‘Tell Me How It Ends’ by Valeria Luiselli

The first time I heard about Valeria Luiselli was because I was looking for her novel The Story of my Teeth. I resisted the temptation of reading it in English and waited for my next trip to Mexico City to buy it. It was January 2018. Book distribution in Mexico never fails to surprise me so, of course, after visiting two major bookshops La historia de mis dientes was no where to be seen. But there is always light at the end of the tunnel and a genius bookseller said to me, why don’t you read Los niños perdidos (Tell Me How It Ends) and he handed me a thin little book. ‘It’s an essay’ he said, ‘about unaccompanied migrant children’. It was cheap, short and I thought that the main thing at that point was simply to read Valeria Luiselli.

Tell Me How It Ends is one of the most memorable books I have read in a long, long, time. And perhaps one of the most relevant of the last decade. Everyone should read it and this is why:

We are constantly bombed by images of migrants and their suffering. We are exposed to endless images of Syrian refugees; desperate people crossing the Mediterranean in the middle of the night on dangerous inflatable rafts; others crossing deserts by foot fleeing violence and war in their home nations. All of them in the most critical of situations, risking absolutely everything, their lives and those of their families. But I find that amidst the heart-breaking situation of all these people, migrants are perceived as a threat. ‘Look, here they come’, ‘Shouldn’t they be stopped?’.

The discourse of an utterly lack of compassion permeates the images we see on our screens on alarmingly regular basis. We witness the struggles and suffering of those parents risking their children’s life in the hope of a better future. I always wonder how desperate they must be that the prospect of drowning in the cold waters of the Mediterranean Sea is something worth considering, because if you make it, your life stands a chance of being better. Even if it’s a little bit better, that tiny bit it’s worth the try.

Now, think about this: picture all those images I’ve described but remove the adults, the mothers and fathers and that leaves you the absolutely insane, inhumane reality of unaccompanied migrant children. And that sucks. And makes me sad and angry.

As Europe struggles with its own migrant crisis, on the other side of the planet, Tell Me How It Ends focuses on those children making its way to the Mexico -US border in the hands of ‘coyotes’, who are nothing but ruthless people smugglers. These kids walk, cross rivers on rafts, ride on top of cargo trains and who knows what else for weeks or months until they reach the border sitting on a notoriously dangerous desert. What they want, is simply to reach their relatives in the United States. They want to feel at home.

The story usually is the following: the home town is unsafe, crippled by gang or drug trafficking violence. This mean people get murdered, women raped, there’s now where to turn and the best shot of surviving is by going away. So, mum, dad or older siblings leave chasing the American Dream and manages to settle over there. The children are left behind in the care of a relative. Flash forward months (or even years) grandma or auntie or uncle receive the instructions and money to get pay a ‘coyote’ to bring the kids over. The journey can take months and the risks are enormous. Kids are asked to memorise the life saving number that will get them to their families in the US, some have it stitched to the collar of the shirt or dress they are wearing. Imagine that. The best chance they have to making it is to be ‘caught’ by the Border Patrol and sent to one of the detention centres that we have seen on our TV screens (and looked away). From there, their situation is reviewed and if applicable they then appear in court. These little Guatemalan. Honduran, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan or Salvadorian kids are asked to answer a questionnaire made up of 40 questions, in English, of course.

I’ll stop there because it is here where Luiselli’s little book becomes most essential and necessary to understand how this can be possible. Tell Me How It Ends works around these 40 questions. It narrates the stories she witnessed when working as a volunteer translator in a NY court assisting children, as young as 4, facing a judge who would then decide they had the right to remain in the US. If not, they are ‘removed’ from the country. This book, just shy of 100 pages is an absolute essential read to understand migration. It is, perhaps, an uncomfortable reminder of the lack of compassion towards those in need. And the more heart breaking when those risking their lives are so young and vulnerable. All that these unaccompanied child migrants want is their mum and dad to kiss them goodnight, and the world is taking that away from them.

Tell me How it Ends is published in the UK by Fourth Estate

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Solitude and the City

 

For the last three years, the Association of Cultural Attaches of Latin America, Spain and Portugal (ACALASP) has presented the only literary festival dedicated to promote our literature and so kindly have let me collaborate with them as co-curator. The location is the wonderful Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross in the heart of London, the perfect place to gather Ibero American book lovers.

The festival started last Monday with a session dedicated to Colombia’s award winning author Evelio Rosero and on Tuesday it was Mexico’s turn in the spotlight with the presence of the celebrated writer Chloe Aridjis.

Chloe (apart from being the daughter of the renowned poet and writer Homero Aridjis) is the author of a fantastic novel called Book of Clouds, published in the UK by Vintage. Unlike many conferences where the author talks about the book half the audience hasn’t read, Chloe was accompanied by an extraordinary chair: Darian Leader. Without revealing much about the plot of the novel, Darian and Chloe focused on the most relevant topic in the book: solitude in the cities.

