- Valeria Luiselliaward-winning writer and author of Lost Children Archive.
An extended discussion with Valeria Luiselli on her new novel “Lost Children Archive.” The stunning book chronicles one family’s journey from New York to the Southwestern US-Mexico border in Arizona. They take the road trip for the unnamed mother’s research on the plight of migrant children seeking refuge in the United States. The Los Angeles Review of Books writes, “Lost Children Archive brings into sharp focus the deep wrongs that are being inflicted upon immigrant children in our name. It demands that our numbed complacency be shaken, and our rage unleashed.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with celebrated writer Valeria Luiselli, who’s just published her fifth book, her first novel written in English. It’s called Lost Children Archive. The stunning book chronicles one family’s journey, from New York to the southwestern U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. They take the road trip for the unnamed mother’s research on the plight of migrant children seeking refuge in the United States. The Los Angeles Review of Books writes, ”Lost Children Archive brings into sharp focus the deep wrongs that are being inflicted upon immigrant children in our name. It demands that our numbed complacency be shaken, and our rage unleashed.”
Valeria Luiselli, thank you for continuing this conversation. So, take us on the journey you went, in this book, in this novel, and also talk about why you chose to write a novel.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Right. Well, as I was telling you earlier, I took a road trip with my family in 2014. What I wanted to do that summer was take a road trip in South Africa, because I was writing a novel about my childhood in post-apartheid South Africa. But that wasn’t possible because I had just applied for a green card, and—well, a few months before, and you can’t leave the country while you’re waiting for an answer. So we decided to go on a road trip. Also, we decided, if we’re asking for green cards, we might as well really get to know the country we’re going to live in. So we took a road trip from Manhattan to Arizona, very slowly winding down into the country.
And my idea, first of all, was to take Polaroid pictures as we drove, because I was going to send them back to friends in South Africa, asking them questions about landscape or childhood there. So it was a bit of an experiment to be able to continue writing that other novel, which I then abandoned. I did take those pictures. But I started—the reality—I’m a kind of writer that cannot vacuum pack herself outside immediate reality. I’ve never written in a space of absolute fiction, right? So, I started documenting what I was seeing, instead of thinking about the other novel. I started documenting the abandoned motels and the many military planes that flew and hovered above us, and the industrialized landscape, raped by heavy machinery, and the small towns of hard-working people and the beautiful mountains and the deserts and the diners, and so this landscape that was emerging before me, with all its beauty and all its abandonment and all its possibility.
And at the same time as we were driving, I was listening—we’re radio junkies—all the time to the radio. And, of course, what was on the radio that summer was the children’s crisis at the border, right? It was—
AMY GOODMAN: And this was during the Obama years.
VALERIA LUISELLI: This was, of course, during the Obama years. I mean, it must be said that iceboxes, hieleras, which are caged spaces, with little facilities, at freezing temperatures, existed then. And family separation existed then, too, not at the level in which it exists now, but all of this was already there, right? Unfortunately, that crisis left the headlines very, very soon.
So, as I continued to write this novel, after having gone on that road trip, I was, by then, working in immigration court as a screener and translator for children who had been bumped up in their priority cases in court. They now only had—children who were seeking asylum back then only had 21 days to get a lawyer to defend them against deportation, as opposed to a year, which was what they traditionally had. So, many volunteers all over the country were needed to face that crisis, and I was among them. And I was hearing testimonies of kids that, of course, told their reasons for leaving the unspeakable horrors that they faced and that made them leave their country. It was death or coming here and possibly surviving the journey and then possibly finding safety. And I—
AMY GOODMAN: And I just have to ask you.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Although we have talked about this before, when you were here. When you’re in the court translating, how you’re feeling? Because you are not only a translator of language, but there you are in a court with a child who doesn’t speak English, and you’re translating for them, but you’re also understanding the cultural context, and you’re understanding what the judge is understanding, and how much more you want to say as this child speaks.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Right. There’s many—it’s very complex, and there’s many levels of translation that are simultaneously going on when you’re screening or interviewing a child and translating their story. First of all, they’re children, so the questions that are often being posed to them are ones that they maybe don’t fully understand. And the younger the child—that’s a very sad thing. The younger the child, the less likely he or she is to give a good enough story that will then become a case that a lawyer then takes.
So, I remember speaking to very young girls, a couple of sisters, in particular, who had come here from Guatemala and who had traveled here with the telephone number of their mother stitched to their collar, so—because they wouldn’t remember the number. They were very little. And they had made it to the border. And someone had—they had shown an official there the telephone number that they had stitched, and their mother was contacted. And they had made it all the way to their mother. So they were not lost in the system. They actually made it here. But when they started narrating their story, it became clear that the case was not going to be deemed strong enough for them to stay with their mother here.
