Photo credit: Diego Berruecos
One way I've been describing Valeria Luiselli's Lost Children Archive
is that it reads like a classic — as though, even now, you can tell that this is a novel that will be pored over and taught, and will carry its gravity, grace, and intelligence into the future. It’s also immensely compelling, and the second half is so page-turning I raced through it, desperate to find out what happened. The story of this family — two parents in the process of separating, and their children from earlier relationships — who cross America, trying to make art, create archives, and confront and absorb the larger stories of refugee children and the lost voices of our shared past, is both revelatory and intimate. In a starred review, Kirkus
described it as "On the Road
rewritten by Maggie Nelson
," and James Wood in the New Yorker
raves, "Engrossing…brilliantly intricate and constantly surprising — a passionately engaged book [with] intellectual amplitude and moral seriousness, [and] a beautiful, loving portrait of children and of the task of looking after them." Lost Children Archive
is an extraordinary achievement. We thrilled to present it as Volume 79 of Indiespensable
What was the genesis of Lost Children Archive
, and what do you see as the relationship between this book and Tell Me How It Ends
The two books are actually very closely related. Just in terms of time, I wrote Tell Me How It Ends
kind of halfway through Lost Children Archive
. I started writing Lost Children Archive
in the summer of 2014.
When I say I started writing it, I mean I started taking notes for it. I had the seeds of the idea for the first time in the summer of 2014. But somewhere toward the end of 2015, after I had gotten more deeply involved with the refugee children, with the refugee crisis, and with translating children's stories in court, I decided to stop writing the novel — that was maybe around November of 2015 — and write this essay that became the book Tell Me How It Ends
. I decided to do that for many different reasons, but the reason that concerns the novel or the relationship to the novel the most is that I had started to try to use the novel as a kind of vessel for my political rage and as a kind of political tool to speak about what was going on in the courts and in the borderland.
That was not doing any justice to the novel. It was kind of stuffing it. It was making it feel like a stuffy space to be in. It wasn't doing any justice to the situation either, because I was trying to thread things into a narrative that was already established.
I decided to stop writing the novel for a while and just let it breathe. I decided to focus on an essay that was straight to the point and matter-of-fact, and that dealt directly with the political situation that we were seeing, or maybe not seeing enough, right? I did that, and I was able to save the novel from what was going on with it, but also devote the space and the time that was necessary to speak about the refugee crisis.
I don't know if I've already answered the first question somehow, but the seed of the novel was the crisis at the border, which did not begin five minutes ago. It's something that has been going on for years and that during the Obama administration was definitely in a very serious moment.
So the genesis of the novel was the refugee crisis, as well, but the question that was lingering in my head at that moment was not only related to the children and the border but to childhood in general. How do children in this country make sense of the narrative both current and past? How do they put them together in their heads and make sense of the world that they're going to walk into?
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I so love the characters of both children. Max Porter, in a blurb, said that this was "one of the most brilliant portrayals of child-parent relationships I have ever read. Luiselli floods extraordinary light onto childhood, parenthood" and I completely agree. How did you think about writing and describing the children, both through the mother's eyes and then when writing in the son's voice?
I guess that is just my job. [Laughter
] To be able to be in the... I don't know how to do anything else, anything. I don't even know how to cook properly. It is my job to try to imagine how — not children as a generic, empty archetype — but how a particular child that I am constructing as a character would react to, imagine, feel, think, and act given a particular circumstance.
When I say it's my job, I take that seriously to an obsessive degree, where if I'm working on a scene, I might be working on a scene for months and just asking myself persistently what would they do now, and what would they think, and what would they say. That's just the very basic part of the writer's job, a fiction writer's job. It's not even empathy. It's really inhabiting another person.
Also, to be very honest, I had a lot of help from children when writing this particular novel. I would literally interview the children in my family about the way they would react to certain circumstances, like: What would you do if you were lost? What would you be most scared of? What would make you feel some comfort? If you ran away, what's the first thing you would do?
I conducted very serious interviews in my family, with nieces, nephews, my children.
Sometimes I would read out loud to kids in my family the parts about the kids only or narrated by the boy. And I would get a lot of backlash sometimes. [Laughter
] Like, "No, Mama. That wouldn't happen at all." Or my nephew would give me important instructions on how one might eat a prickly pear in the desert.
Not only that, but then I had also been talking to children in court for a very long time. I had been translating their immigration stories, interviewing them in order to find lawyers that would defend them from deportation. Now, after that, I've been teaching a creative writing workshop in a children's immigration detention space.
