It sold almost 4 million copies and its translated into 37 languages. American Dirt (ASA Editions) took writer Jeanine Cummins to literary heaven, but also to personal hell. It brought her down, made her question herself, but three years after all the controversy, Jeanine Cummins showed why she is freer, and stronger than she ever was. And she’s writing a new book.

Our guest of March edition of Meet the Author, Jeanine Cummins, was born in Spain, has Puerto Rican and Irish roots, and because of her father – who was in the military – lived in different parts of the world, including Northern Ireland, before settling in the United States, more specifically in New York, where she now lives with her husband (an Irishman, who lived illegally in the US for a decade) and their two children.

Her story is, to a large extent, a story of identity, of how a woman – white and at the same time latina – lives at this intersection of cultures, first belonging, and then being questioned.

But it’s also a story of trauma. Two of her cousins were raped and murdered in Mississippi when Jeanine Cummins was just 16 years old, in an attack in which only her brother survived. His father died while writing what would become his most famous work – American Dirt – but also the most controversial.

In 2020, Jeanine Cummins became a sales hit. For her fourth work, she was awarded a million-dollar contract, after an intense dispute between publishers, was chosen by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club – the most important in the U.S. – and was in literary heaven until criticism from a Mexican writer, who accused her of cultural appropriation, and questions about her identity led to threats, the cancellation of her tour and the public release of her book.

“All my life, whenever I was in a position where I was prepared to discuss my identity, it was always clear what I was. I’m Irish and I’m Puerto Rican. And very proud. (…) I never thought in the year 2020 I would have to defend my ethnicity. I don’t owe anyone an explanation of where my father grew up, or the language I spoke growing up, just because I wrote a novel. It is not anyone’s concern. And it was incredibly painful. It’s such a personal thing, identity.” – Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt tells the story of Lydia and Luca, the only survivors of their family’s massacre at the hands of drug traffickers, as they flee Mexico, where every minute counts and every exchange is steeped in danger. For Jeanine Cummins, who spent five years doing research to write this book, her ‘why’ is very simple: “I know why I wrote the book. It was because it was a topic that I thought people weren’t paying enough attention.” And she added a terrifying statistic: 8 out of 10 women are raped on this trip from Central America to the U.S.

The violence of the critics, the threats and the pressure of the whole process led the writer to question herself and her work. But her conclusion will please her most loyal readers.

“It was very painful to live these moments after the publication of the book. I went through a long period of self-reflection in which I wondered if I had, in fact, done any of the things I was accused of doing. But I must say that I have reached the end of this intense period and the conclusion is that I am fine. I’m going to write another book. It’s going to piss people off. And I’ll be fine.”

“We are at a frightening time culturally speaking, where there is a tremendous amount of self-censorship happening in the arts, specifically among fiction authors. I’m sure I’m in danger of self-censorship at times, but in a way I feel like I’m the freest writer in the U.S. because, they’ve done their worst, and I’m still here.” – Jeanine Cummins

Jeanine Cummins was at FLAD on March 23 as part of Meet the Author, a monthly initiative of FLAD, in partnership with PÚBLICO, which brings American writers to Portugal for conversations with readers. These sessions are free and open to all readers, and are led by thed journalist and literary critic, Isabel Lucas.