Partir es morir un poco
Llegar nunca es llegar
To leave is to die a little
To arrive is never to arrive
Sometimes a writer’s subject finds her. Valeria Luiselli, a novelist and essayist from Mexico City, was waiting for her green card when she and her niece started working as interpreters at the New York immigration court. Luiselli had heard from her own immigration lawyer that after the Obama administration created a priority juvenile docket, deportation proceedings for migrant minors—children and teens who risked their lives to cross the border—were moving faster than any child could feasibly find a lawyer and communicate his or her story. In limbo awaiting her own green card, Luiselli saw immediately a way she could use her time. She began to conduct interviews with children in need of legal representation for a nonprofit called The Door, and out of this arose her latest work, the book-length essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In Forty Questions.
Children are rarely given space to speak in their own words in the pages of literary writing, and Luiselli has achieved a feat by bringing them to life.
Luiselli incorporates the questions of the immigration interview, beginning with “Why did you come to the United States?” into the structure of her essay. Like her other works of fiction, The Story of My Teeth and Faces in the Crowd, and her essay collection Sidewalks, Tell Me How It Ends is an experimental foray, this time into what in other hands mind be a straightforward piece of journalism. Because she was so close to the stories of these children, speaking directly to them, she captured their voices and their experience with more empathy than any fact or statistic. Children are rarely given space to speak in their own words in the pages of literary writing, and Luiselli has achieved a feat by bringing them to life. Yet she doesn’t shy away from the astonishing facts and statistics of the so-called child migrant crisis. The priority docket came about as a “solution” to the “problem” of too many children (more than 80,000) fleeing gang violence in their home countries, usually Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. After surviving the plain likelihood of abduction, rape, and violent death en route across Mexico (an estimated 120,000 have disappeared in transit since 2006), children who made it turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol and found their way to the family members (if they had any) who awaited them across the U.S. Luiselli met them in New York, at this juncture: after finally arriving at what should be safety, they have just been told they will most likely be sent back.
In her essay, Luiselli hones in on the language used by government officials, who call the children “aliens” and “illegals,” and the language that more accurately describes the children: war refugees. She encounters kids who have witnessed the shootings of their siblings and friends as they fled gangs intent on recruiting them or killing them. The gangs, Barrio 18 and MS-13, are a result of what Luiselli calls the United States’ “shared hemispheric history” with the countries to the south, insisting that the U.S. is not “a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.” The drug war is “a hemispheric war… one that begins in the Great Lakes of the northern United States and ends in the mountains of Celaque in southern Honduras.” If U.S. citizens could admit this to themselves, perhaps they would be less likely to try to expedite the deportation of migrant children who have survived unthinkable trauma. (Instead, a sickening headline this week reads, “Texas Is Fighting Tooth and Nail to Prevent a Pregnant, Undocumented 17-Year-Old From Seeking an Abortion.”)
One uncomfortable thing about being a nonfiction writer is that when you encounter catastrophe within the space of your own life, you know in the moment of the encounter, due to the mind’s perverse expediency, that you will likely write about it.
One uncomfortable thing about being a nonfiction writer is that when you encounter catastrophe within the space of your own life, you know in the moment of the encounter, due to the mind’s perverse expediency, that you will likely write about it. And you know, too, that your writing may or may not have any kind of effect on the situation itself. But Luiselli has long proven herself to be a writer who reaches beyond the page. In The Story of My Teeth, after being commissioned by the curators at Galería Jumex outside Mexico City to produce a work of fiction for their catalogue, she instead wrote a novel in installments and read each section aloud to the factory workers at Jumex, the juice factory which supports the Jumex Collection, to get workers’ feedback before continuing to write. She dedicated the book to them. Tell Me How It Ends makes a similar move from the page to the community, resulting in a class on the migration experience that transforms into a political group called TIIA (Teenage Immigrant Integration Association) in New York, where students at Hofstra University organize soccer matches and English classes. I had hoped to speak with Luiselli about TIIA’s current activities this fall, but she has been out of contact since the recent earthquakes in Mexico City, where her family lives. She will read from her work and speak with journalist Sonia Nazario at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on November 29 at 7 pm. Tickets are available through the Lannan Foundation.