'American Dirt' Invites Readers into the Journey of Mexican Migrants

Posted by Cybil on January 20, 2020
Quinceañeras are supposed to be joyous affairs that celebrate a girl’s 15th birthday with family, laughter, and good food.

But for Lydia Perez and her eight-year-old son, Luca—the gripping characters of Jeanine Cummins’ new novel, American Dirt—their relative’s quinceañera was anything but. In an instant, the party turned into a gruesome tragedy that forced the pair to flee Acapulco, Mexico, for the United States.

What follows is an emotional and adrenaline-inducing tale of one small family’s treacherous journey to the border to escape a vengeful drug lord. The reader is brought along as the mom and son jump on moving trains, try to outrun an ominous man marked with a scythe tattoo, and bond with two resourceful teenage sisters along the way.

Cummins has a track record of publishing books that hold a magnifying glass up to peculiar aspects of humanity, as she did in her memoir, A Rip in Heaven, and her previous novels, The Outside Boy and The Crooked Branch. Now, American Dirt is poised to simply undo readers, inhabit their dreams, and sweep the globe. In fact, the movie rights were purchased well before the book’s publication.

Cummins spoke with Goodreads contributor Becca Godwin about being a self-described “grief expert,” what astonished her while doing research in Mexico, and which book was influential for her career. Their interview has been edited.
Rate this book
Clear rating

Goodreads: The first scene of the book is absolutely gut-wrenching, which serves as an indicator for much of what’s to come. Did you ever consider starting it another way?

Jeanine Cummins: Oh yeah. That opening scene came about four years into the writing of the book. It was initially started in many different ways that were not this way.

It took me almost five years to write this book. Four years of that were just very deep research, and I was writing the whole time. I was initially incredibly resistant and terrified by the idea of writing in Lydia's point of view. I felt like no matter how much research I did, I was worried that I didn't have the right to tell the story from her perspective.

So the first two drafts of this book were written from a sort of round-robin point of view with a whole bunch of different characters. Every time I would finish one of those drafts and I would send it off to writer friends to read, they all said the same thing, which was, “I sort of resent everyone on the page who's not Luca.” Luca was the voice who really emerged, and his story was the most compelling. At the time, Lydia was not even a character yet. It was just Luca alone at the border, and I started to realize that I really needed to go back to his origin story and tell a deeper backstory of where he came from.

Then the horrible thing that happened in my life was that my father died in 2016, like a week before the presidential election. He was relatively young, he was in the prime of his life, he was healthy, and he just died at the dinner table one night. It was very unexpected, and the grief was just completely incapacitating, which surprised me because I think of myself as a grief expert. I've had significant grief and trauma in my life, and I've always managed.

But that experience just completely demolished me. I closed the book and put it away. I was like, “What is the point of this?” I could barely get out of bed for a few months. Then I think in February or March of 2017, I dragged my laptop into bed with me one day and wrote the opening scene of American Dirt.

I think what happened was: I had been steeping in this research for, like, four years. I was very much being held back by my fear and all my anxiety about whether or not I had the right to tell this story. But all the people that I met when I traveled to Mexico, all the stories that I heard, all of the research that I read, it all made me feel more and more compelled to tell it. But I was just scared.

Then when my dad died... Grief is liberating in some ways. It was a springboard, and I just was kind of like, f--- it. I don't really give a s--- what anybody thinks, actually. I just need to write this book. With that feeling as my engine, I wrote the whole book in about ten months. I had all this research done, I knew the characters, I knew their story. I had been living and breathing this for years. I was just holding it all in. So I think once I removed whatever the psychological or emotional roadblock was for me that was preventing me from telling the story, it was all right beneath the surface and it came out very quickly.

Frankly, I think that is precisely the thing that people are responding to in this book, because all of the grief that these characters are experiencing was my grief happening to me in real time. I was living the things that I described. Lydia and Luca and Soledad's experiences of losing the men in their lives who meant the most to them, those were my moments. They're all real on page. I was working out my own grief through this novel. I understood what it felt like to be in the thick of that grief when I was writing it.

Hopefully, the thing is, too, that my dad—I can say this now, I'm still very emotional about it, and he's been gone for three years—was a remarkable person, and he dealt with a lot of trauma in his own life, and he had tremendous faith. Despite the fact that he had plenty of evidence to the contrary, he always believed in people, in the relative goodness of humanity. And this was a thing that I encountered over and over again in my research when I was in Mexico.