And I never knew what happened with those two girls. And those two girls became the haunting presence in the heart of the novel of Lost Children Archive. I talk about them in Tell Me How It Ends, but they come up again as the two lost presences, as the absent presences, that motivate the narrator in the novel along her way. I actually don’t know how that story ended. I don’t know if those girls are here or were deported, but I—of course, one fears the West—the West—one fears the West, as well, but one fears the worst.
AMY GOODMAN: As you were telling us in Part 1, this is the story of the couple, a husband and wife, and their two children in the back seat, driving across America to the border, and this merging of histories.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Right. So, as the family drives across the U.S., the father is working on a documentary, on a sound documentary, about the Chiricahua Apaches, and specifically about Geronimo and Chief Cochise, and is constantly telling his children stories about the Apaches and about this last group of Apaches, in particular, who were the last free people to surrender in the American continent to what were then called the White Eyes, right? And it was the last free peoples to surrender. So he’s telling the story of the lost—of a lost civilization or of a lost peoples, in the sense of of a peoples having lost their freedom, finally, and the last ones to lose that.
And the children listen to all these stories very attentively. And at the same time, the mother is listening to the radio constantly. And on the radio, all the news is about the crisis at the border, often not the humanitarian crisis, or it’s not being framed like a humanitarian crisis, but more an institutional crisis, called a crisis on the basis of the fact that there has been a big surge of arrivals, and institutions are cramped, and everything is backlogged. And so, but the children hear all of this. And in their back-seat games, they start re-enacting what they hear, mixing it all up.
And all of this started for me, or I started thinking in these terms about re-enactment, when, with my daughter and stepsons, I went to one of those bizarre re-enactment towns, where gunfights are reproduced endlessly between different cowboys. And I was very surprised in this re-enactment town in Arizona, Tombstone, where there were—we went to a gunfight between—I don’t know—I think Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. And then we left that, and there was another Billy the Kid and another. And then you walk around this town, and there’s like five Billy the Kids, that maybe often see each other. And it kind of blew my mind. I find it a very bizarre cultural practice, the idea of reproducing history, or a small episode in history, over and over again for entertainment and consumption, and, I guess, some—it has some didactic component. We ended up taking a family—one of those cheesy family portraits in in this town, Tombstone, Arizona, where you have to dress as a person from the era. The kids wanted this, etc. So, we went, and we got a menu of who we could be. So, you could either be Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp or Billy the Kid or the generic Mexican outlaw or the generic Native American. As a Mexican, you can understand that I wasn’t so pleased at the genericness of my identity. So we ended up all dressing as Mexican outlaws and Native Americans. And we had the cheesy family portrait.
But then, of course, I mean, I began thinking about the politics of re-enactment, right? Who gets to have a name, and who gets to have a part in history, right? So, my characters are all unnamed, in an attempt to be coherent with my dismay at who gets to be mapped into history with a name and who doesn’t. But it’s really also a novel about re-enactment, and not only as this bizarre cultural practice, but as also an internalized emotional and intellectual procedure that maybe allows you to reckon with the distant past or an immediate present that seems either too unlikely or too far from your own circumstances. So, the kids in the novel, through re-enacting, bring the more distant past of the Apache Chiricahua Nation closer to them, and, of course, the plight of child migrants arriving at the border close to their hearts, as well. And it is in their play, in their form of storytelling, that the effort to pass stories from one generation to the next, I think, is wholly realized.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to flip from your novel, Lost Children Archive, to what’s happening today, something you’re very tapped into, and this explosive hearing that took place this week, where the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, was being questioned by a group of Democratic congressmembers, really challenged about the separating of children. And I wanted to turn to this one moment when this New Jersey congressmember, Bonnie Watson Coleman, questioned Secretary Nielsen.
REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: What does a chain-link fence enclosed into a chamber on a concrete floor represent to you? Is that a cage?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It’s a detention space, ma’am, that you know has existed for decades.
REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: Does it differ from the cages you put your dogs in when you let them stay outside? Is it—is it different?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Yes.
REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: In what sense?
HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: It’s larger. It has facilities. It provides room to sit, to stand, to lay down.
REP. BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: So did my dog’s cage.
AMY GOODMAN: “So did my dog’s cage.” As you listen to this, and as your book has just come out, and as you were translating for children during the Obama years, and now Trump has intensified this situation with the—I mean, it’s not as if no children were separated from their parents during the Obama years, but he brought it to a new level.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Well, I mean, first of all, I—you don’t have to be an immigration expert to find it mind-boggling that what we’re discussing is the definition of a cage, right? It’s like if a mesh fence is a cage. Well, I mean, I think, by all means, a mesh fence, wire fence, enclosing a small space is called a cage.
