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Lost Children Archive: Valeria Luiselli’s New Novel Bears Witness to the U.S. Immigration Crisis

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Days after Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border, we speak with Valeria Luiselli about her new book, “Lost Children Archive.” It chronicles one family’s journey from New York to the southwestern U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona as the mother researches the plight of migrant children seeking refuge in the United States.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show with the ongoing crisis at the border. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended president Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border Wednesday, telling lawmakers, in an explosive hearing, that officials are on track to detain more than 900,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border this year. Nielsen pushed back against widespread reports the Trump administration routinely denies migrants a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S., claiming no one would be turned away at a U.S. port of entry. This is Nanette Barragán of the House Homeland Security Committee speaking at the hearing.

REP. NANETTE BARRAGÁN: Either you’re lying to this committee, or you don’t know what’s happening at the border.

AMY GOODMAN: When she was asked how many children remain detained at the border, Nielsen replied she didn’t have the number handy. And she denied that migrant prisoners are being held in cages. This is U.S. Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson questioning Nielsen.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: Just yes or no: Are we still putting children in cages?

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: To my knowledge, CBP never purposely put a child in a cage, if you mean a cage like this.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: Purposely or whatever, are we putting children in cages, as of today?

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Children are processed at the border facility stations that you’ve been at. Some of the areas—

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: And I’ve seen the cages. I just want you to admit that the cages exist.


REP. BENNIE THOMPSON: What are they?

HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they’re being processed.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest has seen firsthand what our immigration system does to children who come to this country seeking asylum. After working as a volunteer interpreter for children in New York immigration court, Valeria Luiselli wrote a celebrated nonfiction book informed by her experience, titled Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. She’s now out with her fifth book, her first novel written in English, titled Lost Children Archive.

Valeria Luiselli, welcome back to Democracy Now!

VALERIA LUISELLI: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us and to be here on International Women’s Day with you.

VALERIA LUISELLI: Yeah, what a day.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance, why you wrote Lost Children Archive?

VALERIA LUISELLI: Well, I started writing it on a road trip down to Arizona from New York. And I was trying to write another, completely different novel back then, about growing up in post-apartheid South Africa. But the reality—

AMY GOODMAN: You were born in Mexico.

VALERIA LUISELLI: I was born in Mexico but grew up in several countries, among them, South Africa, right—I arrived in South Africa right when Mandela became president. So it was a very peculiar and beautiful time. I’ve been trying to write a novel for years about that, which I haven’t yet written, really. And I was trying to write it during this trip across the U.S.

But the reality in front of me started basically caving in on me. And I started making notes. It was the summer of 2014, exactly when what we can now call the ongoing diaspora of Central Americans fleeing circumstances of unspeakable violence in their countries began, even though their arrivals began before 2014, but that was the year of the surge. So I started documenting not only traveling across the U.S. in that moment and the landscapes, many times the landscapes of abandonment that I was seeing, but also, of course, the way that the crisis was being recounted and reported on in different states by local newspapers, radio. And so this novel is a novel about immigration, but, more than that, it’s a novel about how to bear witness and how to tell the story of what I think is going to be one of the most important discussions in the 21st century, which is global diasporas.

AMY GOODMAN: And why did you call it Lost Children Archive?

VALERIA LUISELLI: Well, the title, unfortunately, has somehow gained a new meaning now—right?—as that is also the power and the elasticity of language. When I first thought of that title, it was my working title in 2014, and I was thinking about children who had lost the right to childhood, and children who were not being seen or heard. I was not thinking about children, like the children we think of now as lost children, who have been lost by this administration’s separation policy and having lost track of whose kid is whose parent, and are therefore lost within the loop of this system. Unfortunately now, this title also somehow references that, what we think of now as lost children.

AMY GOODMAN: You write that ”Lost Children Archive is more a questioning of how and where we should stand in order to document political violence.”

VALERIA LUISELLI: Right. I started writing this novel, and at the same time as I was writing it, I was working as a volunteer screener and translator in the court of immigration here in New York, listening to children’s testimonies and stories, in an attempt to—among many other volunteers, by the way—in an attempt to get their stories clear and then find a lawyer that might represent them and help them against a deportation order. This was right after the priority docket was created by the Obama administration, that basically served as a way to expedite removals of undocumented, unaccompanied children.

And so, of course, I started using the novel as a kind of depository or vessel of my own political frustration, rage, sadness, confusion. And I also started really ruining the novel, stuffing it with all of that, while also not really doing justice to the issue. I was trying to thread it into a fictional narrative. And so I stopped writing it altogether. I wrote Tell Me How It Ends, which is a book that we’ve spoken about here before, which is a much more straightforward take, a kind of X-ray of the American immigration system, and also an X-ray of this particular diaspora involving children.

And once I wrote that book, I was able to return to the novel and think of it as a space that was more multilayered and less stuffed, more porous, that reflects on how—where we should stand to bear witness, and not so much—it’s not so much a hammer, a political hammer, as it is a space of reflection about our own space of enunciation when we think about political violence.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written about your time as an interpreter, saying, “The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.” So, this book is a kind of meditation on storytelling, you have said. Explain.

VALERIA LUISELLI: Well, it is—it’s a meditation on the politics of the documentary form, first of all—right?—about how—where the limits of our right to tell another person’s story are, always confusing limits, right? And it’s also a meditation on how we hand down stories to the next generation, accounts of the world, narratives around the world, and how that generation rethreads them, recomposes them and then also gives them back to us.

So, it’s a family that occupies the first half of the novel—or, more than the first half, really—that’s traveling down toward the border from New York. And the children are listening to their parents talk about the Chiricahua Apaches, in the case of their father. The mother is talking all the time about how to document the crisis at the border, and they’re listening to the news. And the kids start confusing Bluecoats with Border Patrol and start re-enacting a kind of confused history, that’s also very telling of the way that history also repeats itself in this country—right?—the way that it consistently marginalizes those who it sees as lesser citizens or lesser humans—right?—in its black and brown population, fundamentally.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion and post it online at democracynow.org. Valeria Luiselli, award-winning Mexican-American writer. Her latest book, Lost Children Archive, was just long-listed for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Thanks so much for being with us. Happy International Women’s Day!

I’ll be speaking March 15th, next Friday, at East High School in Denver, Colorado. Check our website at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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