Valeria Luiselli shivers and folds her birdlike frame more tightly into a black, woollen poncho when I ask her to describe the refugee children she met while volunteering as a translator in the detention centres on the US-Mexico border in 2015. Her experience there haunts Lost Children Archive, the 35-year-old’s astonishing new novel, the first she has written in English.
I suppose I’m hoping for the rising star of Latin American literature to enrage me with tales of detached and brutalised teenagers, gangs, drugs, rape, exposure, starvation, arrest, missing parents, dead siblings and the heavy hands of the border patrol guards. I should have known better. Although Luiselli’s last two books were driven “not by inspiration but anger” over the immigration crisis, she is not a sensational or sentimental writer. She narrows her eyes and keeps her answer spare.
“The youngest were two girls: five and seven years old,” she says. “Spanish was their second language. They could only answer my questions with ‘yes’ and ‘no’. They had no story. That means they probably had no case. And I do not know what happened to them.”
The absence of those girls is at the heart of Lost Children Archive, which tells the story of two documentary makers on a road trip with their kids through America to the Mexican border as their marriage breaks down. It’s the novel I’m telling all my friends to read this year, asking them to stick with the subtle build of the first half, because the second will take the top of your skull off.
The characters and ideas are given so much space to breathe that it feels incredible that Luiselli could have written it in a political atmosphere of such urgency. In fact, she was forced to break off from it, and let off steam with a more direct, nonfiction analysis of the border crisis in Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017). Hailed as “The first must-read book of the Trump era” by The Texas Observer, it found the poetic Luiselli tapping out hard stats for the first time.
“Eighty per cent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the US border are raped on the way,” she told us. And: “Before the immigration crisis was declared in the summer of 2014, minors seeking immigration relief were given approximately 12 months to find a lawyer to represent their case before their first court hearing. But when the crisis was declared and Obama’s administration created the priority juvenile docket, that window was reduced to 21 days.”
That was where Luiselli came in. She was taking a road trip across America with her then-husband, the Mexican novelist Alvaro Enrigue, her daughter and his son, while applying for her green card, when her own immigration lawyer began working for a non-profit organisation helping children at the border.
“Not many lawyers speak Spanish in the US,” she tells me today. “It’s a big problem. And suddenly they needed to process these children so quickly. There was a sense of emergency and people like me came in to patch up the holes.”
Lost Children Archive is a novel full of such holes. The arid gaps in what the parents say are filled in by the fertile imaginations of the two children — aged 10 and five — in the back of the car: listening, and not listening. The story unfolds in the spaces between the towns of Arizona, where “ghost maps” record the sites at which the skeletons of refugee children are found — their names, stories and causes of death often a mystery.
“Numbers and maps tell horror stories,” Luiselli has written, “but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken.”
The theme of blanks runs through Luiselli’s work. In her breakthrough novel, translated by Christina MacSweeney in 2014 as Faces in the Crowd, she wrote: “I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn.” Her delightfully experimental 2015 book The Story of My Teeth is about an auctioneer who restocks his mouth with Marilyn Monroe’s dental remains.
In Tell Me How it Ends, redactions are no longer a philosophical game, but something that has happened to our hopes for the future. “Something changed in the world,” she writes. “Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it. We don’t know how to explain it yet, but I think we all can feel it, somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently. No one has quite been able to capture what is happening or say why. Perhaps it’s just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable. And without future, time feels like only an accumulation.”
In Lost Children Archive, time slips into a highway blur. The family refuses to use a satnav, so they are often lost. Driving through Oklahoma “is like falling asleep and sinking into deeper, stranger layers of someone’s troubled subconscious”. Meeting strangers, the couple begin to lie about their ethnicity. They pretend they’re making a spaghetti Western. The kids play David Bowie’s Space Oddity on repeat as their existence becomes increasingly weightless.
