racism, I had this sense of growing unease about how Latino people, and specifically Latino migrants, were being portrayed in the media and popular culture, she explains. "On the right, theres this insane caricature of the violent mob, like the narcos we see on Netflix scary people who are coming here to deal drugs, rape our women and steal our healthcare. Then, on the left, theres this equally simplistic and unrealistic characterisation of migrants as these impoverished, illiterate, rural people who need us to save them, because we have this saviour complex on the left. In neither narrative are we recognising that theyre actually just people. I felt there was an opening there to speak to the hearts of people, and remind them that migrants are just like them, she continues. They love their kids too.
The inspiration for the book came, in part at least, from personal experience. Jeanines husband, an Irish immigrant, lived undocumented in the US for years before they married. She is well aware that his experience was incredibly different to, and more privileged than, what people from Honduras or Guatemala, riding La Bestia (a treacherous migrant train journey) have to endure. But still...
He endured a decade of this terrifying situation of living as an undocumented person, she says. But he was a white undocumented person, a native English speaker, and he had all the privilege of being a member of arguably the most beloved immigrant group in this country. People here could not love the Irish more, which is kind of crazy when you look back a couple of generations, and see how reviled they were. This is all so short-sighted. Wre going to hate someone else next. It just happens to be the migrants at the southern border now.
It took five years for Cummins to research American Dirt. She travelled extensively on both sides of the US-Mexico border, visiting shelters for migrants, orphanages and desayunadores (breakfast soup kitchens).
I endeavoured to meet migrants, to understand the real conditions that theyre facing, Cummins says. But I was also there to meet the people who have given their lives to serving migrants and protecting vulnerable people on the borderlands.
Cummins engagement with the plight of migrants also stems from a lifelong interest in the universal nature of trauma. Her first book, A Rip In Heaven, told the story of her own familys tragedy. In 1991, a group of men raped her two cousins and beat her brother, before throwing them off a bridge into the Mississippi River. Her brother was the only survivor.
I wrote that book because I felt so angry that the story of my familys grief had been stolen by these men, she explains. They were convicted of their crimes and they were on death row and then, suddenly, everybody wanted to do a documentary on them, and give them a platform to proclaim their innocence. My cousins had been demoted to a footnote in that story.
There are so many violent, macho stories about narcos out there, she continues. Im interested in taking the story away from violent men and giving it to the women and children, and in telling the tale of what it feels like to be living in that trauma. Thats the unusual thing about this book. Thats why people are paying attention.
In an era in which identity politics are at the forefront of public discourse, however, Cummins decision to tell the story of the migrant trail has sparked criticism. In an authors note at the end of the novel, she remarks that she wished someone slightly browner would have written it.
I had, and still have, a lot of fear about being the person to tell this story, she tells me. Theres been plenty of debate about whether it was my right to do so. I identify as a Latina person, and Spanish was my first language. But my identity is something I have struggled with my entire life: Im not brown enough. And now, because of this book, Im being called to account for myself in ways that are impossible to do. I cannot change who I am. I am a person of Latino heritage, but Im also white. In some ways, I feel like Im marginalised from both ends.
Cummins agrees that there is a danger of fiction becoming horribly circumscribed by what one is allowed to write.
So many writers right now are afraid, she argues. This cancel culture thing is pervasive right now. If someone decides youre stepping out of your lane, the attack is coming. The tenor of that conversation is so vicious that people dont even want to risk it, because youre really sticking your neck out.
I understand where this movement comes from, and the need to be fiercely protective of representation, she continues. But when we chase white writers away from engaging with these topics, were just letting them off the hook. I deeply believe that every person in this country has a moral obligation to engage with these stories.
So, if I have a voice, and I can use that voice to try to spark a conversation in this country, that may open up a deeper dialogue in the middle-class populace, why not be a bridge in that way?
With American Dirt being published at the start of an election year, that conversation is likely to be timely.
Ive often said that the reason we cant get any traction when we talk about immigration in this country is because the language is so problematic, she notes. As soon as you open your mouth and choose your label, its like sticking a flag in the ground: migrants, aliens, undocumented, illegal. So, through the great magic of fiction, were stripping the labels off, and getting down to the intimate level of humanity.
Its a great moment for me as a writer, to know that, in an election year, book clubs will be sitting down to look at this book together, she smiles. A group of women, sitting around a dining room table in Kansas, who have probably never had this conversation before, can begin without having to choose a label. Its my tremendous hope that this story might render empathy in some readers who havent thought deeply about this before especially in an election year.
Because then we can then take that empathy to the ballot box.
