‘A portal for creating empathy’


AUTHOR Jeanine Cummings hopes her book moves readers and raises awareness of migrants’ plight.

Author Jeanine Cummings on her bestselling fiction, ‘American Dirt’ 

Bríd Conroy

Books are an invitation to ‘blow open a window in your mind’. So said Jeanine Cummins, acclaimed author of ‘American Dirt’ in our interview with her on Tertulia TV last week, coming to us all the way from New York.
‘American Dirt’ certainly does that. Cummings explains that the book is about ‘a bookseller, Lydia in Acapulco, Mexico, who lives a comfortable life with her husband a journalist and their eight-year-old son, Luca’.
“On page one, a terrific act of violence against their family, forces Lydia and Luca to leave that life behind,” she continues. “They become migrants in an instant. American Dirt is the story of their journey. It asks the reader to put themselves in the shoes of the migrant and try to understand what might drive such a decision to leave one’s home place”.
The book is set in Mexico, but really it could be anywhere that people have been forced to flee their homes. The UNHCR estimated the figure to be 79.5 million people worldwide in 2020.
The book was originally published in January last year, just before the first lockdown, but despite this has become a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller.
It has also been the top-selling book in our shop for two reasons: firstly, because it is a brilliant piece of fiction – a book that’s impossible to put down – and secondly, it is a book we feel everyone should read.

Bridge building
Cummings herself refers to fiction as ‘a portal for creating empathy, a great tool for readers to engage with issues they may be otherwise tempted to write off or think of as ‘other’’.
She goes on to explain that ‘American Dirt’ is a book she hoped would move people, that would allow the reader to get under the skin of a mother who makes a decision we would all hope to never have to make. What would you do to save the life of your child? Would you abandon your home, the place you belong, to become stateless and be owned by no place and no one? To be at the mercy of strangers and strange lands?
Cummings started writing the book in 2013. Even though it was half way through Obama’s time in office, she felt people were not paying attention to migrants, particularly Latinos. Decisions were being made at a policy level not at a human level.
The story pulls us along that journey, with Lydia and her son Luca – not just the physical journey to safety that they follow but also their journey away from everything they knew and all they were before, towards becoming the migrants they needed to become, to survive.  
At times, it is terrifying and the story is tragic. Yet it is the kindness of strangers that saves this mother and son on many occasions.
Cummings also hoped her book would help build bridges, and she talked about what we could do differently after reading her book: “For one, those organisations that rescue migrants in desperate situations need funding.” Her website www.jeaninecummins.com also has links to the organisations she has visited and assisted during her many years of research for the book. These include The International Rescue Committee, Water Stations and The American Friends Service Committee and many more.
Finally, Cummings hopes for stronger political will to alleviate the problems of migration. We all have the right to seek asylum from persecution under article 13 of the Universal Charter for Human Rights, but at the end of the day, what I believe we must really envision is a world where all of us have the right to stay in our own home place, where we belong.

‘American Dirt’ has just been released in paperback. Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.