The novel plays with the literary tradition of the journey, laughing at Kerouac’s “pissing” all over the map while harnessing darker ideas of a descent. “I spent a lot of time thinking about Book 11 of the Odyssey,” says Luiselli, “where Odysseus journeys down to the underworld to speak to his ancestors and get an idea of what the [expletive] he should do with his life.”
She made the husband and wife into “sound documentarians”, which forced them, she tells me, “to be alert in a way that I usually am not. To have a patience I do not. You cannot rush through a recording as you would through a text, you have to sit with it. It forced me to listen more carefully, and perhaps that came because I had been listening to testimonies for a long time. And I thought of the children listening to them, I mean, we all sit through school learning to listen. But because of that, we also learn how to stop listening.”
Luiselli’s early life was peripatetic. She was born in Mexico City, but her father’s diplomatic career took the family to South Korea when she was five, and then to South Africa. All her schooling was in English, which was the first language she learnt to read and write, although the family spoke Spanish at home.
“The chapters of my childhood seem very disconnected. It’s weird,” she tells me over coffee in a London bookshop. “I was a wild child — with occasional quiet moments of retreating and observing.” She now lives in “a matriarchal household” in Harlem, with her mother and daughter.
“My mother [...] came from a family in which the women were very socially and politically engaged. Despite having nine children, her mother was a strong, fierce, tremendous person. She worked for her community at the weekends, putting up a school and involving herself in agricultural projects. [She] was an indigenous woman who reconnected with her indigenous roots.”
The damage still being caused by Mexico’s colonial past was brought to international attention last year by Alfonso Cuaron’s film Roma, which tells the story of an indigenous maid and the wealthy family she serves. Luiselli extracts an e-cigarette from the folds of her poncho and takes an e-drag, then explains: “Mexico is a deeply racist and self-loathing society. Especially when it comes to the indigenous communities. [...] I’ve learnt national identities are irrelevant, unless you’re watching soccer. I mean, I become a hooligan, I go crazy watching Mexico play soccer. But I don’t wake up feeling Mexican. So I root my identity more in language than geographic borders which are obsolete.”
I think of Faces in the Crowd, where Luiselli wrote: “as Spanish speakers, our close ties with Latin and Greek gave us a sense of superiority: we were the heirs to a noble linguistic past. English, in contrast, was the barbaric bastard son of Latin, constantly gloating over its discoveries.” But today, she tells me she dislikes the idea that languages separate human experience. “Languages can give you specificities, but they are almost always translatable. There is a kind of fiction around the untranslatability of languages. People say: ‘Oh, the Inuits have 50 words for snow, look how differently they see the world!’ But it’s all translatable. Wet snow, dirty snow... We don’t look at the world so differently, and that’s a good thing, I think.”
While Luiselli is wary of her novel — about being human, about how we use words and document history — “being labelled a political book”, she is also glad it is drawing attention to a problem “which is so much worse than when I wrote it”.
“The Trump administration has discovered how lucrative it is to incarcerate children,” she tells me. “Under the Obama administration — which wasn’t great — there were about 2,000 children held in detention and the turnaround was within two weeks or so. Now there are nearly 14,000 children in the shelters because the private prison system in the US is learning how to make money out of them. They make more for detaining children, so they hold on to them and it comes out of taxpayers’ money (although they don’t realise it). Many of the girls at the detention centre where I teach creative writing express that they would rather be deported than remain locked up. The danger they have fled from dissipates. They become the victims of institutional violence — they just want their freedom.”
As we finish our coffee, Luiselli admits to the guilt she feels over sculpting the shapeless and unknowable experience of others into novel form. It’s a debate that vibrates between the couple in her novel. And hums on through our interview.
“You could just write what we said, as it is,” she tells me.
But then it will ramble, I laugh, and my editors will be cross.
She fixes me with the inky gaze of the literary border guard, until I admit: “But yeah, if I give it shape, it will be a kind of lie.”
“Exactly,” she says. “Good luck.”
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019