USA and immigration: "I expected a lot more of Biden, it has been very disappointing"

In Lisbon with FLAD (Luso-American Foundation) to a talk on her outstanding novel American Dirt (Terra Americana), Jeanine Cummins talks with TSF Radio News the book, stereotypes, a country and its policies.

Jeanine Cummins, I'd like to start with the journey that Lydia and Luca, characters of your book, did. Can you tell our listeners and readers how and why did they embrace that that trip?

They begin to embrace the trip because they have no choice. I think they have this horrific trauma that happens on page one of the book. So it's not giving anything away to say that they find themselves in circumstances that no onmigraçõese can even imagine finding themselves in, and they have no choice but to run for their lives.


After all their family was killed...

In a massacre, yes. 16 people. 16. Which it's not a reality that happens every day, obviously. But just last week, there were eight people murdered at a birthday party outside of Mexico City, You know? So, I got these stories. Five years of research, I understood that these were things that do happen on occasion. These are some of the push factors of compulsory migration in the Americas.

But because of who Lydia is, the character of Lydia, she is a woman much like me, she has a young family, she has a career that she loves. She is a happy content person in her life, and they experienced this horrific trauma, the whole family is murdered. And they have to go on the run. All at once, in the space of a couple of hours, Lydia finds herself utterly transformed. She falls out of her comfortable middle class life, and she becomes a migrant. And early on in the book, she has difficulty thinking of herself as such, she considers almost as though they have put this on as a disguise to keep themselves safe. And then, as the journey continues, she really comes to face the reality that it's not a disguise at all, that she and her son are actually migrants.

Because at one point, they didn't decide to leave Mexico because they needed. She had a normal job, a bookseller, she was not a migrant due to economic reasons. But though it's a fiction book, probably it's not a single case. Many, many people decide to leave their countries, their cities, their villages in South and Central America, also due to the violence they face in their communities...

Absolutely. In fact... unfortunately the story of Rebecca and Soledad, other two characters of the book, is the more typical story of migration right now in the Americas. They are two young sisters, young teenagers who have been sort of recruited by the local gang. They are Central American. And they come to a moment where they realize that their options are that they either have to do what the gang is asking of them, or they will die. Their third option, their only real option is that they have to leave. So their situation is a much more common situation among the migrants who were coming to the United States. In this day, Lydia is a typical as a migrant, you know, but in fact, one of the reasons that I wanted her to be was that I, in my early life, as a young adult, I did a lot of work in the foodservice industry in the United States, I worked as a bartender and a waitress. And in the restaurant industry, I worked with many, many migrants. And so, many of those people came from a background, you know, where they were a certified public accountant or they were a nurse or they had a very different life wherever they came from. And then they found themselves in United States lacking opportunities, sometimes lacking documentation. And often they are doing something that was far below their qualifications in their previous life and so, I wanted the character of Lydia to sort of directly interrogate the stereotypes that most people in the United States were carrying about who migrants are and what they look like.

Could you tell us what they go through, throughout the journey?

Yes. So, Lydia and Luca begin, they are not safe, they have to run very quickly, they have no documents, which is why they don't travel the same way that typically someone of Lydia's means... she would not take La Bestia...she would not go on that train, she would not go by foot. But because they are not able to retrieve their passports, they really have to take it, they have some money, but their money is extorted during the journey. So they end up traveling, like a lot of Central American migrants who were from poor places and really have no money. This is how they travel. So it's really shelter to shelter along the migrant trail. They ride the tops of the freight trains across Mexico to arrive at the border of the United States.

This book was written while Donald Trump was in power... or it came out came out at that point. Many people hoped that the migration policies would substantially change with a democratic presidency. But it seems there is no big change. And I was reading something on New York Times the other day and I'd like to have your comment on this passage of the article: "New rules introduced by the Biden administration have brought down the number of border crossings. But critics say that the policies are far from the fair, orderly and humane system the President promised."...

