Valeria Luiselli is an award-winning Mexican author who, at 35 years old, has already experienced more of the modern world than most of us will cram into a lifetime. Luiselli has lived on four continents, and has worked as a teacher, a librettist, and as an interpreter.
It is the last of these roles, volunteering for young Central American migrants seeking legal status in the United States, that led Luiselli to write the critically acclaimed Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, in 2017. Her experiences on the US-Mexico border continue to influence Luiselli’s work, and in February this year she published Lost Children Archive, which brings the border crisis to light through a reimagining of the American road novel.
In March we welcomed Valeria Luiselli to Southbank Centre to present and discuss her novel in person, but ahead of her appearance we spoke to the author about the inspiration and the development of Lost Children Archive.
Was there a particular event or idea that proved the genesis for Lost Children Archive?
Yes, there was something very concrete. It was the 2014 crisis at the US-Mexico border, when there was a surge of arrivals of unaccompanied children, who were fleeing Central America and coming to the US to seek asylum. Tens of thousands of children were arriving, after fleeing unspeakable horrors, after crossing the hell that Mexico offers them, and were being locked up in detention centres, and receiving deportation orders.
I wanted to explore how humanitarian crises of that nature and those dimensions might touch and transform the psyche of people whose lives appear to be distant in circumstance from those suffering it directly – but who also realise that their private world is not at all disconnected from the public world they are witnessing. That, in fact, the line that divides passive witnessing from active participation is only a matter of choice. And, moreover, that witnessing does not have to be a passive consumption of headlines and ‘feeds’, but can become an active form of participation – through documenting and storytelling, for example.
How do you begin distilling such a broad topic into a novel?
When I began writing the novel, I was spurred on by a single question – which of course later branched into many other questions. That initial question was about the place of storytelling across generations, about how fathers and mothers tell their children stories, and how children learn to piece the world together that way, and how they, eventually, will retell the story to their elders and also, eventually, to their own children, casting a different light on them.
In a larger plane, perhaps, the question is not so much about storytelling between parents and their children, but about the way that we read and write history, and the extent to which we are able to perform the difficult, almost impossible, but always indispensable art of reckoning.
Did you always know you were going to tell this family’s narrative through the voices of the mother and the son?
No, I never know what is going to happen when I start writing a book. There is never a plot, or pre-figured characters, or a form. Definitely never a teaching or a moral of the story. There isn’t even a theme. There’s never anything, really. I didn’t even know, in this case, whether the novel had to be written in Spanish or in English.
The only thing I have when I begin a new project is a bundle of questions I want to explore, and a force that some people call inspiration, but that I prefer to call intuition. This drives me forward and sits me down every day, for many hours, in front of my notebooks or my computer.
At what point in the writing process did you decide to embed a combination of collected texts and images into the novel, and how do these elements become integral to the telling of the story?
This novel is, among other things, a kind of essay on documenting. That is, on what we document, on how we document it, and on how documenting changes the way we see, the way we listen, and the way we feel the world around us.
There were many types of documents that needed to be collected before the documentary process of this novel. Collecting those early documents did not amount to research, but it fixed together a kind of scaffolding that enabled a first entry into – or contact – with the process and its matter. Collecting didn't imply or necessarily lead to a thorough study of the collected documents, but it allowed a materialisation of early intuitions – some of which were followed, some of which were abandoned; all of which led nowhere in particular, nowhere certain, but which eventually led somewhere.
Collecting documents was similar to digging holes in the ground, hoping to find significant traces, evidence, remains of something that would later on be studied, pondered, and embraced. Collecting was a form of fruitful procrastination, of inactivity pregnant with possibility.
Ultimately, the collected texts and images in the novel are simply part of my own process of documentation as I was writing it – and the novel exposes them, just like an archive exposes the documents that integrate it.
This is a novel that is its own archive. I think of it as a box that someone has left out on a kerbside, a box full of pieces and traces of their life – a life they no longer have, but that someone might be able re-piece together as they explore its components.
Woven throughout the novel are a number of elegies, what prompted their inclusion in the text?
I started writing the elegies in the early morning of New Year’s Day, in 2016, in the Mexican Pacific coast. For more than a year I had been trying to find a tone and a viewpoint that could do justice to the story of the children who migrate to the US, alone and undocumented, in search of safety. Nothing was working. During the last days of 2015, I had been reading a book called The Gates of Paradise, by the Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, about the Children’s Crusade in the 13th century. It was thanks to that book, and perhaps thanks to the particular rhythm and brutal intensity of the waves of Mexican Pacific that that first morning of the year 2016 – which would later reveal itself to us as a year of sharp turns and terrifying changes around the world, especially but not exclusively in what concerns migration – I was able to take a deep breath and take a step back from the immediacy of the story I wanted to tell, and think of it in wider historical and geographic terms.
I had found the exact narrative distance. I began writing the elegies, then, in the third person, in English and not Spanish, without giving names to the seven children, without aspiring to impersonate their voices or appropriate their stories. And as soon as I wrote the first few lines, I knew: this is it, this is the heart that has been palpitating, invisibly but powerfully, irrigating every sentence I wrote until now; this is the reason why I needed to write this novel.
In addition to the images you’ve included in the book, the concept of sound surfaces a lot—sound, and even echoes. Why did you want to explore this?
I think sound – in a world increasingly flooded by instant images of everything – has become the most powerful means of documentation. Did you listen to the sound footage this past summer of children being separated from their parents at the border? If so – that is exactly what I mean.
A lot of your work – both fiction and nonfiction – humanizes topics like migration and displacement, and you’ve also dedicated a lot of your time to helping refugee children. What is it like to write fiction about such a timely and pressing issue, especially one that you are personally connected to?
For those of us who have the privilege of not having been born into war, into poverty, into abandonment and systemic abuse, there might have been a time when crises like the one I explore in the novel seemed to belong only in the public realm, and only tangentially touch our private sphere.
But something changed, not too long ago. The line that divided the public and the private has blurred completely –in many ways for the better– and we can no longer live on, pretending that this world, here, now, is something that exists ‘outside’ of us, pretending that we are not the ones who are responsible for it. I write from the space of that blurred line.
Valeria Luiselli joined us at Southbank Centre to read from and discuss her novel Lost Children Archive in Purcell Room on Tuesday 19 March.
The venue for London Literature Festival and Poetry International, Southbank Centre is the home of literature and spoken word events in the UK. Throughout the year we host talks, discussions, readings and more featuring bestselling authors, award-winning poets and inspirational writers.