Chloe said to always been interested in the relation people have with the place they inhabit, especially now a days when people live in cities without any family roots. The main character in novel, Tatiana, experiences feeling lonely surrounded by a crowd, and in this way Chloe Aridjis makes clear that solitude is detached to the physicality of people and perhaps a key element in contemporary life. By doing this, the city in the novel (Berlin) becomes a character as well, capable to interact with its inhabitants by provoking a variety of feelings: anxiety, disorientation, happiness and, of course, loneliness. I guess she’s right to say that at the end of the day, our lives in an urban space are determined by how much the city gives and takes away from you. This is food for thought for all of us living away from our home town, and definitely a must read novel.

So thumbs up to Chloe Aridjis and Darian Leader for a fantastic event!

 

 

Why you should read Down the Rabbit Hole

I’m sure you have noticed I am very keen on literature that talks about drug trafficking, that obscure genre that some call narcoliteratura and that is truly fascinating. But what is even more fascinating is to come across a novel that touches the subject in a new way: humour.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’ first novel Fiesta en la Madriguera, is available in English by And Other Stories and translated as Down the Rabbit Hole. Worth reading and I’ll give you a few reasons why.

The protagonist of the story is a boy called Tochtli and whose age is uncertain. He could be 8, 9,  or 10 years old but in a very intelligent way, Villalobos leaves that to the reader to figure out. He is the narrator of the story and through the pages of this short novel we have the opportuinity to see the world through his eyes. He is no ordinary boy. He is the son of a drug lord. But as tragic as this may sound, the truth is that Tochtli’s view of the world is rather distorted and therefore funny. Really funny. His everyday reality is surrounded by a violence and cruelty he is incredibly familiar with, but therefore he is not scared. “This is what was in the news today on the TV: the tigers in the zoo in Guadalajara ate a woman all up, apart from her left leg. Maybe her left leg wasn’t a very juicy bit. Or maybe the tigers were already full.” (p.20)

Last week, I had the privilege to chair a panel on literature with Juan Pablo Villalobos at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and obviously the topic of drug trafficking came into the  picture. It is true that the world of these drug lords give way to never ending possibilities for stories being brought to fiction. And Tochtli is the result of this. He is a little boy who can wish for anything he likes and  in this world asking of a Liberian pygmy hippo makes a lot of sense. It does!

Juan Pablo told me that while writing Down the Rabbit Hole, the only way to justify Tochtli’s whim is by placing him in the narco world. At the end of the day, this is a rite of passage novel that tells us the bitter-sweet story of this boy. This is what this novel different from any other narconovela I’ve read. Because in the words of Nick Hornby it is about a boy.

But at the end of the day, the big winner of this adventure is the reader because Tochtli brings a smile in your  face. It’s the kind of character you’d like to put in your pocket and take home with you. Things like this makes him unique and incredibly charming:

“There’s a scandal on the TV because they showed a photo of the policeman’s severed head. But it’s not because of his hairstyle.” (p.27)

A truly enjoyable read. Don’t be put off by the drug trafficking references in it. On the opposite, share the joy of being a child again, completely innocent and unaware of the harsh world outside. I think we would all like to be Totchli every now and then and I wish I could be his Facebook friend!

To get a copy of this book visit http://www.andotherstories.org

Chronicle of an unfortunate book launch

Launching a new book is usually a happy occasion. There is never a question on the amount of time, sweat and tears that the author spent on the new creation and most of all, authors want everybody to know what they have achieved. Fair enough I say, especially when this involves years and years of research that come to an end in the form of a book.

That is how book launches must be and feel on paper. But the one I attended was different. The book is called México sabe México (something like Mexico tastes Mexico) and it is an anthology of 50 worth reading Mexican authors.

The session had as special guest a remarkably well-known Mexican writer, Margo Glantz, who arrived 25 min late. Now that’s a start. The panel had her in the middle, and two wonderful British academics who spoke only about how unique Margo was and how they all met in London back in the 1970s and how great her work is, and so on. The author of the book, Concepción Zayas, was nowhere to be seen as she was merged in the audience which gathered in King’s College’s Anatomy Theatre .

Margo started her presentation by talking about two authors. She said “One that is included in the anthology: Sergio Pitol and one that is not included in the book: Mario Bellatin.” (Strike one!) Then she started reading and reading and reading until half the auditorium was either asleep or looking for the nearest fire exit.

40 min into the “book launch” and nobody had mentioned a) who were the 50 writers featured in the book and  b) why were they chosen.

After Margo Glantz finished reading, there were a few more comments from the panel before opening the floor for questions from the public. Question 1 obviously goes to Margo. She’s asked why did she chose to send that text to Dr. Zayas and if it had a particular meaning or relevance for her. The answer? “Oh, well it was one I had handy, sitting there, so I sent it”. (Strike 2!) I thought ” You are certainly making Dr. Zayas feel really comfortable now”.

