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Bearing Witness: Q & A with Valeria Luiselli

In 2014 nearly 70,000 unaccompanied immigrant children fleeing violence and abuse in Central America were detained at the United States-Mexico border. Images of infants and toddlers held alone in detention centers and shelters across the country chronicled their suffering. Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli has made telling the story of these lost children a focus of her work. First, Luiselli wrote a series of essays about asylum-seeking children based on her experience as a volunteer court translator for child refugees appearing in an immigration court.

Now, with the recent publication of her novel “Lost Children Archive,” Luiselli tells the story of an American couple whose own children go missing, opening them to a far deeper and truer recognition of the unimaginable pain parents experience when they are separated from their children. Here, Luiselli gives us insight into her approach to storytelling and commitment to using her art to bear witness to human suffering.

Q: Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to write fiction about such a timely and pressing issue?

Luiselli: For those of us who have the privilege of not having been born into war, into poverty, into abandonment and systemic abuse, there might have been a time when crises like the one I explore in the novel seemed to belong only in the public realm, and only tangentially touch our private sphere. But something changed, not too long ago. The line that divided the public and the private has blurred completely – in many ways for the better – and we can no longer live on, pretending that this world, here, now, is something that exists “outside” of us, pretending that we are not the ones who are responsible for it.

Q: At what point in the writing process did you decide to embed a combination of texts and images into the novel, and how are these elements integral to the telling of the story?

Luiselli: Ultimately, the collected texts and images in the novel are simply part of my own process of documentation as I was writing it – and the novel exposes them, just like an archive exposes the documents that integrate it. This is a novel that is its own archive. I think of it as a box that someone has left out on a curbside, a box full of pieces and traces of their life.

Q: Can you also talk a bit about the elegies that are woven throughout?

Luiselli: For more than a year I had been trying to find a tone and a viewpoint that could do justice to the story of the children who migrate to the US, alone and undocumented, in search of safety. Nothing was working. I had been reading a book about the Children’s Crusade in the 13th century. It was thanks to that book that I was able to step back from the immediacy of the story I wanted to tell, and think of it in wider historical and geographic terms. I began writing the elegies in the third person, in English and not Spanish, without giving names to the seven children, without aspiring to impersonate their voices or appropriate their stories. And as soon as I wrote the first few lines, I knew:  this is the reason why I needed to write this novel.

Q: In addition to the images you’ve included in the book, the concept of sound surfaces a lot—sound, and even echoes. Why did you want to explore this?

Luiselli: I think sound – in a world increasingly flooded by instant images of everything – has become the most powerful means of documentation. Did you listen to the sound footage this past summer of children being separated from their parents at the border? If so – that is exactly what I mean.

Q: What is next for you?

Luiselli: I’m doing research on mass incarceration and mass immigration detention – thinking of the two things as a single one; thinking about the systematic separation and confinement of black and brown bodies in this country. I’m also teaching a creative writing workshop in an immigration detention center for children. I have no idea where all of that will lead yet – but I am not in a hurry. I just turned 35, and feel an urgency that I never felt before, but also, for the first time in my life, I am no longer in a hurry.

Learn more about “The Lost Children Archive” and buy your copy here.