Now, there’s two types of incarceration spaces at the border: the what is called colloquially in Spanish the hieleras, or iceboxes, and then the perreras, or dog pounds. And the dog pounds are even more cage-like than the iceboxes. And that is where family separation, this past summer, was—well, it happened, but it was also where it was documented more, more thoroughly, for the first time. So, I say this because it is important to point out that maybe the only true thing that Nielsen said is that this has been going on for years. And it’s true. That doesn’t make it acceptable in any way, or more acceptable. But it has been going on for years. And family separation was going on during the Obama era, and the iceboxes existed, and so did the perreras.
So, I guess the question is, really: Why does it take so much for us to finally commit to the daily task of denouncing the atrocities happening at the border, and not only at the border, but also all around us, in detention spaces where undocumented people are being held for way longer than they are supposed to? And I think that we need to reframe, start reframing, a lot of our questioning around immigration and place it in the context of the discussion of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, which is really what is—there is a lot of people profiting from incarcerating the most silenced portion of the U.S.A. population.
AMY GOODMAN: Before I end, you are an artisan of words. You are a wordsmith, a beautiful writer. The power of words. So often the press uses the language of the powerful. President Trump announces there’s a national emergency, and so that is repeated over and over again. And he defines the emergency as people coming over the border, so he wants to put up a wall. But what about the national emergency of children who continue to be separated from their parents? Hundreds of children, according to Trump administration’s own numbers.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Indeed, there are still many lost children, lost in a sense that this system has lost them. This administration has lost track of them. And it is to be held accountable for that, of course. I mean, they are creating the national emergency. It’s a human rights emergency at the border and, as I said earlier, also in the hundreds of detention spaces. By the way, there’s always more and more, because more and more congressional appropriations are going to homeland security and then to ICE, and that into contracts with fundamentally one company that owns 65 percent of immigration detention spaces, which is CoreCivic, right? So, this will continue, because it’s profitable, unless we really, as a society, start committing to a daily pushback and start understanding this in the much wider context of mass incarceration.
AMY GOODMAN: Your daughter is 9 years old, the age of many children who were separated. Did she ask you about what was happening? And how did you talk to her about it?
VALERIA LUISELLI: Yeah, it’s a difficult question. She does ask. And she lives in a household where it’s all women, with my mother, my niece, my friend. Basically, she’s growing up among very political and very active women. Today we have a big women’s dinner at home, and they get very political. And so, she’s growing up in a context where she’s hearing a lot of these things. And she would be hearing a lot of things anyway, because it’s all over the news, and it’s on the headlines. And so, I mean, what I have come to think is that although it’s my responsibility to protect her innocence as much as I can, it’s also my responsibility to give her the instruments, the intellectual and emotional instruments, to find agency within herself and not see the world with terror, but to see injustice as an opportunity to engage with the world and with agency. And I think that—so far, I think I’m doing a good job. She’s an amazing kid.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what was it like to write your first novel in English?
VALERIA LUISELLI: It’s weird, because it’s not really—I mean, it is the first novel that I write fully in English. But I—when I was 5 years old, we lived in South Korea. So, I learned—
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you travel so much?
VALERIA LUISELLI: For different reasons. My parents worked in NGOs for a long time. And then, in South Korea and South Africa, my father was a diplomat. But I must say that it was really for different reasons, and often it was for my mother’s job, and usually in media spaces. People talk about my father as if my mom didn’t exist, so I really wanted to say that. I’m also the daughter of my mother. And we moved around a lot because of them.
Then I ended up moving by myself. I went to boarding school in high school, and I went to boarding school in India. And I was by myself, and then I ended up in Spain, in France, also by myself, and then here.
But anyway, I was 5 when we moved to Korea, and that’s where I learned to read and write. So I learned how to read and write in English before I did so in Spanish. So, all my life I wrote in English. I studied my Ph.D. here in the U.S. When I decided to write in Spanish, it was a political and emotional decision, my first book in Spanish, in my early twenties. But all my notes for all my books have always been a complete bilingual mess, basically. So, I write—I mean, sometimes I don’t even finish a sentence in the same language en que lo empecé, you know? So, it’s—in which I started it, right? So, that’s how—I mean, there are 60 million Hispanics in the U.S. I would say most of them are probably bilingual. That’s the way that a Hispanic-Anglo mind works, sort of between the two languages. So, all my notes have always been in the two languages.
My previous book, Tell Me How It Ends, I wrote in English. Then I self-translated it to Spanish. This one I wrote in English after attempting to write it in Spanish, English, Spanish, English—nothing was working. One day, English worked better than Spanish, and I just followed that. And I tried to self-translate this to Spanish, but it didn’t work.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on this International Women’s Day, more about your mother. Your mother went back to Mexico in the 1990s?
