Undocumented migrant children’s plight in U.S. at heart of novel for FYI Book Club

Author Valeria Luiselli
Author Valeria Luiselli Gatopardo

Valeria Luiselli doesn’t plan her books, she says. They come to her — an idea forming, an intuition growing — until she knows there’s a compelling story to be told.

Her latest work, the acclaimed novel “Lost Children Archive,” was born of a cross-country car trip taken with her family in the summer of 2014. Natives of Mexico now living in New York City, Luiselli and her then-husband were awaiting their green cards and wanted to get to know the land they now called home.

They set a meandering course for southeastern Arizona.

“We thought it was the right thing to do,” Luiselli says.

To the south, a humanitarian crisis was cresting. Thousands upon thousands of unaccompanied minors were being intercepted at the U.S.-Mexican border, most between 13 and 17 years old.

Fleeing violence, poverty and exploitation at home in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, they traveled on foot, by bus, or treacherously atop freight trains in search of relief or repatriation with other family members in America.

Two years earlier, a little more than 24,000 unaccompanied children had been detained at the border.

From October 2013 through September 2014, the number pushed past 68,000.

As the exodus played out in news accounts over her car radio, Luiselli says, “I couldn’t think of anything else. It became just a constant noise in my mind.”

Her heartache courses through “Lost Children Archive,” both the story of a fraying family on its own road trip across the United States and a vivid illustration of what Luiselli calls the “daily nightmare” of children migrating en masse from Mexico and Central America.

The mother and father in the book are documentarians, her latest project focusing on the crisis at the border, his aimed more esoterically at capturing echoes of the “ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches.”

With his 10-year-old son and her 5-year-old daughter in tow, they’re headed for Texas and then Arizona and the mountainous region known as Apacheria.

The book, Luiselli’s fifth and her first novel written in English, has drawn praise for originality in both story and literary technique. Halfway through, the narration shifts effortlessly from the mother to the boy.

Luiselli inserts a book within the book — read by the mom — a harrowing account of migrant children moving north by foot and perched on the tops of rumbling trains. Its storyline begins to parallel and ultimately merges with that of the two kids in the back of the car, who set off on their own and for a while become lost themselves.

Luiselli punctuates the climax with a nonstop, 20-page, single sentence that is literally breathless.

It wasn’t a nonstop writing process for the 35-year-old author, who started work on “Lost Children Archive” even as the family completed its 2014 road trip.

Cover Image
Alfred A. Knopf

Luiselli became a volunteer screener and translator for undocumented children in New York’s immigration court in April 2015, trying to help them find lawyers to fight deportation. She listened to their stories of heartbreak and horror. And in pretty much every case, she saw the legal tenuousness of their escape to the U.S.

Some of the young refugees faced immediate deportation. Others entered an immigration process that, because of age or language differences, they were ill-equipped to navigate.

“I started somehow using the book as a depository or a sort of space to vent my frustration and my confusion and my political rage,” Luiselli says. “But a novel is not a place where you want there to be this kind of loud, angry voice. It’s a different kind of space, a place you’re going to kind of inhabit (as a reader) for a while.”

So, she put “Lost Children Archive” aside and poured details and her observations of the immigration system and its treatment of unaccompanied children into a nonfiction book, “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions.” It was published in 2017.

“Once I was able to do that,” Luiselli says, “I was able to get back to ‘Lost Children Archive’ without feeling that I needed to use it as a kind of political hammer.”

Luiselli recently discussed “Lost Children Archive” — hailed by Vanity Fair as a “resonant Great American Novel for our time” — and the experiences that went into it. The answers have been edited for length.

Q: With this book and “Tell Me How It Ends,” are you hoping to move the needle on the treatment of migrant children?

A: It’s definitely one of the motivations that drove “Tell Me How It Ends” … a work of nonfiction, where there’s a clarity of objective.

A novel is a very different animal. It tends to be more porous and more ambivalent, not guiding readers step by step through a story but rather allowing them to make their own connections. Objectives are less clear.