So I've been surrounded by children's imaginations and stories for a very long time in a very deep way, but these particular kinds of stories, as well.
How did you think about voice in Lost Children Archive
? There are the two very distinct voices of the mother and the son; and then of course there are all the lost voices she's trying to hear and archive; and the voice of the fictional book Elegies for Lost Children
, which you describe as being comprised of a series of allusions to other works about voyages, journeying, migrating, etc. Then there are all of the lost voices that both parents are trying to hear, and archive, and respect.
I thought a lot about voice. It's one of the questions that you're always asking yourself as a fiction writer, because it's what you have. I started writing in the voice of the mother, but I knew from early on that I needed to bring in the voice of at least one of the kids. Because, as I told you, one of the very initial intuitions, or one of the questions that I was asking myself from the very beginning, was how do children here make sense of all these narratives. It wouldn't have made sense to not bring in the actual perspective of a child.
I'm not talking about verse and meter, but about an interior respiration.
In the first part of the novel, where the mother is narrating, she's looking at the children — at first looking at her marriage, and at herself, and at this world around her — but the children are always… even though they're behind her physically, because they're in the backseat of the car most of the time, she's always trying to imagine the world through them.
Then at some point, of course, I needed to bring in a kid. And I thought of bringing in the little girl. I kind of liked the idea of two women speaking, one very young, one in her mid-30s, but then it's very hard, I think, to write from the point of view of such a small child without it being cutesy. So I decided against that after trying it out.
The boy was just at the right age in terms of allowing me an entry into a voice and an imagination. He's a very smart boy, and well-read and sophisticated, but he sometimes uses words completely out of context and in many ways is still small. And because the brother is also addressing his younger sister, his voice is directed. It's almost epistolary in its nature. It's got that closeness and that warmth because he's telling his sister a story.
Then there was a third concern of how to bring in the narrative of the children migrating alone. I struggled a lot with that.
I remember perfectly: It was January 1, 2016, and I had been reading a book by Jerzy Andrzejewski
called The Gates of Paradise
. I was in Mexico. I started writing in this third-person voice that was very distinct from the voices already existent in the novel. It was kind of "far away, so close." It wasn't a testimonial narrative. It was very much like a literary third person.
And it was that remove that allowed me... First of all, writing it in English and not Spanish (which is the language in which I speak to kids in detention centers or at court) allowed me, I guess, to feel that I could write about all these things that I've been talking about with kids. Then, once that third-person voice existed, I of course asked myself for a long, long time what its relationship would be to the other voices; would it just be a third voice that kind of hovered and lingered above the text? And slowly, I brought it as close to the text as it could get, which made it an object in the hands of the characters, who were then reading this and yet somehow also inhabiting it.
There's this double leap into the imagination, or, I guess, into the gaze of the narrator. That's how I decided to bring it close to the text. It took me a while to figure that out. [Laughter
] But once I did, it was very easy to thread.
I think that's one thing in novels. When you make decisions like that, that are big and are going to change many things in the book, if they work well, then you have to stick to it and grow. And that's usually the right decision. If you have to make too many little plot changes and little tightening screws here and there and are destroying parts, then maybe it's the wrong idea.
Are Tell Me How It Ends
and Lost Children Archive
the first books you've written in English?
Yes and no. I lived in Korea. I moved to Korea when I was five. I learned how to read and write there in an American school, so I've been reading and writing in English all my life, in fact, before I started reading and writing in Spanish. And all my life I went to schools that were either British or American, because after Korea, I lived in South Africa, and after South Africa, in India. Then I did my PhD here in the U.S.
I wrote my PhD thesis, which I guess is a book, which is not published and I don't even want to look at now [laughter
], also in English. So this is not exactly my first work in English, but it's the first time that I decided to write fully in English.
I always take notes in both languages, for all my books, because I inhabit both languages, and I think in both languages, and I dream in both languages. There's always a point at which I decide to write in one or the other. Up until now, for different reasons, it has been Spanish. Now, after a year of note-taking in both languages with Lost Children Archive
, it became very clear to me that English was the right vessel.
How do you think about your work in general on a sentence level? There are so many gorgeous sentences throughout the book that it was very hard for me to pick just one as an example.
I craft very slowly. I pay a lot of attention to rhythm. I'm interested, of course, in the architecture of each sentence. But I think more in terms of small pieces or fragments, and the way that fragments open and close and have an interior rhyme scheme.
I'm not talking about verse and meter, but about an interior respiration. The sentences lead up to that. I'm interested in the connection between sentences and the architecture that can be built from there. That's a very vague answer, but it's a difficult question.
