Valeria Luiselli: America is ‘a country abandoned by its government’

Lost Children Archive writer on foundation myths, child incarceration and a sonic essay

Valeria Luiselli, winner of the 2021 Dublin Literary Award for Lost Children Archive: “It’s a mess, always: Democrats, Republicans. So of course, the Trump years were particularly dark. But this has never ceased to be America.” Photograph: James Higgins

Valeria Luiselli, winner of the 2021 Dublin Literary Award for Lost Children Archive: “It’s a mess, always: Democrats, Republicans. So of course, the Trump years were particularly dark. But this has never ceased to be America.” Photograph: James Higgins

 

It’s a rainy Saturday morning in New York and Valeria Luiselli has left her household – her daughter, niece and visiting mother – sleeping peacefully; only her dog, Lola, is up and about, occasionally scrabbling and truffling at her feet. In this all-woman house, Luiselli laughs, “everyone’s very lazy”, and very calm, too; there is, she says, “no one to make us angry”.

But turn the pages of Lost Children Archive, a stunning exploration of the lives of those on the American borderlands that has won this year’s Dublin Literary Award, and there is enough turbulence and anger to set the world ablaze.

Delighted to have won the prize, she is nonetheless saddened that, having never visited Dublin, she isn’t able to accept it in person. Not only has she “thoroughly and deeply” read through Irish literary tradition, she is also keen to talk with Irish people about St Patrick’s Battalion – the group of renegade soldiers who fought on behalf of Mexico in its war against America in the 1840s, who are still celebrated in Mexico.

In the novel, her first to be written in English, Luiselli imagines a family – mother, father, a son and daughter who are both children and step-children – undertaking a road trip from New York to the furthest reaches of Arizona. The adults, their marriage beginning to disintegrate, are pursuing separate projects: he to document the sounds of the Chiricahua Mountains, “where the last free peoples on the entire American continent lived before they had to surrender to the white-eyes”; she to compile an archive of the unnumbered child refugees of the Mexican-American borderlands. None of them knows whether they will emerge from the journey with their family intact; and none is prepared for the extraordinary and harrowing lives they will encounter.

It is a piece of work that has taken many years to write – indeed, Luiselli broke off to write a piece of non-fiction about the child migrant crisis, Tell Me How It Ends, during its gestation. And yet still, she tells me, “there’s a part of me that feels that there’s something unfinished about the project that I began with a book. So the book is done. But to trick myself, I implanted in there a seed of something that I knew I wanted to continue to explore”.

‘Violence and surveillance’

Now, as she writes her next novel, currently titled Maternity Leave, she is working on what she describes as “a sonic essay” with a team of musicians and sound documentarists, their aim to provide an aural history of “the violence against land and against bodies in the borderlands. And it’s as much an ecological history of the region as it is a history of industrialisation and a history of violence and surveillance.” It is, she says, “a big project that’s going to take us years”. Documenting 24 hours – the time it takes to drive the length of the border nonstop, from Tijuana in Baja California to Brownsville in Texas – the result, she hopes, will be disseminated via the border’s pirate radio stations.

In Lost Children Archive, which features a series of arresting photographs – for example, of objects found on contemporary migrant trails or of Native American prisoners being transported to Florida in the 1880s, Geronimo among them – Luiselli set herself the daunting task of evoking the texture and feeling of sound in the very different medium of prose.

It was a choice, she explains, that came after some experimentation – she considered writing about photographers or journalists – and because she needed “characters that really knew how to listen, that would put me in a particular emotional and mental space, in a frequency that would be very porous to the world”.

That porousness, and the attentiveness that it allowed, is, she says, at odds with much of the way we now interact with the world: “We digest images with such a kind of immediacy . . . We have this new action that human beings do, which is a scrolling, right? Now even more than ever, we relate to images in a way that makes them seem ephemeral. And I think sound forces you to sit with it through time: you can’t scroll through sound, you have to sit minute by minute, second by second with it. And that’s a kind of time I like to live in. I don’t like to live in scrolling time.”