An hour went by and still, I was wondering what this whole circus was all about. The session was getting worse, boring and irrelevant every second. So I asked Margo Glantz which young Mexican authors she considered should be translated. The answer? ” There are so many, I cannot name one right now”. Thanks, that’s really useful. I gave up. (Strike 3, batter is out)

At the end of the day, I left the event without the book (only 7 copies for sale) and still not knowing about the other 48 authors worth reading. I guess that as a marketing strategy could work really well because the only way to find out is by buying the book! Clever! But I couldn’t feel sorry for Dr. Concepcion Zayas who I’m sure did this book with lots of care and did not get the credit and recognition that she deserved in an event that proved rather unfortunate and even more, upsetting.

But with all this taken into account, I’ll buy México sabe México and will let you know what it’s all about!

Confession of a “sicario”

I must start by saying I have an obsession for literature that talks about drug trafficking, drug lords and everything that has to do with this lawless but fascinating world.

In my last post, I mentioned several books on this topic, mainly fiction. But in my last trip to Mexico I was strongly suggested to read a brand new book called “Confesión de un sicario” by Juan Carlos Reyna. The title in English would be something like “Confession of a Hit Man” but not really. Throughout the years the term “sicario” has developed in Spanish as a very precise word linked only to the drug trafficking phenomenon. If we trace the roots of the word, sicario comes from the Latin that Sicarii, a contract killer. The term hit our vocabulary with great impact via Colombia during the 1980s. It is then when it became fully linked and a crucial reference to explain the new kind of “professionals” that the war on drugs created in that country which now shares such a similar history with Mexico. Allow me to insist in the importance of the term because I believe it is making its way into the English language due the precision of the kind of people it describes and will be used along this post.

Having said that Confesión de un sicario is a chilling true testimony of the horrors experienced by a man during his time of close collaboration with a Mexican drug cartel. Tijuana born journalist Juan Carlos Reyna, meets and convinced a former sicario known as “Drago” to tell the story of his life inside the narco world since the very beginning when he joined organised crime. The things he says are, in all honesty, much more violent and cruel than anything you could possibly imagine. From torture, murders, orgies and satanic rites to descriptions of mansions “for murdering use only” with sharks as pets to help disappear bodies without leaving a single trace.

In this book, Juan Carlos Reyna takes us by the hand into the everyday life of a sicario feeling like uncomfortable voyeurs of a reality we don’t want to witness or even know about. The goverment incredible levels of corruption  as well as its close relation to durg lords figure in most of the book’s pages where no one is free from the inevitable link with this massive and intelligently managed drug industry. 

Confesión de un sicario is so ruthless in its descriptions that the author had to issue a warning to the reader. Through Drago’s story there is no moral evaluation and no fingers being pointed to the narrator. The book is a very valuable tool to understand the current situation through the words of a man who had it all and lost it all. This is the story a man who describes himself by saying “the only thing I know is to kill” and who deserves to be heard.

 Confesión de un sicario was first published in February 2011 by Grijalbo .

Literature and Violence: let’s talk about it

Writing about violence is not a new topic in literature. But it became a recurrent subject after the Second World War when the writers used it to talk about the horrors of war, to expose the evil in mankind and to set a reminder of the fragility of peace. It became and stayed popular because violence , more than any other topic, has the power to shock.

For many, violence is an unescapable reality, to others it also comes with a window for creative writing that gives way to new legends, myths, heroes and anti-heroes.

As years passed by, Mexican society has been deeply touched and transformed by the increasing violence as a result of conflicts between drug cartels and police. The impact of this situation in every day life has touched the imagination of contemporary authors, perhaps as a natural reaction to cope with the unstable current situation.

 The publication in 1999 of Un asesino solitario  by Élmer Mendoza got the critics’ attention about this fascinating subject.  Few years later the flow continued with El amante de Janis Joplin (2001) and the award-winning Balas de Plata (2008).

But not only Mendoza captured the sometimes bizarre world of drug trafficking in his novels. The younger and upcoming generation did it too with remarkable and original novels such as Los trabajos del reino (2004) by Yuri Herrera, to be published in the UK under the label of Faber and Faber. Also, the famous blogger Bernardo Fernández (aka BEF) won the Otra Vuelta de Tuerca award with the extraordinary Tiempo de alacranes (2005).  Later on, Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez shocked his readers with El hombre sin cabeza(2009) a mesmerizing journalistic essay on violence surrounding Mexican drug cartels. And as recent as 2010 Juan Pablo Villalobos touched this world under the innocent view of a child in Fiesta en la madrigueraa tragic and funny novel also soon to be published in September the UK by And Other Stories.

These are just a few examples of some of the authors who have touched the subject and who provide the reader with a vast range of points of views and unforgettable characters who question their reality perhaps in the same way a nation demands for answers and solutions to stop the violence.

In my opinion these so-called narco novelas are becoming movement of great literature which I hope leave a mark in the nation’s literary history. For that reason they should be read. They matter. Talking about violence in Mexico matters.