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Novelist Valeria Luiselli on writing to document 'political violence'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: As we reported earlier, the Department of Homeland Security announced that illegal immigration at the U.S. southern border is the highest rate since 2007. In addition, the number of unaccompanied minors is up 54 percent from last year.

Children migrants are at the center of the latest novel on the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

Jeffrey Brown has this report for Canvas. It's our arts and culture series.

Jeffrey Brown: A group of Central American children approaches the U.S.-Mexico border from the south. At the same time, a family in New York heads for the border on a road trip across America.

Valeria Luiselli first wrote of migration in her 2017 nonfiction book "Tell Me How It Ends," based on her work as an interpreter for children seeking to remain in the U.S. Now she's written a fictional account in the novel "Lost Children Archive." This is her first novel written in English. Born in Mexico, she now lives in New York.

Welcome to you.

Valeria Luiselli: Thank you very much.

Jeffrey Brown: So you have done an interesting thing, written two books, one nonfiction, one in fiction, about one subject.

First the subject. Why did it grab you?

Valeria Luiselli: It was the first summer or what we can now call this era of the Central American diaspora.

It was the summer where the arrival of Central American children to the U.S. who were seeking asylum surged. And driving down to Arizona and hearing the news with my family, I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that there were 60 -- at that moment, 60,000 children alone at the border waiting for permission to reunite with family members, seeking asylum, and hoping not to be deported back.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, so, when it's that close, and it's on the news, and here we are at a news program -- we cover these issues -- and then you think about it in fiction terms.

Valeria Luiselli: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: What's your way in?

Valeria Luiselli: When I returned to New York, I decided to volunteer as an interpreter, a translator, interviewer in the court of immigration with children.

And I started somehow putting all of that into the novel. And what happened to the novel was that I was just stuffing it, stuffing it with my own political frustration and rage at the stories that I was hearing in court, and also stuffing it with attempts to paint a bigger picture, sort of talking about U.S. interventionism in the 1970s in Central America.

And it was just -- I was just killing the novel.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Valeria Luiselli: And I was also not doing any justice to the subject matter. So I stopped writing it.

And I wrote "Tell Me How It Ends," which is my previous book, where I straightforwardly talk about this immigration crisis. And only then was I able to go back to this novel and think about things more clearly.

Jeffrey Brown: In the novel, a family is going on a road trip, the marriage is disintegrating. A lot is happening on the border, real and imagined, in the characters' minds.

Valeria Luiselli: Yes.

"Lost Children Archive" is more a questioning of how and where we should stand in order to document political violence.

Jeffrey Brown: But also how and where we should stand as artists, as writers.

Valeria Luiselli: Exactly. Exactly.

Jeffrey Brown: Because the ethics of writing other people's stories is clearly on view. You kind of put it out there.

I think I can see your mind, as a writer, thinking about these things even as you're doing it in fiction.

Valeria Luiselli: Yes.

I don't think that a novel written from an attempt to convince anyone of your particular political viewpoints can really do anything in the world, other than be incredibly annoying, and like just propaganda, right?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Valeria Luiselli: When you are a writer that has strong political viewpoints, but wants to enter into a space of fiction, not necessarily trying to convince anyone of those viewpoints, but really just exploring the questions behind them, right, and what is the ethics around documenting political crises, like, what do you -- how much do you become a parasite of people's suffering?

What good do you do to a situation by documenting it or fictionalizing it? I mean, these are all questions that are in the novel, and I don't think they're solved, and I don't think they're quite solvable. But I think that they're questions that writers and others have to ask themselves.

Jeffrey Brown: You also have to, though, write a good piece of fiction, a good piece of writing, which I should say I think you have done, but that has to happen, too, to capture the -- and hold the reader.


Valeria Luiselli: At the end, what we like is stories. I mean, it's a story of a family as well and the story of their journeying.

And it's also a novel about storytelling, about how storytelling is, after all, the fabric that really binds us and also the fabric between our communities.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the new novel is "Lost Children Archive."

Valeria Luiselli, thank you very much.

Valeria Luiselli: Thank you so much.

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