But Cummins’ desire to avoid telling a story that was not her own resulted in two failed drafts of American Dirt as she wrote around the migrants at its heart, instead including the perspective of US citizens and Border Patrol officers.
“I felt resistant for a long time. The more I tried to write this novel without that point of view, the more I failed. I realised that if I really felt compelled to tell a story about the migrant story, I had to take the plunge and ultimately I collapsed into it once I embraced the idea.”
It was a personal loss that allowed Cummins to set her fears aside. In 2016, her father died unexpectedly while eating dinner with her mother. Cummins was incapacitated by grief for months. She couldn’t read or write. Even now, she struggles to keep her voice stable as she talks about her father. He was a proud supporter of her writing, the “biggest fan” who used to jokingly prod her, “Do you hear that? It’s the sound of Nobels.”
In the midst of her loss, Cummins wrote what would become the gripping first chapter of American Dirt in which the fictional cartel Los Jardineros shoots dead Lydia and Luca’s entire family at a cousin’s 15th-birthday party in Acapulco, Mexico. After four years of work and failed starts, Cummins wrote her novel in 10 months.
“My grief was a stringboard. It pushed me past all that fear. When you have a really big grief in life it gives you a painful perspective of what really matters to you,” she says.
“That experience of losing my dad was very much a part of writing this book. I think what saturates this book is my grief in real time. I was living it as I was writing. I really believe that is the thing that people are responding to in this book, the loss of my father. His fingerprints are all over the work.”
The novel follows Luca and Lydia’s journey across thousands of miles as they attempt to make it to the US. There is, as Cummins writes, a “constant tug-of-war between the gruesome feeling that something’s chasing them, that they must move quickly away, and a physical hesitation, a reluctance to move blindly toward whatever unknown demons may loom in the road ahead”.
Cummins never wanted her novel to be controversial, but as she wrote American Dirt the migrant crisis worsened and the political fervour surrounding it intensified. In 2017, Cummins says, a migrant died every 21 hours along the US-Mexico border. Even now Cummins has set herself the seemingly impossible task of trying to avoid politics when discussing her novel. She says her goal was only to redeem the humanity of migrants, to tell a story of singular individuals separate from their representation as a “faceless brown mass”.
“I had a lot of come-to-Jesus moments during my writing of this book but among them was I came to the realisation that we are engaged in telling these stories in this country, but we are engaged in telling them in such a fundamentally superficial way. The people who get to tell these stories are the politicians and the short-form news media so we end up with a very superficial understanding, a sense almost that the people aren’t actual people, they are caricatures of these statistics,” Cummins says.
“That is the whole point of the story to me. Although these characters happen to be Central American and Mexican characters they could in fact be anyone from Syria or Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa. The point of the story is that we are all the same.”
If Cummins was initially hesitant to tell this story, there was no shortage of listeners. American Dirt sold for a rumoured seven figures after a competitive auction with nine publishing houses and has been optioned for film by the production company behind Clint Eastwood’s The Mule. The pre-publicity hype around the novel has been major, with effusive blurbs, international advertising campaigns and republication of Cummins’ earlier novels, The Outside Boy and The Crooked Branch, and her memoir A Rip in Heaven. Despite the fanfare ahead of its publication, American Dirt has attracted strong criticism including from Latino writers who have accused it of being exploitative, opportunistic and inaccurate. In an online take-down, writer Myriam Gurba said Cummins had written a fake social justice book, a “‘road thriller’ that wears an I’m-giving-a-voice-to-the-voiceless-masses merkin”.
The pressure to get the details right led Cummins to years of research – she spoke to lawyers, migrants in shelters and orphanages in Mexico, activists and helpers, she volunteered at soup kitchens, met deportees and border crossers in the midst of their journey and even attended a wedding at a border fence.
Cummins also had her own experience of dealing with US immigration. Her now-husband, with whom she shares two daughters, overstayed his visa and became an undocumented migrant after moving to the US from Ireland. Although she acknowledges he was a member of “arguably the most beloved immigrant community in the country”, the experience gave Cummins a small insight into what it means to live daily with the fear that your loved one could be deported at any moment.
Cummins says she was undone by the kindness she saw during her research, and the hope migrants maintained in the face of loss and hardship. It solidified her purpose in writing American Dirt despite the criticism she might open herself up to.
It put my own fears to shame because I thought, who are these people who have given up everything and I am afraid to write a book.
“Everyday, every single person I met during the experience of my research, made the bullshit nonsense of my fear feel so far away and feel so unimportant. Everyone I talked to made me feel more and more compelled to tell this story. I began to understand that there were so many stories that were important, vital and crucial but that no one here knew about them and ultimately that ended up feeling to me much more important than any worry about whether or not I was qualified to tell them,” Cummins says.
“It put my own fears to shame because I thought, here are these people who have given up everything and I am afraid to write a book. Get hold of yourself woman. It is ridiculous to worry about writing a book.”
American Dirt is published by Tinder Press at $32.99.
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald.