Jeanine Cummins, AMERICAN DIRT

Jeanine Cummins, AMERICAN DIRT

Zibby Owens: I was thrilled to do a book club with Jeanine Cummins. I host a virtual book club every Tuesday at two where the group talks about the book. Then the author comes and joins us for a Q&A for a half an hour at the end. It’s called Zibby’s Virtual Book Club. It’s on Bookclubz. That ends in a Z. You can join on my Instagram bio, on my website, Zibby Owens, or just to go bookclubz, with a Z, .com, and it’s right there at the top. I got to interview Jeanine Cummins on May 26th, which was amazing because I first thought I was interviewing her in October when I originally wrote some podcast questions for her. Then there was a huge media firestorm, which you may or may not be aware of. Her book, American Dirt, when it came, out raised a whole slew of controversy around who is able to tell the stories of people who are in the books. This was a Latina-based story about migrant workers. Because Jeanine is not herself a migrant from Mexico, there was a lot of pushback on whether or not she was the one to have written this book. It escalated into death threats and just a huge, huge big deal in the literary world and farther. American Dirt was chosen as Oprah’s book pick. Thank goodness Oprah did not back down and stood by her word. It’s been a best seller for weeks and weeks, which it should be because I think American Dirt is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I believe that in fiction, part of fiction is being able to take on whatever voice you want. It’s an act of imagination and empathy.

I wrote an article for in which I came out publicly supporting Jeanine Cummins months ago when this whole thing was blowing up. Even though ten thousand people on Twitter sort of turned against me, I stand by my defense that I wrote for writers to write whatever they want in fiction as long as they do so with sensitivity and research and all the rest, which Jeanine absolutely did. Anyway, I was delighted to have her on my book club. Listen to the thirty minutes of Q&A we did. I literally finished this book club and sat at my desk and smiled for a minute, which is the longest I usually sit still, because I was just so excited to have connected with her on this level and have been able to share her story after so much. Enjoy it. I hope you do. I really did. Listen. It’s worth listening to. Thanks. Oh, and by way of bio, Jeanine is the author of three other books, novels The Outside Boy and The Crooked Branch and the best-selling memoir A Rip in Heaven and now, of course, the best-selling novel American Dirt. She lives in New York with her husband and two children. Now enjoy it.

Thanks for joining.

Jeanine Cummins: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me. I’m sorry that I accidentally eavesdropped on the last couple of comments.

Zibby: Uh-oh, you’re in trouble now.

Jeanine: I didn’t know how to announce myself. I was clearing my throat over here.

Zibby: Sorry. I’m sorry. Usually, I can see when somebody new pops up. I couldn’t this time. Thank you for joining our group. For one second, I just want to unmute everybody because I feel like you deserve a huge round of applause for this amazing book. Wait, hold on, I’m muting. Not to be hokey. Hold on. Unmute all.

Jeanine: Thank you.

Zibby: Sorry to be hokey, but I feel like you deserve a lot more than that. This book is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I’m just delighted to be able to talk to you about it.

Jeanine: Thank you. Can I say something before we start related to the last comment that I accidentally eavesdropped on? I think it’s Jill Whitty. Hi, Jill. I haven’t done a lot of these book clubs yet. I’m so excited to just be dipping my toe back in the water. It’s really great to hear how people are actually responding to the book itself. I have found it interesting that a couple of different people have responded in a very similar way, Jill. They felt that the ending was a little bit too, it was a bit of happy ending, which really surprises me every time I hear that because in my mind, it’s not a happy ending at all. Lydia has been reduced into this funnel of a human. All of the promise and the richness of the life that she had in Acapulco is no longer available to her. Yes, they are in relative safety now. There is much to be said for that.

I never meant to give the impression — I think I probably wasn’t careful enough about this because several people have responded in this way, that they thought the ending was like, oh, happy ending, when in fact what I hoped to provoke with that epilogue was the notion that there are Lydias all around us. The people that we don’t think of asking, where did you come from, how did you get here, why did you leave your home place, those people may have been scientists or doctors or accountants or bookstore owners before they came to this country. Quite often now, they’re doing something very different. I hoped to sort of draw that connection with the epilogue. It’s interesting to hear how readers respond to that. It’s helpful to me as well, as a writer, to think, I guess I should be more careful about that next time.

Zibby: You didn’t eavesdrop over the five thousand other positive comments before where we were talking about different things that we really enjoyed about the book. One thing that people had a question about together was the use of the Spanish language interspersed throughout the text. What made you decide to do that? What was the goal of including that when obviously not everybody speaks Spanish? Tell us a little more about that.

Jeanine: It was very difficult for me to figure out a pattern, how I would include the Spanish. I wanted to include Spanish. Spanish was my first language. I was born in Spain. My father is Puerto Rican. I’m no longer fluent in Spanish, I should also say. My Spanish is quite . It’s quite fail. It’s not good, but I try. I enjoy using Spanish. I felt like the use of Spanish in the book, it just felt right to me. It took me a while to hit on a pattern that I felt comfortable with. Ultimately, I think what we ended up doing was every time there is the beginning of a new conversation or any time they meet someone new, the first line of dialogue is in Spanish. Then it shifts into English, hopefully giving the impression that, in fact, the whole book is taking place in Spanish. Obviously, I couldn’t write the whole book in Spanish. That was that. A lot of the swear words and colloquialisms are also in Spanish, things that weren’t easily translatable.

Zibby: One other quick question people had that I didn’t want to forget is, do you think it was accidental that Javier wandered into the bookstore and befriended Lydia? Was it because her knew about her husband and his job already?

Jeanine: Oh, gosh, you guys should all be writers. What a great question that is. No, it was purely accidental in my mind. There was no nefarious reason behind that initially. He just was genuinely a book lover and fell in love with her shop. That was it.

Zibby: How amazing to actually have an answer. We all sit around and debate that for five minutes, and here we go. Talk to me about the numbness that Lydia was feeling throughout this book in the aftermath of all of this. At one point you wrote, “Like a government furlough, god has deferred her nonessential agencies,” and that’s sort of how she got through. Talk to me a little about how you created that sense of numbness for Lydia and how it can ever end.

Jeanine: There were things that happened quite organically in the writing of this book that I had no control over and that I really could not recreate if I had to do it again. The main one being that three and a half years into the writing of the novel, my father died very unexpectedly. He was young. He was in the prime of his life. He died at the dinner table. That grief just sent me reeling. I’ve had trauma in my life before. I’ve had very significant trauma in my life. Something about that loss, losing my dad in that way was just incapacitating for me. I put the book away. It was my second draft at that stage. I had probably seventy-five thousand words. I put it away. I didn’t write. I couldn’t even read for a few months because I was on the couch in my robe. By the way, this happened the week before the 2016 president election, so it was a very difficult time. I felt in a lot of ways that all the decency has been extinguished from the world at once. Anyway, when I began to emerge eventually a few months later, I dragged my laptop into bed with me one day, and I wrote the opening scene of American Dirt. The seventy-five thousand words that I had written went in the garbage. I never returned to that draft. I started from there. A few weeks later, I rented a casita in the middle of the desert in the borderlands outside of Tucson. I stayed there for eight days, and I wrote almost half the book in eight days. Then for there, I went home back to my family, and I finished the book in about eight months.

I had been steeping in this research for three and a half or four years by that point. I had gone to Mexico. I had visited the casas de inmigrante. I had visited orphanages. I volunteered at a desayunador, which like is a soup kitchen for migrants. I had done so much fieldwork and research. Then I had the characters in my head. Then when I had the grief, it all just came thundering out of me very quickly. The result of that experience is that much of what exists on the page is my own grief in real time. One of the things I didn’t recognize about the characters until the book was finished was that every one of them is grieving for their father. It’s so obvious now. At the time, it just came out that way. I’ve had several experiences in my own life where I have had a trauma that sort of supersedes a grief. The experience of writing that numbness for Lydia, her basic fundamental need to get through the day and keep Luca safe trumps her sorrow, at least temporarily. That was an experience that felt very familiar to me because of my own life.

Zibby: I’m sorry to hear about the passing of your dad in that way and the effect on you. That’s awful. I know many people in this club have had similar losses. Our hearts go out to you. How amazing you can channel it into this book. Sorry, go ahead, please.

Jeanine: Thank you. It means a lot. One of the things about grief is that I believe it can act like a springboard. In this case, I think it did. It pushed me past a lot of my reservations about writing this book because I found myself in a place where I just so wanted to write the book I thought my dad would be proud of. That really liberated me from a lot of my worry that had been holding me back for three and a half years. Then just an aside, a dad-related aside, last night this book was a question on Jeopardy. My dad watched Jeopardy every single night of his life. My sister and my brother and mom, everyone had exactly the same reaction, which was, oh, my god, Dad would have fallen out his chair. This is the most exciting thing ever. It was a crazy, surreal moment. It brought me back to that sense that despite everything that’s happened with this book and how difficult it has been at times, I do think it’s a book my dad would be proud of. I feel good about that.

Zibby: You should feel good. I think anyone’s dad would be proud of this book. I’m about to rip your name off and put mine on it and see if I can make my dad proud. Not to make light of any of this stuff, but you had already written a memoir about your own trauma and what happened on the bridge and all of that. That alone would be enough to fuel enough intensity for a novel with everything that you’ve been very open about. I’m curious about the period of time when you felt like you were held back before the grief when you had already been so open. Does writing each book require kind of a reset button? What do you think that was about?

Jeanine: I think so. There were other things about this book. I’m sorry, I’m outside on my deck, so I hope it’s not too loud with the motorcycles driving by. It’s louder inside where my children are, so I chose the better option. I had a lot of concerns about my limitations as a writer. I always do going into a new project. In this case, lots of other people shared those same concern, as it turns out. I felt like this was a story that we should all really be more engaged in in this country. It was the story, really, that was moving in my heart, but I was fearful. I was worried about writing it. That fear sat on me for a long time. Those first two drafts that I wrote, those terrible drafts really were very different from the book that became American Dirt. They were round-robin point of view, various perspectives. I resisted going into the migrant’s point of view for a long time. I was fearful.

All the time that I spent in the borderlands, the people who I met who have really absconded from their former lives and devoted themselves entirely to being at the border and working to support migrants and protect migrants, people who drive out in the desert on the weekends and leave water, people who are doing pro bono legal work to represent unaccompanied children, people who are documenting human rights abuses along both sides of the border, people who are running the shelters and the orphanages, every time I met a person like that and every time I met a migrant in various stages of their journeys, I felt confronted with my own cowardice in a way. I felt like it’s ridiculous to be afraid to write a book when you see what real courage looks like, ultimately. I was still held back by that until my father’s passing. There was a lot more going on in this book psychologically for me as the writer than just the difficulties presented in writing a novel and being vulnerable in that way. There were so many layers to my resistance. Ultimately, there were a lot of reasons why they all came crumbling down. After the book came out, even before the book came out, when the book went to auction when there was this big splash in the publishing industry before the book came out, when things started happening in a way that felt very exciting for the book, my immediate thought always was it sucks that my dad is not here to see this because he was my biggest fan. Then I recognized, always, that this book would not exist if my dad was still here because it really is an ode to grief. It is because of him and because of losing him the way that I did that this book is so — I feel like I’m yammering on.

Zibby: Yammering is good. It’s so interesting to hear about your personal experience and how this book took the form that it did. I want to talk mostly about the book. I want to ask just one question on, when the book did come into the world and you were hit by this negativity, which I know many joined in me thinking was completely outrageous and I don’t want to get into the politics of the whole thing, but just as a work of beautiful, amazing fiction, how did you feel then? Were you thinking about your dad then? What might he have said to you? What got you through that hard time? I’m assuming it was hard. What got you through the backlash that came from this book?

Jeanine: I had a lot of support, thank god. I have a great husband. I have a great family. I think it would’ve killed my dad anyway. It really was very personal. A lot of the criticism was not that much about the book. It was really about me as a person and my integrity, or at least that’s the way it felt in the beginning. There are certain parts of that that I’m glad he didn’t have to witness. I do think that I was tremendously lucky in so many ways, to have the support of Oprah. She has the courage of her convictions. She didn’t back down. She stood by me. She stood by the book. Many of the writers who supported me continued to support me publicly. I also had a deluge of private support of people who didn’t want to wade into the controversy for various reasons but were texting me and emailing me to say, don’t let it get you down.

I will just say, as we are talking about it, that I think it’s important — I feel like it’s really, really simple for people to choose sides and to either go all in on the controversy or be very dismissive of it. With a bit of distance, I think I’m able to see, and I want to be a voice to articulate this thing, that the conditions were exactly right for this controversy to happen. That is because there are tremendous inequities in the publishing industry. This had been a very long-simmering, long-ignored, overdue conversation that really needed to happen, a reckoning that needed to happen in the publishing industry so that we will begin to elevate Latino voices, so that we will begin to pay attention to these stories in a way that feels more equitable and significant. I really feel like, in large part, the criticism was more about that than it was specifically about my book.

Zibby: At least the fact that it continues to be a best seller should serve as some sort of consolation. Although, I’m sure nothing can make up for what’s ended up happening in the interim. Just had to address that in some way. I’m so glad that you had the support that you needed. That’s great. I think there’s so many authors who struggle to encapsulate other points of view. Your being a leader in how to do that and what happens when maybe that doesn’t go so well is really a powerful position to be in. People are trying to, by writing, do all these amazing things and share stories and perspectives. As you said in the beginning of your book, the most important thing you said you want readers to take away is that “Migrants are human beings. They don’t need our pity or contempt. They deserve fundamental human empathy. They are like us.” If that was your goal, then you can check that off.

Jeanine: Thank you. I also think that this conversation about who gets to tell what stories is a really important one. It’s one that I hope that book clubs all over the country are beginning to grapple with because if we don’t figure that out, if we can’t all come to agreement on that, we’re going to have a problem with fiction. I fundamentally believe that fiction writers have to have absolute liberty to write whatever stories move in their hearts. I also feel like fiction writers have a responsibility to themselves and to their readers, if they’re going to cross cultural boundaries, to do so with sensitivity and care. Ultimately, I think it should be for the reader to decide whether or not that endeavor is successful.

Zibby: Interesting. One aspect of the book that we all discussed before you joined was how you had Lydia be someone who hadn’t been a migrant herself and then fell into that position. You wrote about that so beautiful, how all her life she’s pitied those poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite, how dire the condition of their lives must be. You said, also, while she was chopping onions and cilantro in her kitchen while she listened to the stories on the radio, she felt a pang of emotion for them and the injustice, but when she realized she was out of garlic, the pang was subsumed by domestic irritation. Then next thing you know, she’s in it. Tell us about how you decided to make it this not — you could’ve approached this in so many different ways, her migrant experience. Why from here to there? How did you structure that?

Jeanine: It’s easy to look back and say I did all these things on purpose and here’s why. In fact, when you’re writing the novel, things emerge that you don’t intend on emerging. Lydia came to be in very much that way. She didn’t exist in either of the two previous drafts that I had written. Luca was there, but Lydia was not. When she showed up in that shower stall the very first day that I tried to write after my father died, she was fully formed. She came to me as herself. Now I look back at that, the creation of her, and I feel like I like her as a lens for the reader because I don’t think I could’ve written the entire story from Rebeca and Soledad’s point of view. I think that would’ve been a bridge too far for me. I think that Lydia, because she’s so familiar to me, because her life looks very much like my life, she’s able to serve almost as a translator or an interpreter for the reader. She notices everything that’s going on around her in a way that I felt as the writer made the whole journey feel more accessible. I feel like I didn’t do that on purpose, but I think that that is her function, actually. I hope that it works in that way for the reader.

Zibby: I think it worked. I’m not trying to make light of it. We talked in the group, and when I was reading it also, this whole notion of the need to protect your child, and it’s so interesting that now it was motivated by the loss of your own parent. I know you do have children yourself. Many of us on here have children. We discussed the need even during this coronavirus time, this mama-bear instinct that has affected us all to just protect, protect, protect, and that’s shared with Lydia and her need for protection of Luca. Although, obviously it’s in a whole different category and was warranted at that time, completely. Tell us about that aspect of this book, from the minute it started that she was going to protect, that it was about the mother-son relationship there, and maybe how you feel in the context of your own family writing that, if it came from your feelings having lost a parent, to protect a child.