Yes. In a word: Yes. I think Biden's immigration policy has been a tremendous disappointment to most people who care about immigration, certainly to most people who are working in the humanitarian field of migrant travel. Those are people who are super disappointed by what we're seeing now, which is... the rhetoric has changed, you know, we have stopped the sort of cruel and vicious gleeful way that that the previous administration talked about migrants and how they were incarcerating people in a way that was like, not only inhumane, but it was excitedly so. And I think rhetoric does matter. Because I think what happened during the Trump administration really emboldened violence against migrants in the United States. However, we really expected... I expected a lot more out of the Biden administration. And it has been very disappointing to see that the policy really hasn't changed at all. And, and I will say, I don't see an end in sight, because I feel like the issue of immigration in the US is just being used as a political football by both sides. They are both using migrants as pawns in order to point to the other side and say, "look at all the wrongdoing over there". So on the right, they're able to say, you know, "these bleeding heart policies are allowing migrants to just flow freely into our open borders". And on the left, they're saying, "look at the cruel and inhumane treatment of immigrants in this country". Were we to solve the problem they would be losing that sort of political football. So I don't see much will to solve the problem. I think there are things that we could do immediately that would help alleviate some of the suffering at the border. And we're not doing them.

For instance?

For instance, we need to fund more immigration court judges. We need to eliminate the backlog of immigration court cases. We are currently asking even asylum seekers - even women and children who are coming to the border, we are asking them to remain in Mexico, wait in a very vulnerable position where women are being raped and murdered. They're waiting on the streets, sometimes months before they're getting their court date. And during that time, they're in danger. So if we would spend just a fraction of the money that we are spending right now militarizing the border... If we would shift some of that budget and pay for more immigration court judges, we could eliminate some of that backlog, and immediately make things easier for people who are living in crisis.

Otherwise, it seems that President Biden is said to be considering reviving the practice of detaining migrant families, which is also which is also another very serious problem...

Really shocking. It's really shocking. I don't even... I have to believe that won't happen just because of the optics. Like I don't know how they could justify a return to that policy. I don't think it's possible for him to come out politically stable from that decision. So... I guess we'll see. But I have to believe that there has to be something better coming down the pipe.

Do you think that this also a kind of political gamble, bearing in mind that there are elections next year? And on the other side of the spectrum, there is Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump?

I don't think so. And I'll tell you why. Because if you credit the media and politicians in the United States, they would have you believe that this is the most polarizing issue in American politics, that it is very much a red and blue issue. But I have spent the last three years talking to book clubs, all across the country, from everywhere, from LA to Iowa, to Ohio, to New York City. And I can tell you, without a doubt, that there is a tremendous amount of common ground among real people in the trenches, like no one wants that policy that Biden is threatening to put back in place. No one wants! Nobody, from the far right or the far left or anywhere in the middle. In my country, nobody wants us to take children out of their mother's arms at the border and put them in cages. No one, nobody wants that. I think that the problem really is in how we are framing the conversation and who we are allowing to lead the conversation because I really feel like when you talk to people in the trenches, the voters, there is a tremendous amount of common ground there.

Even if one acknowledges that the child labor is a problem. I mean, there is a problem of migrant children coming to US and working in factories and so on...

Yes, I think... I mean...

But you shouldn't fight that problem with the current policies....

Absolutely. Right. And you know, we pride ourselves in the United States on being humanitarian. And I think we can look at this policy very in a clear eyed way, and say that this does not represent the best of who we are as a country. It doesn't even represent a middle ground. It's shameful the way that we are treating migrants. And it's funny because those same voters are extremely generous when it comes to trying to help migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, but you ask them to look directly at our neighbors, right? Our brothers and sisters right across the border, right across the Rio Grande, right at our own doorstep. And suddenly, it's an uncomfortable conversation.

Which is strange, because there's so many vast communities of migrants very well, let's call it... integrated in the American life...

That's true. I think race is a big factor. At this point in our culture, I think. You know, it's easier for people to empathize with a Ukrainian migrant who they think might look like their cousin than it is for them to empathize with someone who doesn't look like them. You know, so I do think that's a bigger factor than we would like to admit. But I also really want to emphasize on the hopeful side, that I think there is common ground there. I don't want to contribute to the narrative that this is a totally polarized issue and that we can't make progress. I have seen that even when we have different opinions about who should be allowed in the country, and how they should come, when you present to even a conservative reader who feels like everyone should wait their turn, and that we shouldn't just have an open border policy, when you present that reader with a character like Lydia, someone with whom they can truly empathize and relate, they want Lydia to get in. They want to believe that Lydia has a place in our society. And you know what? This is the great magic of fiction, in my mind is that emigrate immigration is one of those tricky conversations, because especially in the United States, I don't know how it is here in Portugal, but with the language, if you begin to have the conversation about immigration, immediately, you have to reveal your political ideas, because you have to choose a noun. So your first sentence, if you choose the noun, alien, or migrant, immigrant, undocumented person, they all mean different things politically. So whatever word you choose for that very first sentence, if the person across from you has a different political view, we roll down the shutter, and the conversation is over before you begin. But in a novel, we don't have to put a label on video, she's just a mother, she's a person. And so it was my hope writing the book that it can help facilitate a conversation beyond the label, we can talk about the conversation in terms of these people being people, human beings just like us, and maybe move past the labels, move past the rhetoric and actually get into how we really feel as a country, what is our ethos around this subject? And in fact, I feel hopeful about that.

