‘Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli

If you have read the extraordinary Tell Me How it Ends, it will be clear that there is a topical continuation in the narrative of Valeria Luiselli’s latest novel Lost Children Archive. It is no surprise that the subject of migrant children is very much at the centre of this spectacular novel, but it is also a moving study of family dynamics.

As the family takes on a road trip from New York to the border with Mexico, the narrative becomes more and more intimate to the point that the reader feels like another passenger sitting in that car. What I found very moving are the descriptions of the relationship between parents and children. I think that in this novel Luiselli reminds us of the importance of observing our children aiming to understand who they are simply by contemplating them.


‘They look memorable from where I’m sitting: look like they should be photographed. I almost never take pictures of my own children. They hate being in pictures and always boycott the family’s photographic moments (…) Adults pose for eternity; children for the instant

As they cross the United States, dad tells the kids stories of the native Americans and in particular that of Geronimo. Mum is all about those children desperately trying to cross the Mexico-US border to be reunited with their relatives. Luiselli, as in Tell Me How it Ends drops those bombs that leave you once again stunned. It is a known fact that to start the deportation process (or ‘removal’ as the American authorities like to say) the detention centres (or ICE) are raided. And in that in-between children go missing. Do they escape? Is it better to become a missing person to eliminate the threat of being ‘removed’? How many thousands of children are wandering the streets now desperately trying to find a clue that will get them to mum or dad?

A critical point in the novel is when the family witness the deportation of around 20 children. Girls and boys lined up to board a small plane in an air strip in the middle of nowhere. What a better place, away from the public eye, away from everyone that could care.


If they hadn’t gotten caught, they probably would have gone to live with family, gone to school, playgrounds, parks. But instead, they’ll be removed, relocated, erased because there’s no place for them in this vast empty country’.

It has been a long time since I felt the need to mark a book, to make sure I remember those phrases to be able to go back to them again and again. Reading Lost Children Archive made me seriously think about the fragility of a child’s life, and how memories and experiences shape who they will become. Childhood is precious because it is so easily hurt. And of course, the stories of those unaccompanied child migrants keep making me sad and furious but I think we all have to thank Valeria Luiselli for the painful reminder of a reality faced by thousands of kids.


‘The only thing that parents can really give their children are little knowledges (…) this is how you cut your own toe nails, this is the temperature of a real hug, this is how you untangle the knots in your hair, this is how I love you.’

The novel has an unusual but genius structure that revolves around six boxes that are contained in the boot of the car. There are Polaroid pictures snapped by the 10 year-old son, maps, lists, and an impressive number of references to literary works, films and music. Even David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays a phenomenal role in the story. Lost Children Archive is a stunning novel, it’s moving, a little bit sad but worth reading because once again Valeria Luiselli strikes literary perfection.

Lost Children Archive is published in the UK by Harper Collins

Advertisements

‘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