I would hear all these horrific stories from people, and they were just swimming in their grief, and yet there was so much goodness and so much kindness all around them that just sort of bubbled up and kept them afloat despite all of the reasons they had to despair. That made me feel very determined to make sure that I captured that sense of balance in the book that ultimately, even though there is tremendous sorrow and anguish in the lives of these characters, they go it with hope.

That was a thing that astonished me, like, when I met migrants, over and over again: Despite all the disappointment that I feel about our country right now, to these people who are risking everything to get here, it still represents hope. It still means that to the people who are putting everything at risk to try to get to the promise of safety or a better life. I just found that so inspiring and so impressive, the number of people who I met who were driven by nothing more than their own conscience.

Rate this book
Clear rating

GR: That juxtaposition of hard-to-digest moments and portrayals of hope, beauty, and love definitely comes across in the book. Which type of scene comes more naturally for you to write?

JC: I'm a mother. I have two daughters. The older one was about Luca's age when I started writing this book, and the younger one is about Luca's age now. So I think absolutely, the soft maternal moments are the most organic for me.

But given the amount of research that I did, and the number of stories—horror stories, really—that I heard from people about their experiences of compulsory migration and the reasons why they left, they had no choice but to leave their homes. And this anger that engendered in me? I didn't find the gruesome scenes so difficult to write, actually. They, too, were relatively natural, because I was pretty pissed off when I was writing this book.

GR: In the author’s note, you mention three factors that contributed to your personal interest in writing this novel, which you started researching in 2013. The most significant factor was how immigration was being talked about in the United States. What kind of person or audience do you most hope your book reaches?

JC: My ideal reader is probably someone who, in his or her own personal life, might not have access to the real-life stories of migrants and might not otherwise be able to understand in an intimate way what it feels like to be a migrant. I hope people who don't know any migrants, or they do know migrants but they don't know their stories, or they don't have access to those stories... I hope those people will read this book and that it will help them. It might give them a window into the real conditions on the ground that these folks are facing as they make their way to this country in hope of finding refuge.

GR: Another factor was that your husband was previously an undocumented immigrant. In what ways did that personal experience shape this story?

JC: So many. I don't even know how to divorce that fact from the person who I am. It's been such a big experience in my life that it influences the way I think about everything. But my husband is from Ireland, and so his experiences as an undocumented immigrant, while terrifying, were nothing compared to what they may have been were he Latino or Muslim. He's white. He's educated. He is super handsome. [Laughs.] He is a member of the most beloved ethnic immigrant community, arguably, in this country. People love the Irish. I mean, they can't get enough of them.

We certainly were insulated from the worst of the fears, but the fact is that it's just an objectively terrifying way to live. If you never have a sense of security, you can never fully take a deep breath.

It hangs over everything. It hangs over the history of our family.

GR: The third thing that inspired the book was that when you were 16, a horrific crime was committed against your family, which became the subject of your memoir, A Rip in Heaven. You say those experiences made you automatically more interested in stories about victims than perpetrators. Why do you think storytellers so often go the other route?

JC: I thought about this so much when I was writing my memoir. Frankly, when it's a story about murder, we focus on the perpetrator because that's where the action is. It's titillating, and rather than on the flip side, it's just difficult. It's painful to grapple with what victims and survivors have to endure. That is a kind of painful self-examination that people don't always want to do, whereas there's something voyeuristic in going the other direction with it.

Historically, particularly the stories set in contemporary Mexico written by United Statesian authors, tend to be very macho. They are focused usually on the cartels and the law enforcement. They're just pulsing with testosterone, these stories. Women, where they exist in those stories, tend to be very two-dimensional characters who are really just there to sort of prop up the men around them.

That's not always true: Luis Alberto Urrea—who is a Mexican American Chicano author who writes almost exclusively about Mexico and the Borderlands and transnational identity—his stories are anything but macho. They're absolutely stunning and breathtaking and deep and sensitive. But the big splashy bestsellers that we tend to see set in Mexico are those sort of superficial macho stories. Frankly, I think it's because women have not been put at the center of the stories yet.

The voices of women are being valued in a way that they were not being valued even five or ten years ago. It's thrilling for me to see that, and I think that is a hugely influential reason why my story turned out the way it did. It's frankly because I'm a woman writing the story. It's because the characters at the heart of the story are women and children.

But also, even the men in the story are not the stereotypes of men that we're used to seeing when we watch cartel movies. They're not these super pumped-up macho gangsters. They're more nuanced than that.

GR: You see that in how the book’s main villain, a drug lord, still comes across as a complex person. Do you have any empathy for Javier?

JC: So much, yes. I kind of love him. It's a terrible thing to say, but I know Javier. I feel like he genuinely could have been someone else in a different place. Of course, he made some really wicked decisions, but maybe if he lived in a different time and place, or if he had different opportunities that presented themselves to him in his life, he really could have been Bill Gates.

Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
Rate this book
Clear rating
He's obviously incredibly charming. He's smart, he's well-read, he's sensitive. He really loves his daughter. I think he really loves Lydia. I think he sort of loves his wife. Apart from the fact that he murders everyone, he's not the worst guy in the world. I mean, I know people in my daily life who I dislike a lot more than I dislike Javier. [Laughs.]

GR: Javier and Lydia meet in her bookstore when he buys Heart, You Bully, You Punk by Leah Hager Cohen and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry. Later, Javier sends Lydia a message tucked into Love in the Time of Cholera. Do these books have personal connections to you or symbolism to the story?

JC: Love in the Time of Cholera is one of my top five all-time-favorite books. It's better than One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I know that is not a popular opinion. [Laughs.] I love Gabriel García Márquez, as everyone does. He's one of my favorite writers, he's just such a beautiful writer. So that book, yes, absolutely, it felt right for the story. I felt like [Javier and Lydia’s] story echoed the story of Love in the Time of Cholera. So I had named that book and used that book throughout, even in an earlier draft.

But the two books—Heart, You Bully, You Punk and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty—are just two personal favorites of mine. One really exciting thing has been that a couple of booksellers have reached out to me since they read the galley to say that they've gone back and ordered and read them. This one bookseller [Nick Petrulakis of Brookline Booksmith] in the Boston area emailed me to say that I had hand-sold him these two books from the pages of my novel. He loved them so much and now he's selling them, and I love that because they're two books that I genuinely love, so that made me really happy.

GR: American Dirt has been called "a Grapes of Wrath for our time." Did that book influence you in any way?

JC: I mean, didn't that book influence everybody?

I wasn't thinking about that book when I wrote this novel, but I'm sure it probably had an early influence in my life as a writer, just in a way that I think about how important it is to humanize your characters. But there are other books that were more influential for me in that regard.

The main one, when I think about American Dirt, is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. I think I read it when I was 12. It's a very difficult book thematically, but that book blew open my mind when I was a kid. I really felt like I was an African American child living with the danger of the KKK in the rural South. It was such an astonishing thing to recognize at that age for me, that a book could put you so deeply inside the skin of another human being that you could begin to inhabit their life experiences, and it would just blow open this enormous reservoir of empathy in you for other people and what they go through. Those are the kind of books I've always wanted to write.

GR: The movie rights have already been purchased. Congratulations. What can you tell us about it?

JC: Thank you, it’s very exciting. There's not much to tell just yet. It's in development. We sold it to a production company called Imperative Entertainment.

The producer is a person who is genuinely just so, so excited about the book, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it develops.

GR: In especially dramatic parts of the book, the sentences became these sort of stream-of-consciousness moments for different characters. Is the sped-up writing something you do for yourself to get through those parts more quickly, or is it more stylistic?

JC: I should pretend that I knew that I did that. I have a feeling that it's about pacing, because I have a pretty deep reservoir of understanding personal trauma. I probably have an accidental or natural way of slipping into that breathless pacing when things are at their worst because, frankly, that's just how it happens in real life.

When you're at that worst moment of your life, right, second or third or fourth worst moment of your life, everything happens a lot faster than it does when you're just sitting down having a cup of tea or making dinner or writing a novel. When you're in that moment of real crisis, the world speeds up, and I think that I probably write that, not on purpose but as a reaction to my imagining myself into that moment.

GR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d want readers to know about your book or you?

JC: What I really hope for my readers is that they will just read a good book. What I really want first and foremost is for them to just come to the novel as a novel and to enjoy reading the story. That's the thing that is easy to lose in the bigger conversations, because it is such a current events kind of a book that sometimes it's easy to talk about all the current events and forget that what you're actually talking about is the experience of reading a novel. Ultimately your main goal, your fundamental goal as a writer, is to write a book that people enjoy reading.


Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt will be available in the U.S. on January 21. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-37 of 37 (37 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Lulufrances (new)

Lulufrances Just finished reading it today!

message 2: by Amy (new)

Amy Ballard Great interview! As a high school teacher, I love reading culturally-important YA and other literary fiction that I can recommend to my students. Just added four books to my want-to-read list, thanks to this post.

Sapphic Shelves Griffin wrote: "https://tropicsofmeta.com/2019/12/12/..."

YES someone posted it already!

message 6: by Paris (last edited Jan 20, 2020 10:01AM) (new)

Paris (parisperusing) It's interesting this woman actually admits she had no authority to write a narrative of another peoples' experience she clearly had not lived herself. It's also interesting how she feigns sympathy and in the next breath uses her father's death to fuel the very sentiment that contradicts it: "F--- it. I don't really give a s--- what anybody thinks, actually. I just need to write this book."

It's a classic case of white entitlement, another cue for white people to ready their brooms to sweep yet another obvious case of outsiders colonizing our stories for profit. No, I'm not Mexican, and I don't need to be to know Cummins — like the publisher who touts this book for "humanizing" migrants, as if to imply they were less than human before its existence — swells with the same sort of dangerous hubris that plagues our nation.

Read Myriam Gurba's indelible takedown instead: https://tropicsofmeta.com/2019/12/12/...

message 7: by Ivy (new)

Ivy The beauty is that I can read the review, but still make up my own mind about reading it.

message 8: by Gina (new)

Gina Ruiz Read Myriam Gurba's on point commentary here: https://tropicsofmeta.com/2019/12/12/...

message 9: by Romeo (new)

Romeo Jr. This book is garbage and a classic example of whitewashing and cultural appropriation. The journey of Mexican migrants? No, not at all!

message 10: by Marina (new)

Marina Mexicans/Chicanos/Latinx are calling out this book as dangerous, poor, disrespectful representation. DO NOT SPEND YOUR DOLLARS on a white person's poor take.

message 11: by Julie (new)

Julie Kaminski The Walking Book Club is starting American Dirt this week. We listen to audio version while moving and discuss on line. Anyone anywhere is welcome to join.

message 12: by Ethan (new)

Ethan P. Is this book for liberals or conservatives ?

message 14: by T.B. (new)

T.B. Caine Yo this isn’t OwnVoices and I’ve seen numerous people call the book damaging. Don’t spend your dollars on this.

Scarllet ✦ iamlitandwit Listen to the Mexican and Latinx voices who are calling this one out and don't ignore the criticism because you think this book (written by a white woman) is "captivating"

message 16: by Ari (new)

Ari Pérez even us normal mexicans can't even fathom what our own mexican brothers go through when they jump the border, even us can't feel what it's like...

Lady Awesome: MG Explorer I don't usually call people out for writing about minority groups, but I think this has gone a bit too far. Read this and see for yourself whether you want to read this book or not.

message 18: by Amanda (new)

Amanda || eastofreaden Yeah, no thanks.

message 19: by Jamie (new)

Jamie The thing that really gets me about this book is that in all the promotion, they're saying she's married to a formerly undocumented immigrant. ****Her husband is a white Irish man.****

message 20: by Abi (new)

Abi I am sold. To be honest, I expected this book to be written by a Latina author, but reading this interview, I am glad that the author is telling this story because it just needs telling, no matter the color of her skin or her ethnicity. I say let’s give it a chance.

message 21: by Nóri (new)

Nóri So what I gather from the comments is, don't ever try to write a book about something you personally never experienced. No more fiction, only autobiographies from now on! Or is that only if you're white? But I thought we were also supposed to write about more diverse characters, otherwise we're automatically racists? The rules are a bit confusing at this point.

message 22: by Laura (new)

Laura I initially had mixed feelings about American Dirt, and I probably would have read the book if I had not already read a review by David Schmidt that makes a compelling argument as to why American Dirt is dangerous, poorly researched, and steeped in cultural stereotypes and inaccuracies. I agree with many reviewers here that these stories "need to be told," but unfortunately it seems that Ms. Cummings' story misses the mark.