Also, because their journey - and let us get back to their journey - is not only about violence and despair, it's also about love and courage...

Yes, absolutely. It seems funny to say so now in the aftermath of what happened with my publication for "Terra Americana". But when I was writing the book, it didn't occur to me that it would be perceived as like a Mexican story, because, in my mind, Lydia could be from almost anywhere. She could be from Syria, or Afghanistan, or Ukraine, she could be from Paradise, California. We are currently living with climate change, with the rise of populism around the globe. Anyone of us could find ourselves in Lydia's shoes, anyone, we are all living in uncertain times. In my mind, truly, this is just a novel about the sort of unbreakable bonds that exist between parents and their children. And if you are a mother, who finds herself in danger, who finds your child in danger, what would you do to save your child? And the answer to that question crosses every cultural boundary there is.

But why did you get caught in those... I wouldn't say cultural boundaries, but cultural quarrels, or literary quarrels. What happened?

How much time do you have? I really think I'm going to be unpacking that question until I am in the old age home. But, you know, I think part of it was, it was a sign of the times, it was a cultural moment that we were in. There was a very long overdue racial reckoning that was happening in a much bigger way in the country at the time. But was really percolating, even previous to that in the publishing world. And it just, it blew up in that moment, I think. To simplify matters, I can say that it felt like dropping a dry match and or a hot match into dry kindling. There was this backlog of frustration among Latino writers in general, but then very specifically among Mexican writers, who had been overlooked and underpaid and undervalued in the publishing world for a long time. And I think they had been trying to get stories like this published and people weren't paying attention for a long time.

They sort of felt jealous when you got a very good contract to publish this book...

I think there was some idea that it shouldn't have been me. You know, and I think that's what was painful about it, frankly, was that it wasn't really about the book, it was about me, it was about my ethnicity, my identity, my integrity, whether or not I had the right to tell the story. And it was a very strange experience to be a person of mixed ethnicity, a person who identifies as Puerto Rican part, I'm Puerto Rican, and Irish. To suddenly find myself as sort of the poster child for white supremacy. And the publishing industry was not only surreal, but very painful. But I just think there was a lot of a misunderstanding and very little real communicating happening at that time. There was no conversation to be had, it was just outreach.

How do you cope with those mix identities? I mean, Puerto Rican, Irish American born in Spain. What's it like?

It never occurred to me before that that was a strange, or unusual combination. It's just who I am. You know, I should also say, I am Generation X, I'm a little older than the current, sort of torchbearers. And I think, my generation, we don't speak this language of identity fluently. We're a little clumsy with it, the word Latino did not even really exist outside of academia, until I was well into my 20s. I think the first time the word Latino appeared on the US census was the year 2000. And even then, I always checked the box for Latino, but I didn't use the word until much later than that. I always said Puerto Rican, which I should say is, typically, Latino people will identify with their country of origin rather than saying Latino, you know?

So their parents" country of origin...

Yes, that's right. And so, I still, to this day, I'm more comfortable saying that I'm Puerto Rican than I saying that I'm Latina. But I think that's my generation.

You say more that You are Puerto Rican, than you you say you are American or You are a US citizen?

No, no, I say all three. This is so sloppy. For people who don't live in the United States, it's very difficult to understand. My husband is from Ireland. And he's been in the United States for decades. And he's still like, "I don't understand you Americans and your"... I don't know if it's a result of..

He celebrates St. Patrick's Day...

Of course, yes. With rice and beans... (risos) But it's funny that all most Americans don't identify within the country. They don't identify, they don't walk around saying I'm American, they always identify with whatever the culture of their heritage is. And I have always said, from the time I could speak, I am Irish and Puerto Rican. But of course, I'm American and I identify as a whole bunch of other things to: I'm a mother, I'm a writer, I'm a reader. I contain multitudes.