Jeanine: I think that very much what’s going on in the book throughout the book is an exploration of parental love. It’s digging into that relationship that exists between parents and children. When I started writing the book in 2013, my older daughter was close to Luca’s age. By the time I finished it, my younger daughter was a little bit older than Luca, close to Luca’s age. I was lucky in that I had a little guinea pig living right in my own home for most of those years I was working on the book. They’re precocious. They’re articulate. They’re interesting people, these two children who live in my house. I think that whenever I find a character in a book who is a child who is very interesting, I think more often than not when children are written in adult literature, they’re seem a little flat. It was my hope that Luca would read as a fully formed human because that is something that I find lacking often in child characters. I wanted his personality and his personness to be as evident as the other characters in the book. My children certainly were very helpful with that.

I do think that the fact that I’m a mother and I have that maternal bond, the fact that I’m a daughter and I have parents who I love, those things helped me to write that relationship. I also feel like it was equally important for me to show the ways that Luca saves her as well, not just that she would move heaven and earth and do whatever she can to make sure that he’s safe, but also time and again, the fact that he exists is the thing that saves Lydia. I really feel like that is the universal nugget that exists in any country, in any culture in the world where you have parents and children who love each other. That kind of dynamic, that give and take, that saving of each other, and then also sometimes screaming at each other when you’re in quarantine, that it works both ways, the love and they way they buoy each other up and the way they help each other and the way they survive for one another, it’s Luca saving her as well.

Zibby: Wow. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Jeanine: Don’t. I’m just kidding. I always say if you have any other marketable skills, you can’t go wrong by doing anything else. I’m joking, mostly. I think the number-one thing is just to be careful. Take as long as it takes. Don’t rush. Take enormous care over what you write because someday you will let go of it. It will go out in the world and people will say things about it. If you’re really, really, really lucky, a lot of people will say things about it. Some people will say rapturous, beautiful things. Other people will say very hateful things. At the end of the day, you have to look at that document and feel good about what you wrote. That’s the most important thing, is to make sure you write it well enough that whatever happens you can feel in your heart like you did justice to the story that you wanted to tell.

Zibby: Do you have any regrets?

Jeanine: About this in particular or in general?

Zibby: I could go into your whole life story, but I think I have to let you go soon. You can spare us the time in college where you went to that party. No.

Jeanine: Look, yes, I have regrets. I have plenty of regrets. One thing I think I probably do not regret is the story that I wrote. I feel good about the novel. There were things that happened around the publication. There were mistakes that I made. There were mistakes that my publisher made. I wish I hadn’t written the author’s note. I will say, the original author’s note was one line. The one line was, in 2017, a migrant died every twenty-one hours along the US-Mexico border. That author’s note really should have stood to answer every person who said to me, why did you write this book? That is why I wrote the book. Everything else I wrote in that author’s note just sort of opened the door, I think, to what happened in certain ways that the book was received. I feel like in a way it was me trying to justify why I wrote the book when really, that one line said it all.

Zibby: I am so glad personally that you wrote the book. I know everybody here is really glad you wrote the book. Again, I’m sorry for what happened in the aftermath, but it was amazing. It will remain one of my favorite books of all time, and truly, truly remarkable. I had a million other questions that I and everybody else wanted to ask you. I want to be mindful of your time and just say thank you. Thank you for coming on here and sharing your emotions and your personal loss and your struggles that I know we can relate to. We are all feeling the pain that you feel from that loss. Just thank you. Thank you for writing and being brave and doing it and sticking up for fiction writers and doing what novelists have done since the dawn of time and doing it so beautifully.

Jeanine: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you, everyone, for reading the book. Thank you for listening to me. I want to say one more thing before I go which is that I think Zibby shared with you guys, or will share, the link, a fundraiser I am running for the International Rescue Committee. That fundraiser is going to benefit migrants and programs that serve and protect migrants, mostly women and girls, in the borderlands in Northern Mexico. I am matching all donations up to $100,000 until July 31st. I know it’s a really difficult time right now to ask people to donate, but if you have the capacity to donate and you can do it, I would be just tremendously grateful. That money will save lives.

Zibby: Alicia in the comments already said, I already donated, tweeted, and put it on my Facebook. I did send out the link. You can go back to my email that I sent to all of you before this began, but if you go to Jeanine’s website,, it’s right there. Click on it. Go to her GoFundMe account. I donated myself. I think this is a super worthy, beyond worthy, this is an essential thing to do.

Jeanine: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks, Jeanine. Thanks, everybody, for coming. Thank you. Bye.

Jeanine Cummins, AMERICAN DIRT