Yes. The level of detail is at times extraordinary. This maybe goes back to what you were saying earlier about inhabiting each character and inhabiting the children: you describe what the children packed as "the most unlikely combinations of things" and "portable Duchampian disasters: miniature clothes tailored for a family of miniature bears, a broken light saber, a lone Rollerblade wheel, ziplock bags full of tiny plastic everything." Are you actually picturing all this, in your mind's eye? Is this related to the larger themes of memory and archive?
Definitely. I mean, definitely it's a book about what we keep and what we store and how we relate to the world through our compulsion sometimes towards collecting.
But yes, of course, I picture those things. I think that if I don't perfectly see what I'm writing, in my mind's eye, it doesn't have any intensity. It doesn't vibrate the same way. Just like when you're reading, if you're not imagining, if you're just going through the words and not imagining exactly what they are creating, the images that they put together, you detach yourself from the text. You stop paying attention; you get lost; you don't experience it.
It's the same with writing. It's exactly the same process, just slower.
There's a sadness…that comes with the archive, which is that you know that you won't necessarily reach any kind of truth.
Why did you want the parents to be a documentarian and documentarist? What was important about that distinction and about including both of those lenses?
Yes, that's a really good question. I'm glad you asked it, because it was a huge obsession for me that I then had to defend to a lot of people. [Laughter
] Because early readers, friends, editors, they were just... I don't know. If you're not obsessed with the questions of documentation, around documenting and archiving, it might seem like a distinction that is not important. But I think that it's completely crucial to understanding the novel.
It has to do with the form the narration takes… like an ethics or aesthetics of storytelling. It was important for me that the woman had this conflict that arose from observing her husband engage in documentation, that she both criticizes and admires the kind of freedom he has in his way of composing stories.
He has a more atmospheric approach. He walks into a room and holds up a mic and allows things to come. Maybe he is more confident as a storyteller in that sense, as an audio or a sound artist, to record everything and allow that to slowly form a story. She is playing with a much more controlled approach.
And that approach, by the way, is well known to the American radio public, because we're used to the kind of narrative where there's already a tight story line and where sound is something that is threaded into a preexisting narrative arc controlled by the producer.
Do you know what I mean?
Yes, and I think you explain it well throughout the book too. I was interested in why you wanted to include both in the book.
Because a fundamental question for me in this book had to do with ways of storytelling and of making sense of the world, I meditated a lot on different approaches to building stories. Including both perspectives is one more way to approach that question.
You describe an archive at one point as "a kind of valley in which your thoughts can bounce back to you, transformed." Which brings us back to echoes.
Why is creating an archive in this work — sort of the idea of an archive, plus the actual photographs and sounds at the end — so important? And what attracts you to "documented labyrinths," as you also describe archives in the book?
I've done a lot of work in libraries. I've enjoyed working with archives, old newspapers and magazines and photos and letters. An archive really is our only material connection to the past. There's a lot in an archive that I just find very beautiful and mysterious. In the sense that you're touching something that hands long ago produced and eyes long ago gazed on.
At the same time, the way we now can compose a narrative from the debris of the past doesn't necessarily bring us closer to that past. It just shows us what we look for in it. There’s a sadness or a resignation that comes with the archive, which is that you know that you won't necessarily reach any kind of truth, but perhaps just receive an echo of what you bring to it.
That's interesting, that relationship with time. There's a section of the novel called "Future Present," when the family is in Tennessee, where you write:
Something changed in the world. 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 guts or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently….Perhaps it's just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable.
I found this idea very captivating. I had never heard anybody describe it that way, or pinpoint it. You also write, "And without future, time feels like only an accumulation," which felt very accurate to me. I thought, Yes, maybe that's part of the problem
I think so. I can't say more about it. I don't understand it either, but I feel like we're in a high-speed train of sorts. And it's difficult to find repose and silence and stand a little bit apart from it. There are moments where we can do it, I think, and I cherish those moments more and more now. But they seem like a really rare exception to the general passing of time right now.
And I don't know if it's just about getting older, if that's how adults felt in the 1940s when they reached their adulthood, or if it really is something deeper and structural that's changing in our brain chemistry, and in the way that we relate to each other, and in our relationship to the world and the way it's mediated by technology.
I don't know what it is, but I certainly have that feeling. I don't know what to do with it except write about it.
A big part of this novel is the dissolution of this marriage and this family, which is occasionally pretty heartbreaking. How did you feel about balancing that story, which is very personal and specific to the characters, with the larger concerns of the refugee crisis, and some of the overarching philosophical questions that the mother is thinking about?