‘Barbaric’ vs ‘civilisation’

These formal decisions were all in service to a story that confronts the most raw and unconscionable truths about America’s history and its present. I ask her about the process of taking that most well-worn of novelistic and filmic tropes, the road trip, and subverting it. “Beyond movies and literary tradition and the history of photography,” she replies, “beyond all that, there’s something more fundamental, which is this kind of foundational myth that creates a collective imagination in the United States: the founding of the country as a kind of journey from east to west, a journey of exploration and founding, and turning the barbaric into civilisation.”

It is, of course, a telling that overlooks and deliberately marginalises entire groups of people and places; a history told by the conquerors and colonisers. “It’s one that often when told ignores the brutality of founding something,” argues Luiselli. “It’s a myth told in the spirit of freedom and advancement and exploration, but that often ignores the genocide and ecocide that that founding implied. And so this journey, this novel, makes that same journey, east to west, but with eyes that are horrified and saddened, that look on the world, and also on the ruins of that world.”

And this ruined world, she contends, is the story of America today, “a country abandoned by its government”. Luiselli describes as revelatory her own encounters, as someone who had previously known America through its coastal cities, with the poverty and desecration of sites such as Memphis and Nashville, and with the people – from the deportation of Native Americans from their own land into reservations to the mass immigration detention centres – who are part of “the same story, from the beginning to the ongoing present”.

I ask her how it felt to be engaged on a piece of work for many years and then to have its subject matter become so globally visible during the Trump administration, as the world watched news images of children separated from the parents at the border and of stretches of border wall being erected. Things did, she responds, become more caricatured, more grotesquely cartoonish, during the Trump era, but she points to a trauma that has been going on for decades.

Pornographic era

“The Trump era was just more pornographic about it,” she says. “You know, there was just more light on the images. But the Obama years were no kind of romance, at least not for those of us who have always been attentive to immigration policies in the US.” Under Obama, she details, more people were deported than under any previous administration, and 100 miles of wall were built. “It’s a mess, always: Democrats, Republicans. So of course, the Trump years were particularly dark. But this has never ceased to be America.”

Luiselli was born in Mexico City but, as the daughter of a diplomat and an NGO worker, spent her childhood and early adulthood in many other places, including Korea, India and South Africa. Now 37, she came to New York after studying philosophy at university in Mexico in order to train as a dancer; she laughs as she tells me that she was always “very mediocre” and subsequently switched to studying for a PhD. We talk about how she sees the world through the lenses of other places – she was in South Africa, for example, at the time of Mandela’s election, and has watched as the promise and hope of those early post-apartheid years have collapsed in on themselves; in India, too, ultra-nationalism was already on the rise when she left.

In America, she became intensely interested in carceral systems, and in their relation to an industrial prison complex that nets billions for those who run it; she notes that the incarceration of a child yields double the profit of that of an adult. In that context, it is unsurprising that the number of “baby jails” in the States has risen exponentially; under Trump, the official number – “who knows how many really?” – of imprisoned minors reached 14,000. Of course, she says, it’s about cruelty, “the historical, recurrent pattern of invisibilising either by jailing, deporting or putting in internment camps populations that don’t make up part of what the collective imaginary is, which is white, Anglo Saxon, mostly Protestant. But it’s also about money.”

A new lightness

I wonder, given her disappointment in Obama’s presidency and the horrors of the last few years, whether she feels any optimism about the new administration? She replies that, in common with many, she feels a new lightness in the air, a sense that, even during a pandemic, American citizens are not subject to the sense of a daily political emergency. And in the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd she sees both a desire to end a system of violence that targets black bodies and also an expression of emotional release after four years of being “shocked into immobility”.

Luiselli’s second novel, The Story of My Teeth, was written in collaboration with the workers in a juice factory in Mexico; she would send them instalments and incorporate their suggestions, stories and ideas. And it is clear that politics will continue to be central to her work. But, she says, she draws a clear line between her activism and fiction, arguing that using a novel as a vehicle for a political message deflates the work. And in Lost Children Archive, it is the characters that draw us in through the long journey across America. “Fiction is a place where people breathe, and make love and get divorced and suck their thumb.”

Valeria Luiselli will be in conversation with Colm Tóibín on May 30th at 8pm as part of International Literature Festival Dublin. The event is free but pre-book here

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