American Dirt is out now.
- Finding Hope in America's Pandemic Dystopia - The American Prospect - July 5th, 2020
- This Isn't the First Time Christians Have Opposed A Racial Justice Movement - Sojourners - July 5th, 2020
- Hamilton already feels outdated - The Week - July 5th, 2020
- Spirit of '76: The year the Dallas Cowboys wore red, white, and blue - Cowboys Wire - July 5th, 2020
- Washington Redskins To Review Racist Team Name - HuffPost - July 5th, 2020
- How Black Lives Matter fits into the long history of American radicalism - Vox.com - July 2nd, 2020
- Opinion: Decisions on Stamfords Columbus statue, park decisions need to be informed - The Advocate - July 2nd, 2020
- Detroit jazz fest goes virtual for 2020; Labor Day weekend event to air on web, TV, radio - Detroit Free Press - July 2nd, 2020
- New wave of sustainable start-ups from Poland - Innovation Origins - July 2nd, 2020
- About bloody time: is cinema finally going with the flow of period sex? - The Guardian - July 2nd, 2020
- Animated 'Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse' Is a Pop-Art Masterpiece - PopMatters - July 2nd, 2020
- The Cyberlaw Podcast: Using the Internet to Cause Emotional Distress is a Felony? - Lawfare - June 24th, 2020
- 'There Is No Year' is Prescient Protest Art | Arts - Harvard Crimson - June 24th, 2020
- Meet the Brothers Behind an Extreme Gun Rights Network Republicans Call a Big Scam - The Daily Beast - June 24th, 2020
- Why race will continue to vex American newsrooms - The Economist - June 24th, 2020
- Using the internet to cause emotional distress is a felony? - Reason - June 24th, 2020
- The Brothers Behind an Extreme Gun-Rights Network That Republicans Call a Big Scam - The Trace - June 24th, 2020
- Trump the Troglodyte - The New York Times - June 24th, 2020
- Belonging in Fashion, Equality in the Spotlight - Yahoo News - June 24th, 2020
- BACK THE BLUE: Former Superman, UFC Hall of Famer join PPD as reserve officers - Idaho State Journal - June 24th, 2020
- Here Are the Best Hip-Hop Songs of 2020 So Far - XXLMAG.COM - June 24th, 2020
- ALERT: The Church in Danger - Capstone Report - June 24th, 2020
- Soulwax and the hunt for the EMS Synthi 100 - Engadget - June 24th, 2020
- Why Bostock will never have the final word on human sexuality - Christian Post - June 24th, 2020
- Where would menswear be without Black British designers? - i-D - June 24th, 2020
- A woke new world: Who deemed the outdated attitudes on display in 2019s Aladdin movie unacceptable in 2020? - RT - June 24th, 2020
- Why Indians Angered by the Racism and Police Brutality in the US Dont Care About the Same Issues in Their Own Country - VICE - June 6th, 2020
- Fixing What's Broken: If We Build a Moral Economy, the Future Will Be Better - Singularity Hub - June 6th, 2020
- In Exciting Times, Echoes of Sally Rooney, but With a Queer Twist - The New York Times - June 6th, 2020
- This docu on Jeffrey Epstein is a harrowing watchalmost too harrowing, in fact, to stomach - ABS-CBN News - June 6th, 2020
- 3 Questions: Sandy Alexandre on the literary roots of technological innovations - MIT News - June 6th, 2020
- Black Lives Matter: Resources and Responses - Creative Review - June 6th, 2020
- 3 people who correctly predicted $10,000 Bitcoin (and how) - finder.com.au - June 6th, 2020
- 411 Readers Poll Results: The Top 20 Songs Of The 2010s - 411mania.com - June 6th, 2020
- A retrospective view of Ireland from the far Left: The Irish Catholic considers Navigating the Zeitgeist - Monthly Review - May 22nd, 2020
- 'Acts of Kindness Are Really Contagious.' Historian Rutger Bregman Argues for a New Way of Thinking About Humanity - TIME - May 22nd, 2020
- My husband isnt working and its affecting our marriage - Albuquerque Journal - May 22nd, 2020
- The Notorious B.I.G.: The makings of the King of New York - REVOLT TV - May 22nd, 2020
- One last chance to binge-watch movies you've meant to watch - NOLA.com - May 11th, 2020
- Joe Biden and the Moralizers - The Wall Street Journal - May 11th, 2020
- CBR Takes Issue With The Rising of the Shield Hero's Socially Contentious Undertones and "Incel" Fanbase - Bounding Into Comics - May 11th, 2020
