‘The New American’ Tells a Story of Migration Rooted in Firsthand Accounts

Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel 'The New American' tells the story of a 21-year-old Guatemalan desperately trying to get back home to his family in Berkeley. (Background image by John Moore/Getty Images)

Long before it became a polarizing litmus test of our new political spectrum, the story and history of undocumented migrants crossing America’s southern border was on Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s mind.

The novelist, who grew up in Los Angeles, spent her 20s in the East Bay teaching ESL and Spanish. She later worked in Oakland public schools as the assistant director of a college prep program for low-income, first generation students. When she began writing her latest novel, The New American, several years ago, she was drawn toward the complex narratives of those coming from beyond Mexico.

“For me the big story in Mexico in 2012—and this is before anyone in the mainstream news was really talking about it here—was the story of what was happening to Central Americans as they migrated north,” says Marcom, who is currently sheltering in place in Sausalito and splits her time between the Bay Area and Virginia. “They, too, are undocumented in Mexico as much as the United States.”

Most of The New American indeed takes place during the journey from Central America to and through Mexico—in migrant shelters and on La Bestia (“The Beast”), the infamously perilous freight train that countless immigrants use to traverse thousands of miles—rather than at the U.S. border.

Sponsored

At its center of the novel is Emilio, a 21-year-old Guatemalan desperately trying to get back home to his family in Berkeley. He has lived in America his whole conscious life, goes to UC Berkeley and only learns as a teenager that he is undocumented—a “Dreamer” who was brought into the U.S. as a child by his parents. After a stroke of unfortunate luck, he is deported, and his entire world suddenly vanishes.

But we only gather Emilio’s history slowly. Marcom grounds the book in the linear trajectory of migration. We learn of Emilio’s former life in bits and pieces, the same way he meets other travelers along the way, learning their stories in rough shades. Each backstory is invariably tinged with tragedy, suffering and desperation, circumstances that drove the characters out of their homes in countries like El Salvador and Honduras, where the homicide rates are among the highest in the world. As they make their way to the American border, there are only new perils.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom (Luco Parsons)

Marcom, whose work has often been experimental, says the great difficulty of the book was writing with simplicity, tracking plainly the harrowing trials of the journey—kidnappings, rapes, the persistent threat of violence.

“All the characters are fictional and [Emilio’s] journey is also a fiction,” Marcom says, “but all of the details, the things that happened to him—it’s because I knew they happened to somebody or somebodies, either through research I was doing, interviews I was finding [or] some things I learned from interviewing people myself.”

These realities are eye-opening to read now, particularly amid the ongoing crisis at the border, but when Marcom wrote the book in 2012, the national conversation around immigration was much quieter, the context far less understood. For years, Marcom could not sell the book to publishers, until Simon & Schuster picked it up in 2018, against the backdrop of President Trump’s family separation policy at the border.

In the years between, Marcom, looking for an alternative means to tell this story, started New American Story Project, an oral history series that interviews undocumented teenagers who have traveled as unaccompanied minors from Central America to the U.S.

“We have a very long, complicated relationship with those countries,” Marcom says. “And yet most Americans, we don’t necessarily know that much about it. We’re like, ‘Who are these people? Why would they come here?’ Why would you think? Because they’re desperate. Nobody sends their child out alone on a journey unless they’re terrified for them.”

That context is not only ignored, but also further complicated by America’s decades-long political involvement with the countries of Central America, Marcom notes. It goes far deeper than election meddling. In 2009, the U.S. tacitly supported a coup in Honduras that has directly led to escalating violence and in turn driven waves of immigrants to the north in search of safety.

That thorny political reality informs each attempted crossing, and in documenting those complex experiences through fictional characters, Marcom’s premise might quickly remind readers of the literary-world debacle surrounding the novel American Dirt. That book, written by author Jeanine Cummins, was among this year’s most hotly anticipated works, but leading up to its release in January it met a swirl of controversy. Among other critiques, Cummins (who is white) was accused of sloppily dressing up a tale of migrants in caricatured tragedy and stereotypes while reaping the rewards of political timeliness.

Did Marcom worry her book might be doing the same? Marcom’s story and writing offers a decidedly different kind of book, not least of all due to her years-long dedication to understanding and honoring the real-life stories behind her novel. But Marcom—who has written before about heavy historical subjects like the Armenian Genocide and genocide in Guatemala—is largely uninterested in weighing in on the American Dirt fiasco.

“I haven’t read it,” Marcom says. “Of course, I know more than I’d like to know about whatever happened around it. I’m old fashioned in the sense that for me things like beauty and justice and truth are still the things that are guiding my work. The only person I’m going to hold myself accountable to is my sense of duty to the dead or maybe to God.”

What animates The New American is the bare truth of the journey countless migrants have undertaken, from La Bestia to the deadly stretch of the Sonoran Desert that Emilio must eventually drag himself through. Firsthand experiences related to Marcom guide the work, along with the persistence and belief evinced by each interviewee—qualities she says continue to surprise her.

“I see that over and over again when I listen to people who tell me their stories and I listen to interviews,” Marcom says. “It’s this extraordinary human capacity to seek something better, and to endure and to have faith in God that things can be better.”

Sponsored