VALERIA LUISELLI: My mother decided, yeah, in the 1990s. So, in 1994—1994 was a very complicated year for Mexico. It was the year in which we became part of the North American Trade Agreement. It was the year the presidential candidate had just been assassinated. The Popocatépetl volcano was like threatening to erupt. And, more importantly, there was the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico, in Chiapas.
And that year, my father had been sent to South Africa as an international observer, with an NGO, of the first democratic elections in South Africa. So he was in South Africa a lot. And my mom decided—or, she started getting very deeply involved with the Zapatista uprising. And so, there was a moment in which my father, on one hand, was asked to open up the first embassy, Mexican Embassy, in South Africa, because there were no diplomatic relations between the two countries while there was apartheid—Mexico had a strong stance against apartheid—and, at the same time, my mother said, “I am not going to do anything that involves this government at all.” And she decided, actually, to join the—
AMY GOODMAN: Because that was the time of the PRI. That was the time—
VALERIA LUISELLI: That was the time of the PRI.
AMY GOODMAN: —of the one-party state in Mexico.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Yeah. There was a long time in which that was a one-party state. So, yeah. Just in all our lives, basically. And so, my mom went to Chiapas, my father to South Africa. My mother—
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, it was the time of Andrés Manuel López Obrador beginning to rise.
VALERIA LUISELLI: I think, I mean, not—that I remember, not yet. He was already in the scene, but it was, I think, two elections later that he was candidate. But I may be wrong. I was a kid, so there’s a lot of murkiness there.
AMY GOODMAN: But the Zapatistas were taking over town squares. It was the time of the Zapatista uprising.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Did your mother join the Zapatistas?
VALERIA LUISELLI: Well, she—in her capacity, right? She’s an urban woman who is not an indigenous chiapaneca, so she could not be a Zapatista. She, like many other people that felt that this was the time where really Mexico could undergo a deeper change, and that its indigenous communities could finally have the life and the situation and the political organizations that they had been seeking, and people joined to help. So my mom worked in a collective of women, led by another woman called Ofelia Medina, and they moved to a place called La Realidad—it’s called The Reality, that’s what the town is called—as this collective to basically work with women and their children in many different areas. But they were a collective basically supporting the Zapatista women in the uprising.
AMY GOODMAN: And where were you?
VALERIA LUISELLI: I was in South Africa. I was in South Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you working on next? Will you travel around the country with this book?
VALERIA LUISELLI: Yeah, I have a very—I have like—the tour looks like a Rolling Stones tour, except without the glamor and the parties. I’m going to many, many cities in the U.S. and traveling with this novel, and then, later, in Europe. And I’m not—I’m making notes for the next thing. I’m not in a hurry. I’ve been researching and writing a lot about mass incarceration and mass immigration detention. I work now in a detention center for children, teaching creative writing to a group of teenage girls.
AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York?
VALERIA LUISELLI: Here in New York, yeah. There’s detention centers everywhere, and we don’t know about it.
AMY GOODMAN: When we were covering what was happening at the border, that was the time that the first children were being brought up, or it was publicly known that the children were being brought in New York to various detention centers.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Exactly, exactly. And the numbers are—I mean, back in the Obama era, one must say this, too, there were around 2,000, 2,500—I don’t know the exact number—who were detained in longer-term shelters run by ORR. They’re still detention spaces, just a little bit more humane than the ones that are overseen by ICE. But right now, it’s closer to 13,000 children in these detention centers. And the girls that I work with have often been in that space for more than eight months. And—
AMY GOODMAN: How old are they?
VALERIA LUISELLI: The ones that I work with are between 13 and 16.
AMY GOODMAN: And they’re alone?
VALERIA LUISELLI: They’re alone. Sometimes, if they have siblings, their sibling is allowed to be in the same—they’re in different cottages. Sometimes their younger siblings are allowed to be in there with them, so that they’re not separated from their siblings. But a lot of them go from one facility to the next. So—
AMY GOODMAN: And where are their parents?
VALERIA LUISELLI: I don’t know. I don’t know. I also cannot ask too many questions in there. And I don’t ask them anything about their immigration story, because if they say anything within my workshop or write anything within the workshop that contradicts—even if it’s a fiction workshop, when I’m teaching them—what they said at the border, that would, of course, be in their detriment.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for spending this time.
VALERIA LUISELLI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Valeria Luiselli is an award-winning writer. Her latest book, Lost Children Archive, is fiction. Her previous books include Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Faces in the Crowd, Sidewalks and The Story of My Teeth. This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.