- Rage is a quiet thing: How Hayley Williams and other female artists are writing their way out of trauma - The Independent - May 11th, 2020
- How Art Movements Tried to Make Sense of the World in the Wake of the 1918 Flu Pandemic - TIME - May 6th, 2020
- The Punk Movement Was Over Before It Began - WhatCulture - May 6th, 2020
- 5 Recent Comic Book Movies That Were Better Than The MCU's Offerings (& 5 That Were Worse) - Screen Rant - May 6th, 2020
- The Rising of the Shield Hero Is Absurdly Popular for NO Good Reason - CBR - Comic Book Resources - May 6th, 2020
- Empowering, alluring, degenerate? The evolution of red lipstick - Myjoyonline.com - May 6th, 2020
- 'Crip Camp': two disability rights activists and their summer of love - The Jewish News of Northern California - April 26th, 2020
- The Labour Left Didn't Start With Jeremy Corbyn's Leadership, And It Won't End There Either - Jacobin magazine - April 26th, 2020
- The Best Value in Watches Comes From These Three Brands - Gear Patrol - April 26th, 2020
- 'The Last Dance' - Dennis Rodman embodied the pop culture phenomenon of the '90s Bulls - ESPN - April 26th, 2020
- Continued adaptation a new normal - The Star Online - April 26th, 2020
- Best Earth Day Songs: 20 Tracks That Make The World A Better Place - uDiscover Music - April 26th, 2020
- #blackAF Struggles, Mrs. America Shines, and Netflix, Hulu Weigh the Future Streaming Wars - IndieWire - April 26th, 2020
- Covid-19 conjures up days of apartheid - News24 - April 26th, 2020
- Nick Fuentes and his white nationalist Groyper Army have a new home on TikTok - The Daily Dot - April 26th, 2020
- We got 5 game devs to explain why Animal Crossing is so damn good - The Next Web - March 26th, 2020
- Transmyscira: Exorcising the Ghosts of the 20th Century with IRON MAN: EXTREMIS - Comicosity - March 26th, 2020
- About | The Zeitgeist Movement - March 24th, 2020
- Online movie screenings support Zeitgeist and local theaters across the country - NOLA.com - March 24th, 2020
- How Kinfolk Magazine Defined the Millennial Aestheticand Unraveled Behind the Scenes - Vanity Fair - March 24th, 2020
- The 100 Greatest Songs of 2000: Staff Picks - Billboard - March 24th, 2020
- An urban demise is on its way: How can we stop it? - The Daily Star - March 24th, 2020
- The Criterion Channel Announces One-Year Anniversary Lineup - ComingSoon.net - March 24th, 2020
- Heres How India Is Becoming A Nation Of Sneakerheads & Hypebeasts - MensXP.com - March 24th, 2020
- Cadbury set to launch vegan chocolate bar, as trend steals the show at ISM2020 - ConfectioneryNews.com - February 29th, 2020
- 'My God, it's chaos': Lush's founder on why he is so downcast - The Guardian - February 29th, 2020
- The Invisible Man, A Horror Movie For The #MeToo Era, Appears At Just The Right Time Post Weinstein Verdict Box Office Preview - Deadline - February 29th, 2020
- Robert Reich: Its Not Bernie But The So-Called Moderates That Democrats Should Be Freaking Out About - PolitiZoom - February 29th, 2020
- Its About Time: Nicolas Ghesquire and Andrew Bolton Reveal Details of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts Costume Institute Spring Exhibition - Vogue - February 29th, 2020
- Sundance 2020: Duke alums feature prominently in this year's festival - Duke Chronicle - February 29th, 2020
- The Beef with Kobe - CounterPunch - February 29th, 2020
- Jane Fonda Is Building an Army to Defend the Earth with Fire Drill Fridays Movement - IndieWire - February 10th, 2020
- Break on Through: Radical Psychiatry and the American Counterculture, by Lucas Richert - Times Higher Education (THE) - February 10th, 2020
- Teaching Without Credentials, the Dangers of Cursing, and Watered Down Paganism - Patheos - February 10th, 2020
- Driving the Baja Boots in... Baja - Top Gear - February 10th, 2020
- Danez Smith: White people can learn from it, but thats not who Im writing for - The Guardian - February 10th, 2020
- The Oscars 2020: do they really matter? - HeraldScotland - February 10th, 2020
- Parasites Easiest Image Oscar Is Historical. Is This the Starting of a New Generation in Movie? - MR Invasion - February 10th, 2020
- CURTAIN CALLS: 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' Feelin' Groovy - Inside NoVA - February 3rd, 2020