Of course, there’s always a hope that what one writes produces a conversation. Or, at least, produces a dialogue that adds to the existing conversation, makes it more layered, more nuanced and more complex.

Q: Is it overstatement to say your time in New York’s immigration court changed your life?

It’s not overstating it. I’ve been, in many different ways throughout my life, connected and working in the communities where I lived.

The fact that from 2014 — and really earlier — so many thousands of children were arriving here undocumented and alone, seeking asylum or other forms of protection, it changed my way of being in the world, my way of engaging with my community.

I no longer go to court, but I still work in a detention space with kids and I’m involved with several different projects with Hispanic communities here — migrants or first-generation children who are seeking ways of integrating into the community.

Q: Do you know how many of the children you saw in immigration court were allowed to stay in the U.S. and how many wound up being deported?

I don’t, and I really couldn’t ask. There are confidentiality clauses. I followed through with two cases, and in neither one is there a final result — at least legally speaking.

Kids have temporary permits that keep expiring, so I have to go back to the lawyers and ask them to apply for renewals. Very recently, one of the lawyers wrote to me and said that her client, whom I’d translated for, had no permanent residency, nothing sure yet. And it’s been five years.

I would think, in a vast majority of the cases that started then, the children have no permanent legal status here yet. The ones who had lawyers are probably here in a kind of limbo situation. But those who didn’t have good lawyers are probably deported.

Q: Two girls you interviewed wound up missing. You wrote them into the book, correct?

Yeah, those girls in the novel are based loosely, or not so loosely, on one of the cases that troubled me the most.

They were two girls who were very little — 5 and 7, so now they must be 10 and 12 — so they weren’t really capable of giving their testimony in a language that would be convincing to a judge. And the general feeling among the lawyers with whom I spoke was that they probably would not have a case and would have a deportation order against them even though they were here at the time with their mom.

I never knew what happened. They remain kind of ghosts in my mind, in my soul. And they are this kind of present absence, or absent presence, at the heart of novel.

Q: You have a 9-year-old daughter (Luiselli is now divorced from her husband, who had two sons from a previous marriage). To what degree has she tuned into the issue of family separations and unaccompanied migrant children?

It’s something she knows a lot about, actually. It’s not all over the news, but it’s something we talk about at home a lot.

Q: Are you hopeful the landscape improves for these children?

It depends on how many hours I sleep. I stopped resorting to hope as a place to hold onto, and rather think about a kind of very disciplined everydayness where I do the work I have to do and cultivate a sense of agency despite the horrors and violence.

Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.

Join the club

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks. We invite the community to read along.

Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli at 5:30 p.m. on May 13 in the fifth-floor Missouri Valley Room at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

It precedes the final film screening and discussion session in the library’s six-week “Becoming American” series exploring the history and impact of immigration in the U.S.

An excerpt

From Part I of “Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Here, in one of the book’s most searing scenes, the traveling family of four watches from a distance as a group of unaccompanied migrant children are loaded on a plane to be deported from the U.S. The episode is drawn from actual events in July 2014, when planeloads of children and adults who’d crossed the border illegally were flown from New Mexico to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“I look around anxiously, my jaw tense and my breathing getting quicker and shallower. The plane is standing in the same place, but the officers who escorted the children now walk back toward the hangar, looking like a football team after practice, joking around, slapping one another on the back of the head. Some of them spot us, I think, but they couldn’t care less. If anything, it seems like our presence, behind the fence that divides us, encourages them. They turn around to face the plane as its engines are switched on, and clap in unison as it slowly begins to maneuver. From some dark depth I didn’t know was in me, a rage is unleased — sudden, volcanic, and untamable. I kick the mesh fence with all my strength, scream, kick again, throw my body against it, hurl insults at the officers. They can’t hear me over the plane’s engines. But I continue to scream and kick until I feel my husband’s arms surrounding me from behind, holding me tight, not an embrace but a containment.”