American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins on migration, the backlash against her book, and bad poetry in a Belfast bar

American Dirt is a novel about immigration that is currently being heavily debated in the US media. Jenny Lee chats to its author Jeanine Cummins about her research on the US-Mexico border and her memories of working in a Belfast bar

American author Jeanine Cummins

IMMIGRATION is always a thorny subject, with passion and resistance on both sides of the debate. When fact meets fiction, the reviews are equally as divided, as American author Jeanine Cummins has discovered with her social issues thriller American Dirt.

The novel centres of the story of Lydia, a bookseller in Acapulco, Mexico, who is forced to flee the city with her eight-year-old son Luca following the brutal murder of 16 members of her family, including her husband, an investigative journalist who had recently profiled a drug cartel kingpin.

The book highlights a mother's determination to do whatever it takes to protect her son, as they cross unforgiving terrain, leap on to roofs of a series of freight trains and pay off morally questionable migrant police in their endeavour to reach the United States border and safety.

It also challenges readers to find empathy for fellow humans struggling to find refuge in our unsafe world.

While some have hailed Cummins's latest work as a poignant and humanising tale of one migrant family's harrowing journey from Latin America to the US, several reviewers and social media users have judged it as harmful and careless cultural appropriation.

It has also raised the question over who has a right to tell these stories, with critics slamming the credentials of Cummins – who was born in Spain, grew up in Maryland, lives in New York and is married to an Irishman – to pen such a novel.

I spoke to Cummins before the book was launched last week and she told me how she had expected "a push back".

"For a long time I was worried that I had no right to tell this story and that as a non-migrant and non-Mexican that it wasn't my story to tell. I was very much held back by that fear. But the experience of travelling there and meeting migrants and listening to their stories from their own mouths and meeting the people who have dedicated their lives to supporting them was hugely influential for me.

"They understand that they are misunderstood and they are eager to set the record straight and want help telling their stories in general. They were very willing to talk to me and encourage me in my endeavour of fictionalising an account of what it may actually feel like for them.

"Here I saw and encountered real bravery, compassion, courage and heroism and I thought 'What the hell have I to be afraid of?'

"Yes I wished someone slightly browner that me would write it. But then, I thought, If you're a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?'

Jeanine Cummins's latest novel American Dirt is the gripping story of a mother and son's dangerous journey on Mexico's migrant trail

Cummins sees fiction as the perfect bridge to humanise and personalise the desperation of these migrants' plight.

"At worst, we perceive [migrants] as an invading mob of resource-draining criminals, and, at best, as a sort of helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass, clamouring for help at our doorstep. We seldom think of them as our fellow human beings.

"Fiction is a great way to deep dive and get inside the skin of these characters and really imagine yourself in their situation," adds Cummins, who also wants to portray a message of hope, found in the compassion some people show towards helping the vulnerable.

While a work of fiction, the content of Cummins's novel is very much based on fact, with stark statistics. For example, Mexican drug cartels were blamed for the deaths of 31,000 people last year; in October 2019 over 17,000 Mexicans were caught trying to smuggle themselves across the US border; in 2017, a migrant died every 21 hours along the US-Mexico border – and these figures do not include the 40,000 migrants who disappear each year.

And although Cummins's novel is set in Mexico, the migrant crisis translates to communities all over the world, she says.

“Worldwide in 2017, as I was finishing this novel, a migrant died every 19 minutes, in the Mediterranean, in Central America and in the Horn of Africa.  That’s 16 migrant deaths for each night I tuck my children into bed,” adds the mother-of-two. 

Did she put her own life in danger in travelling in Mexico to speak to migrants?

"My husband was very, very worried about me. It is true that kidnapping is pandemic right now in Mexico, particularly for people that are writing about the cartels. But I'm not a journalist, I'm a novelist.

"Even from the comfort of my home, where I had endless resources, planning was difficult as it was hard to know who to trust. For each organisation I visited in Mexico I had that organisation verified by their United States fundraisers before I went, so I knew they were legitimate charitable organisations.

"So I can't imagine what it must be like to put your life on the line every single moment of that migrant journey and make these life-and-death snap decisions over who to trust."

Cummins worked for 10 years in publishing before making the leap from gatekeeper to author with her best-selling memoir A Rip in Heaven, which recounts how two of her cousins were brutally raped and thrown off a bridge in St Louis, Missouri.

Her two other novels The Outside Boy and The Crooked Branch, which are being published for the first time in Ireland in the coming months, are heavily influenced by Ireland, involving research into the Irish Famine and the Traveller community.

While married to a structural engineer from Mayo, who outstayed his green card and was himself an undocumented immigrant until their marriage, her affinity with Ireland dates back to her childhood. Growing up, her family participated in the Belfast Children's Summer Program, hosting children from Belfast for six weeks each summer.

Cummins was even a finalist in the Rose of Tralee, where she serenaded Gay Byrne with the emigration ballad Kilkelly Ireland, and spent two years in Belfast in her early 20s working as a barmaid at The Garrick and "writing bad poetry".

"As a teen I felt I had an extended family in Belfast and still keep in touch with some of the girls that stayed with us. I loved Belfast, but couldn't stick the weather," she laughs.

And her next book?

"My grandmother is from Puerto Rico. There are so many social justice travesties happening there now and it's another story that is largely misunderstood by the populous of the US."

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is published by Tinder Press and is out now

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