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This month, Lily Lit Club is reading “Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli.
Throughout the novel, Luiselli blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. At the beginning of the book, the reader is introduced to a nameless family of four as they begin a cross-country road trip from New York City to the borderlands of southeast Arizona — a road trip similar to one Luiselli and her family took in 2014 while awaiting her green card.
While the family is in the car listening to the radio, they hear news of an “immigration crisis” at the southern border of the United States; children are being detained or lost along the journey. Meanwhile, their own family unit is seemingly collapsing.
The Lily spoke with Luiselli about how current immigration politics influenced her work, what intergenerational storytelling looks like, and why she chose to leave the characters nameless.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: Before “Lost Children Archive,” you released an essay called “Tell Me How It Ends,” which is based on your experiences working as an interpreter for Central American child migrants crossing the U.S. border. How did that inform “Lost Children Archive”?
Valeria Luiselli: I’m not a writer who can vacuum-pack herself from reality and write a disconnected fiction. Even in my wildest fiction books, everything I write is informed by not only a deep contact with the immediate present but also has a political approach to it.
With “Lost Children Archive,” it was a bit different because it took me by surprise, in a sense. I was writing a novel back in 2014 about growing up in South Africa — I grew up in post-apartheid South Africa — and I was trying to write a novel about childhood in South Africa in the ’90s. But I couldn’t go to South Africa because I was waiting for the reply on my application for a green card, so my family and I had to stay in the U.S. for a period without leaving; you can’t leave the U.S. when you’ve just applied for a green card. So, we ended up taking a road trip in the U.S. and I ended up writing about childhood in the U.S. I just started taking notes because the then [so]-called American immigration crisis had started — or, really, had reached a peak that made it come into public attention and be called a crisis.
I had written my undergraduate dissertation about immigration years back but I did not know about the situation on the border in 2014 until it became widely known. So I started following every bit of news that I could. And then when I returned to New York after the summer, I became involved as a volunteer in an immigration court, translating children’s testimony so that nongovernmental organizations could hopefully find lawyers to represent them.
TL: The main narrator, Ma, is angry about the so-called crisis. At one point, she sees the children being deported by plane, and she’s unable to control her anger in that moment — yelling and kicking. Are you angry, too?
VL: Well, of course I’m angry. But I don’t live in anger. I just don’t think that anger is a possible or sustainable way of being in the world. I try to mitigate anger through specific forms of action.
But yes, of course it’s not only angering, it’s worrying. And it’s worrying that a government can disrespect basic human rights and treat people so inhumanely and not be held accountable for it.
TL: You tell the story of migrant children through Ma and Pa’s children, who are growing up in the United States. Why do you think the children were a good lens through which to tell this story?
VL: With that, it’s a novel about the intergenerational mechanisms of storytelling and how a view of the world is articulated and passed on to the next generation. But then also how that generation re-articulates it and also sort of hands it back. It’s a kind of circular process of conversation — in this case, a circular process of a story-making. It starts off being a novel of the parents and ended being a novel of the children in the sense that it’s the natural generational movement of storytelling.
TL: The narration was handed over to the boy for part of the book. Why did you choose to hand it off to him rather than Pa or the girl, for example?
VL: I thought a lot about what the dialogue was and who it was going to be between in this intergenerational storytelling. Definitely not the husband. Partly because yes, maybe husbands have talked enough. And also just because that wouldn’t have illustrated what I was thinking about, right? Which was the handing down to another generation. I tried and I thought about writing in the voice of the girl, but it’s frankly almost impossible to sustain a narrative in the voice of a 5-year-old. I mean, it’s definitely fascinating to hear a 5-year-old composing the world, the language, but I don’t think it’s something that would’ve worked. With the boy, a 10-year-old is already kind of pretending to belong to the adult world — trying, imitating — but is also still definitely a child. And I thought it was an interesting gray area between one and the other to explore.
TL: One of the themes throughout the novel is documentation. Pa considers himself a documentarian, while Ma considers herself a documentarist, and the boy eventually talks about how he wants to be both. Is that something you think about a lot? What it means to document something as an artist and writer?
VL: Definitely. That’s something I think about kind of all the time actually. It’s also like a self-questioning of this novel, right? As a fiction writer, I feel a duty to understand what kind of role a particular work of fiction is playing or how it’s engaging in conversation with its time, with other literature, with general political discourse, with what other writers have written about similar subjects. A book is part of a larger conversation. So, I’m always interested in the question of how it engages with that conversation.
And I’m also fundamentally interested in shortening the distance between process and final results in such a way that the process can be kind of palpable in the final result.
TL: The main characters in the novel are nameless; they’re called Ma, Pa, the boy and the girl. Why did you choose to leave them that way?
VL: I don’t like to over-determine my characters. I like to think of them more as vessels through which the reader can see the world. ... And I think that certain narrative conventions, such as naming a character and giving very precise descriptions of their features like eye color, hair color, etc., are ways that writers fix an idea in the reader’s mind of a character. And in this novel — in sort of the politics of this novel and identity reflections in this novel — doing so would have immediately situated my characters in a kind of narrow place had I named them, had I described the color of their hair and eyes, in the first few pages.
I remember sending out the draft to the first readers of it and many of the readers — or at least a few — of course made the assumption that the family that was traveling were all Mexican, because I’m Mexican. So the family must all be Mexican, right? And it’s not the case actually. There’s a more complex or plural identity composition in the family — one that I don’t spell out because I feel that, as readers, it’s just a more interesting experience to have to negotiate with our own assumptions and then work on them.
TL: What’s next for you?