We're in this cultural moment now, where we are supposed to strip our identities down to something very simple. We're supposed to be able to like, check the box, "this is who I am". I'm never going to be easily able to check that box. I am American. I am "Estado Unidense" and then we don't even have a word in English. But I'm aware that I'm a citizen of the United States. And that when we say American, we are discounting whole other two full continents worth of people who are also of the Americas, so I'm careful in that way. There's nothing simple about my identity. There's nothing easy. I'm not ever going to be able to check a box on a form and say, okay, that's who I am. So there was a lot of misunderstanding about me identifying as white. And there was this sense that I had switched my identity, which was nonsense. I am white. I've always been white. I'm also Puerto Rican... I could not believe that. In the year 2020, I had to say, Puerto Ricans come in different colors, you know, Latino people come in different colors, you can be white, or black or brown and be Latino, you go to Puerto Rico, and there are a ton of people who look like me. But I didn't fit the expected physical attributes of what people think a Puerto Rican looks like. And so I was called a fraud. And that was incredibly painful. And it's so personal, ultimately, it's nobody's business, you know, this is my own identity. And we are at a moment in the culture also, which is really refreshing, where we're supposed to be able to identify for ourselves who we are. So to be in that moment, and have my ethnicity adjudicated by Twitter was incredibly painful. And it still strikes me as just infuriating.

You said you were researching for five years, but during that research, there was a humanitarian serious crisis in the southern border. So did it help, as you were writing while that crisis was unfolding, did it make it easier for you to write?

Yes, well, I think it made me more motivated to write, I think. I started working on the book in 2013, which was like Earth was a whole different place, then, you know, the USA was a different place then, midway through a Barack Obama presidency. We hadn't even experienced the nightmare of an idea that Donald Trump could be president of our country. But I was aware then, that this was a subject that I felt people were not paying sufficient attention to. I didn't and I still don't understand why people aren't more engaged with this issue. I started writing, because I felt like it was a story that I wanted to engage people, I wanted people to look in this direction. So I thought if I can write a compelling novel, that makes people pay attention to this really important thing that they'd rather ignore, why wouldn"t I do that? And then, of course, the 2016 presidential election happened. And the rhetoric became uglier and uglier. And many of us despaired of what was happening in our country. And I actually also experienced a personal despair at that time, my father died. The week before the 2016 presidential election, he was out to dinner with my mom, and some friends and he just died at the dinner table. It was very unexpected, a really shocking death. And then, a week later, Trump was elected. So it just felt like the darkest time in my life. And I remember, there were a few months where I just put the book away, I couldn't face it. I was angry. I thought I wasted all this time, the book wasn't working. I had written two full drafts then. And they weren't good, you know. And then my dad died. And I was like... what a waste of time. I could have spent that time eating ice cream with my dad. Instead, I wasted it on this book that I'm going to throw out. And then, there came a moment where, I felt like I was in such a bad, emotional place, that it was kind of a nihilistic moment, where I just thought, well, "nothing else matters". So I may as well write the book that I really want to write. And there was this liberating thing, where I suddenly briefly did not care what anyone was going to say about the book. And I felt free really to follow the story that moved in my heart, you know, and for better and for worse, I think that book was American Dirt (Terra Americana), and some of the psychology when you're writing fiction, you often fool yourself into thinking that you're making these people up, right? They're not real, but they have so much of your own heart and your own psychology, that, if you're doing it right, I think that they're all me. And what was really funny was that when the book was finished, and I looked back at it, I realized, it seems so obvious now. Every single character, everyone is grieving for their father. That was not intentional, you know, and it was... even Javier, Lydia, Luca, Rebecca, Soledad, and even the minor characters like Lorenzo doesn't have a dad... they all are missing their father. And, you know, that was another element of the controversy that for me made it extremely painful because this is a deeply personal book, at the end of the day, when these characters are grieving. It was my grief in real time, as I was experiencing it, when I would have a bad day, I would give it to one of those characters on the page. And I'm a person who is no stranger to trauma. I've had a lot of it in my life. I had it, I had it again while I was writing this book. So the idea that I was somehow unqualified to write about trauma was bullshit.

What have you been writing about after American Dirt?

Well, it took me a while to get back on the horse, I guess. It took me a while to feel like I had my confidence again, as a writer or that I felt like I was on the right track. And I knew where I wanted to go. So it's only the last 18 months or so that I feel really good about how I'm moving toward the next book, and I'm making real progress. It's a while yet before I'll be done with it. But I have about 350 pages, and I'm feeling good. I'm excited about the characters. I'm writing about three generations of a Puerto Rican family and how their identity changes across each generation.

So again, very personal...

Very personal. But again, it's fiction, you know. So some of the circumstances of the characters in the book are familiar. They come from some of my own family history. But in the end, I'm, as I always do, I'm making it up.

Thank you very much.

Yeah. Thank you.

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