by Rana Asfour
Long before Covid-19 captured every single headline in early 2020, ‘American Dirt’ by Jeanine Cummins was having its fair/unfair spot in the limelight. Many were up in arms at Macmillan for extending 6 figures to a writer for a story she was later accused ‘was not hers to tell’. Since then the industry & readers have collectively listened, learned & actively pushed for supporting #ownvoices literature while also continuing the debate whether in fact storytelling is for anyone with a story to tell; real or imagined.
Therefore, and to this latter point, I imagine that Simon And Schuster went ahead to release in August 2020, Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s latest ‘The New American’ which much like ‘American Dirt’, tells the story of Central American characters’ plight crossing into ‘American soil’. Although the author in this case is a woman of color, yet she also has no ties to Central America. Her parents did however immigrate from Saudi Arabia to the US when she was a baby & she is currently the founder & creative director of the online digital storytelling project ‘The New American Storytelling Project’ (NASP)
One thing is certain: ‘The New American’ is exquisite literary writing - subdued & measured. Think TV documentary rather than Hollywood blockbuster. It is also a gripping, harrowing & heartbreaking read that brings to the forefront the anguish & ugliness of deportation & immigration. However, it is SO closely similar to ‘American Dirt’ in so many ways that disregarding a comparison is impossible while reading it & that’s what I found jarred my own enjoyment of the book.
‘The New American’ is a novel about Emilio, a young Guatemalan Berkeley college student - a ‘Dreamer’ - who on turning 17 learns a shocking secret his parents had kept from him: he is an undocumented. Caught by ICE following a car accident, he is deported back to Guatemala where no sooner does he arrive than he sets out to return home to California. His treacherous route takes him across thousands of miles & eventually the Sonoran Desert of the US-Mexico border. The story is inspired by interviews with Central American refugees.