/ 14 February 2020

Valeria Luiselli tells stories to shame us

Valeria Luiselli
Seeking purpose: Writer Valeria Luiselli’s experience as a translator for unaccompanied child migrants to the United States profoundly affected her, resulting in two books. (Alfredo Pelcastre/Coffee House Books)

Do we still believe in literature? The ongoing decline in fiction sales suggest we don’t. A 2018 article in Publishers Weekly attributed the decline to a “broader cultural shift”: the rise of social media and television streaming services. In other words, the inner circuitry of our imaginations is no longer attuned to reading a 350-page novel.

But what happens when doubt also afflicts the clergy?

Novelist and non-fiction writer Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico and lives in New York City. A recipient of the 2019 MacArthur Fellowship, called the “Genius Grant”, Luiselli spent parts of her early life in the Americas, South Korea and, briefly, South Africa.

Her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, is delightfully experimental. The overriding emotion is one of joy. But Luiselli’s most recent books, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, a non-fiction work, and the Booker Prize longlisted novel, Lost Children Archive, are stark. Both books are the result of a crisis of faith. Of feeling abandoned, adrift, without gods.

In March 2015, while awaiting the outcome of her green card application, Luiselli volunteered as an interpreter at the federal immigration court in New York City. It opened her eyes to the magnitude of what she refers to as the children’s crisis: the unaccompanied minors arriving at the border of the United States from Mexico and Central America, and the immoral response to the crisis by successive federal governments in Washington.

From October 2013 to June 2014, when the Barack Obama administration declared the situation a crisis, Luiselli writes in Tell Me How It Ends, “The total number of child migrants detained at the border approached 80000.” Instead of drawing up measures to ease the passage of the minors (“most children arrive looking for their parents”), the Obama administration introduced the priority juvenile docket, what Luiselli describes as “the government’s coldest, cruellest possible answer to the arrival of refugee children”.

Undocumented children arriving at the border were given about a year to find legal representation before having to appear in an immigration court, but that window narrowed to 21 days with the introduction of the priority juvenile docket. In practical terms, “since the priority docket was created”, Luiselli writes, “children are being (and will continue to be) deported in much greater numbers and at a much faster rate. What child can find a lawyer [at no cost to the state] in twenty-one days?”

The question Luiselli asks herself in Tell Me How It Ends and Lost Children Archive is what can writing do? “Can we find a way to write that is equal to this moment?” as the South African short story writer, Stacy Hardy, once asked. “A writing that captures and confronts the present, with its new urgencies and particular forms of violence, including violence done to the body and to language?” Tell Me How It Ends and Lost Children Archive form part of Luiselli’s clear-eyed response to the refugee crisis. And although both books (which tell the same story through different narrative modes) resound with anger and moral clarity they also express Luiselli’s doubts about what literature is able to achieve.

While working as an interpreter, Luiselli spent time with dozens of children, translating their stories from Spanish to English. These stories are woven into Tell Me How It Ends, a book-length essay structured around the 40 questions in the questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants. Beginning with the first question: “Why did you come to the United States?”, Luiselli attempts to tell as much of the story from the children’s perspective.

Most of them are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The children leave their homes with a “coyote”, a paid smuggler, and most are fleeing gang violence linked to the transnational sale of narcotics and arms. She writes: “No one, from producers to consumers, is willing to accept their role in the great theatre of devastation of these children’s lives.”

The “coyote” takes the children through Mexico on top of freight trains known as La Bestia that drop them at the border. The trains are death traps; thousands die each year “either because of the frequent derailments of the old freight trains or because people fall off during the night”. Death is a fellow traveller. There are gangs, corrupt policemen and murderous soldiers to be evaded along the way. As many as 80% of the “women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the US border are raped. The situation is so common that most of them take contraceptive precautions as they begin the journey north.”

If they survive the crossing, the children are advised to hand themselves over to US Border Patrol officers. It is better for them to be placed in a temporary detention shelter than to fall into the hands of vigilantes or to perish from hunger or dehydration. The chances of the children’s reunification with a parent or guardian are higher. Once reunited, the legal fight to remain in the US starts.

At the end of the workday, Luiselli relates all of these stories to her own daughter. But the mind of Luiselli’s daughter latches onto the story of two girls, aged five and seven, from a small village in Guatemala. “The day before they left, their grandmother sewed a 10-digit telephone number on the collars of the dress each girl would wear throughout the trip.” The girls had been warned by their grandmother: “Never take this dress off, not even to sleep, and as soon as they reached America, as soon as they met the first American policeman, they were to show the inside of the dress’s collar to him. He would then dial the number and let them speak to their mother. The rest would follow.”

The rest did follow, but now the girls are in protracted legal battle to remain in the US. “Tell me how it ends, Mama?” Luiselli’s daughter asks her. “Sometimes I make up an ending, a happy one,” she says. “But most of the time I just say: I don’t know how it ends yet.”

The stories in Tell Me How It Ends provide the raw material for Luiselli’s visionary novel, Lost Children Archive. Some of the stories recounted in the non-fiction text —the girls with the 10-digit telephone number sewn on the collar of their dresses, for example — are recast in the novel. Moreover, the novel also begins in more or less the same way as Tell Me How It Ends.

In the summer of 2014, after filing an application for a green card, Luiselli and her husband, her biological daughter and stepson, set off on a road trip. It is while they are on the road that they first hear disturbing reports about “the wave of children arriving, alone and undocumented, at the border”. The same family unit is at the centre of Lost Children Archive and the first half of the novel is narrated by an unnamed Luiselli-like character, a responsibility that later shifts to the woman’s stepson.

The plot of the Lost Children Archive is not so much of interest here (the majority of the novel is set on the road and the narrator is “making a sound documentary about the children’s crisis at the border”) as the aesthetic and ethical questions the novel attempts to resolve. Here are a few that are asked by the Luiselli-like narrator: “Why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end?”, “Why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering?” and “Who am I to tell this story?”

But the question that looms largest is one you feel Luiselli is constantly asking herself: What kind of literature can contend with such a nightmare reality? To answer that question, Luiselli abandons the idea that our reality can be refracted by the work of a single consciousness. The result is a novel made up of fragments: photographs, maps, historical texts, numerous allusions to other writers, including TS Eliot (The Waste Land), Michael Ondaatje (The Collected Works of Billy the Kid) and Susan Sontag’s journals.

But more powerfully, Luiselli tells the stories of the lost children over and over again. “The only way to grant any justice — were that even possible,” Luiselli writes in Tell Me How It Ends, “is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us.”

Bongani Kona is a writer and contributing editor to Chimurenga