That’s a really good question. I think all of my books talk about divorce somehow. I'm a child of divorce, and it's something deep in me that comes up always, a certain pain that always lingers.
It’s an upside-down road novel.
But, also, I think that what I had in mind while writing had a lot to do with how I saw the political crisis that was building up to what we have today, and how that crisis was affecting private life and family life.
There was a moment where it became very clear to me, and I know to the women around me, because I speak to them constantly about these issues, that the line that divided our political sphere from our private lives had blurred completely. Maybe it was never actually there. Maybe we just became conscious that there is no division, that our private matters are deeply affected by political affairs.
I didn't want to overstate that in the novel. I didn't want to explain that. That felt like the easy way out. But I did want the dissolution of that marriage to be an echo of the political crisis. It's one more echo, bouncing off. Something that comes at a family, bounces off, but shatters it as it bounces off of it.
And then there was another question that was constantly present while I writing about that marriage, which has to do with the privilege of deciding to separate. There's a class concern there as well. At some point, one little girl, one of the sisters who find the boy in this train in the desert, kind of laughs at him when they're speaking and says, "Why would you separate from your family if you have the choice to stay with them?"
The marriage separation is in a different but similar place. In a moment where we're seeing separation brought by a brutal violence that comes from outside, what is the interior violence or the private violence that leads to separation? To a degree, is privilege not acknowledged in the decision to separate in a marriage like that? They're all questions. There are no answers in the novel. No answers in general, I guess.
There’s the bizarre speech the girl gives after they find ants on her underwear — "as though the spirit of some nineteenth-century German hermeneutist had possessed her." And then in the next paragraph you write, "Children's words, in some ways, are the escape route out of family dramas, taking us to their strange but wonderful underworld, safe from our middle-class catastrophes," which sounds like it ties in to what you're talking about.
That first sentence from The Road
, which always comes on in the car when they're turning on the audio book player, is poignant and fitting to the book. Is that something that actually happened to you? How did you come up with that idea, and that specific sentence?
No, that didn't actually happen. But what does happen to me is every time I turn my iPhone on, there's some weird, diabolic iTunes thing that forces me to hear the same song. [Laughter
] I don't know if I have some technological glitch.
But the choice of the sentence was, of course, something I thought about a lot. It’s an homage to a writer that I love, whose sensibility, rhythm, and themes inform this novel, and whose own work was informed by Juan Rulfo
, one of the most important writers in the Spanish tradition in the 20th century.
The way that I think of this book, it's very much written as a typical American road novel, but it’s also a reverse or an upside-down road novel that plays against the foundational myth of the U.S. being invented in this expansion towards the West.
It does so by crossing another narrative, which is the movement upwards from the south, whose presence is often ignored, but is not really ignorable. The road trip, which is kind of a horizontal story, is intersected by this vertical narrative that moves upwards.
In the novel it moves upwards in the form of the train where seven children are traveling. The children's narrative is written very much in the spirit of Latin American journeying, which is very different from the American road trip novel. The idea of the journey and the way that it's been dealt with in the Latin American tradition has a lot to do with descending into a kind of underworld.
Rulfo's novel, Pedro Páramo
, is about a young man who goes back to the hometown where his father came from, and is looking for him, and asks others questions about him. At some point, you understand that everyone in the novel is dead, but not in a Coco
sort of way. It's not festive, happy. But it's a deep reckoning with the Mexican Revolution and the Mexican Cristero War, and the death and violence and the seizing of native lands, and the violence against women in those lands.
It's a journey towards... of course, there's an infernum, like a Dantesque infernum, but also towards a deeper level of historical consciousness that brings awareness of political and historical violence.
That's the idea, as well, in this novel. That journey, the way that the American road trip is cut or sliced or intersects with this other one, is two ways of narrating journeying.
I'm then thinking of the American novel as not a novel of the United States of America, but of our region, of our hemisphere that includes Central America and Mexico, too.
I spoke with Valeria Luiselli on January 16, 2019.
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Africa. An acclaimed writer of both fiction and nonfiction, she is the author of the essay collection Sidewalks
; the novels Faces in the Crowd
and The Story of My Teeth
; and, most recently, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions
. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award and has been twice nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize. She has been a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and the recipient of a Bearing Witness Fellowship from the Art for Justice Fund. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta
, and McSweeney’s
, among other publications, and has been translated into more than 20 languages. She currently lives and teaches in New York.