In his review, David Schmidt writes that, "Mexico is depicted as a one-dimensional nation, irredeemably corrupt and violent, while the United States of American Dirt is a fantasy land: a country free of gun violence, hate groups and organized crime. While the book ostensibly pushes a progressive message, it drives home a very Trumpist myth: 'crime and violence are Mexican problems.'"

As a Latina, and speaking only for myself, I generally do not have a problem with non-Latinx authors writing about undocumented migrants from Latin America if it is done well and respectfully. However, I do take issue when the stories told do more harm and perpetuate stereotypes as a result of the author's poor research and lack of cultural awareness.

I encourage everyone to read David Schmidt's full review here: https://thebluenib.com/a-poor-imitati...

message 23: by nitya (new)

nitya Pass tbh. I would rather read Latin authors, white people can't stay in their lane

message 24: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Velez Diodonet It's a hard pass for me. This interview alone gives insight into her character. Listen to the people who have the lived experience who are clearly stating that the depiction of Mexico in this book is damaging, uniformed and hurtful. This book has also completely erased the migrants from Central America which are a huge bulk of the border crisis. From her comments, I guess this author thinks that painting Mexico as a haven for drug cartels and migrants as weak victims and stereotypical is appropriate. No thanks. I will invest my time and money into #ownvoices that aim to uplift and empower people

message 25: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Stacy Thank you very much to everyone who has posted in the comment section here. I appreciate the links and the discussion about this book very much. <3

message 27: by Carole (last edited Jan 22, 2020 01:05PM) (new)

Carole Jean I'm not sure what kind of life awaits the people who cross the border, especially if they have no particular skills. There may be no place to live, no job, no health care. A life at or below the poverty level doesn't seem desirable. Just ask those US citizens who are living like that.

message 28: by Ayrie (new)

Ayrie Ching Abi wrote: "I am sold. To be honest, I expected this book to be written by a Latina author, but reading this interview, I am glad that the author is telling this story because it just needs telling, no matter ..."

But the people whom she is supposedly writing about are calling this book a "trash, racist" work. If white people were calling this "trash" and POC are hailing it as a great work, then I would probably give it a chance, but that is not the case here. At the end of the day, the voices of POC -- especially Mexicans and Mexican Americans -- should be amplified in discussions of this book.

In giving this book a chance despite the protestations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans, then we are nothing but complicit in silencing them.

message 29: by Ayrie (new)

Ayrie Ching Nóri wrote: "So what I gather from the comments is, don't ever try to write a book about something you personally never experienced. No more fiction, only autobiographies from now on! Or is that only if you're ..."

This is absurd. The comments I've seen so far have more to do with the lack of accuracy and the ignorance that is manifest in the book and, whether we admit it or not, Cummins' white privilege is linked to this. Sure, white people can write about anything they want, but readers also have every right to critique the book based on their personal knowledge and experience. If you can't take critique and learn from it and admit your mistakes as rightfully pointed out by your readers, then you have no business being a writer.

message 30: by AparajitaM (new)

AparajitaM Love it

message 31: by Cassie (new)

Cassie Daley Hard pass.

message 32: by Llyr (new)

Llyr Heller-Humphreys Very Hard Pass. This is NOT Own Voices. Read this instead

message 33: by Kris (new)

Kris Heartwrenching book!!!

message 34: by John Dunbar (new)

John Dunbar Marina wrote: "Mexicans/Chicanos/Latinx are calling out this book as dangerous, poor, disrespectful representation. DO NOT SPEND YOUR DOLLARS on a white person's poor take."

They are all just pissed that they didn't have the brains to write it.

message 35: by Susan (new)

Susan I do not understand the hate here. This is where you learn about a book and how it is written. Choose to read or not but do not condemn someone for writing.

message 36: by Short (new)

Short Latina Amy wrote: "Great interview! As a high school teacher, I love reading culturally-important YA and other literary fiction that I can recommend to my students. Just added four books to my want-to-read list, than..."

This book is not culturally sensitive or authentic. Please do more research on other books by actual people of color before you share this with your students.

message 37: by Jenny (new)

Jenny Hager This is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. I’ve read the negative comments and criticisms, but as someone who reads voraciously, I could not put this book down. I loved it.

back to top