In her latest book, the brief and gut-punching Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli writes: "Telling stories doesn't solve anything, doesn't reassemble broken lives. But perhaps it is a way of understanding the unthinkable. If a story haunts us, we keep telling it to ourselves, replaying it in silence while we shower, while we walk alone down streets, or in our moments of insomnia." The story that Luiselli obsesses over is that of the first boy for whom she served as an interpreter.
Manu is a 16-year-old boy who escaped gang violence in Honduras, after his school friend was shot dead in front of him. (Luiselli changed his name for the purposes of her book.) He went through an unspeakably arduous journey through Guatemala; then through Mexico on board of La Bestia ("The Beast" in Spanish), a freight train that unaccompanied refugee kids like him risk their lives on to make it to the border; then in "the icebox," a freezing cold temporary holding building where those picked up by border patrol wait until they are lucky enough to be reunited with family in the States.
Then starts another ordeal: immigration court. It is in one such court in New York City that Luiselli started volunteering as an interpreter from 2015. Her only task was to ask 40 questions to the kids, in Spanish, and translating their answers into English for prospective lawyers who then decided whether to take on their cases. She remembers two Guatemalan girls, aged five and seven, who were not able to answer the questions. At best, they shrugged.
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In the warped world of these courts, the more fucked-up the answer (like if the kid says they've been abused), the better their chances of getting a pro-bono lawyer who will help them win asylum status or a visa. If not, they face immediate deportation. The interpreter can't lead the children "to tell us what is best for their cases," she writes. "I find myself not knowing where translation ends and interpretation starts."
Luiselli didn't plan to write this book, which is unequivocally a political essay. As opposed to her two novels and her previous collection of essays, Sidewalks, it didn't come out of "experiences that were pre-written in my mind," she says. Instead, she channels what others have told her, and interprets the silences in between. The title refers to a question her own daughter asks her, following up on "the stories she half-hears."
"I don't know," Luiselli tells her in the book. Instead, she distills the unimaginable horror that refugee children go through; the violence that makes them flee their countries; the hypocrisy on all sides; and the ways language can become a dehumanizing weapon.
Language is never neutral. Luiselli analyses both everyday language and how the media—including those she describes as "probably well-intentioned journalists" in the New York Times—uses and reproduces terms like "alien" or "illegal" or "removal," perpetuating a system that is oppressive.
"That's the only thing you can do as a writer, right?" she says. "As a civilian, you can go to protests, as a teacher you can induce critical thinking in your students, and as a writer your territory is language." She made it her purpose for this book: "I don't think I've always written with a sense of duty, such a clear aim. Which probably a good thing for my fiction, because fiction with an aim is pamphlet."
Luiselli was born in Mexico City and spent a lot of her childhood in South Africa, and has lived all over the world. She's been in New York for the last decade. She is a highly erudite literary writer, and probably smarter than all of us—her novels, Faces in the Crowd and especially the experimental The Story of My Teeth, can be intimidating but are especially rewarding for a reader. She is always witty and, in person, candid and warm, despite being on a non-stop express day of interviews in London. We conduct the interview in Spanglish, which seems appropriate given the subject matter.
"I read a piece just today in the New York Times," she tells me, "where this reporter refers to the undocumented population as 'illegal immigrants.' And says that parents send [the Central American kids who arrive undocumented] illegally to the US. This reporter hasn't done this job at revising his own language, and not even the facts, because these children are not sent illegally, they have a legal right to asylum according to international laws."
The stories in the book actually happened pre-Donald Trump, including changes in the law that mean kids now have less than a month to find legal assistance—meaning lawyers, and especially those willing to work pro-bono, are desperately needed. "I do see a movement of people who had been kind of at ease—and asleep maybe—during the Obama years, where atrocities took place anyway, but where nobody seemed to think they were so atrocious," she says.
"The Democrats are so complicit. I mean, in terms of immigration, they're no better. It was during the Clinton years that the wall between Mexico and the US started to be built [a bit less than half the extension of the border already has a wall]. I mean, they have been conflicted about many things, like the NSA… In the hands of a lunatic, like Trump, what Obama made kind of normal, and what he allowed, is now very [dangerous]. I hope Obama can't sleep at night."
Now, of course, it's even worse. Soon, these kids might not even be eligible for asylum status. In the coda of her book, Luiselli offers some reflections on the US election and early 2017. The main essay was pre-Trump, but the book includes a final section written in 2017 – when "many of us are falling apart, and so, it seems, is anything good." Writing is, she says, "a combination of anger and clarity," and Tell Me How It Ends does strike the perfect balance between the two—as a reader, you feel challenged and encouraged to act.
Manu, whose case is still open, is living in Hempstead, Long Island, with his aunt, only to find that the town is "a shithole full of pandilleros ("gangsters"), just like Tegucigalpa [in Honduras]," she writes in his words—the exact same gangs that haunted him back home are doing it here.
Tell Me How It Ends distills the hypocrisy of all actors involved in this disgrace. Of the US, the country that consumes the drugs and provides of the weapons sold or smuggled south; of Mexico, where the kids suffer unspeakable human rights abuses, and whose government "is getting paid to do the dirty work," she writes. She proposes the term "hemispheric war" to describe a situation in which all of North America is responsible for these kids' fates, and as such should be equally involved in giving them a dignified future.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is out now in the UK and the US.