Apr 6, 2017
The Work of Translation: Talking to Valeria Luiselli about Tell Me How It Ends, Immigration, and Why She Lives in the United States
“Why did you come to the United States?” This is the question that opens and closes Valeria Luiselli’s urgent new book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, expanded from a piece first published in 2016 in Freeman’s magazine. It’s short—the paperback runs to about 100 pages—and could not be more timely. Luiselli’s introductory question, after all, is the same as the intake form she uses to interview unaccompanied children who arrive in the United States from other countries—children seeking status as refugees. It’s also the first question I ask her, in a vegan restaurant in Manhattan, as we sit down for lunch.
“It changes, you know, why you stay.” Luiselli says. Author of five books in English (some translated, some not), Luiselli, at 33 years old, has lived in New York for almost a decade. Born in Mexico City, she spent a childhood around the world: in South Korea, then South Africa, India, France, Spain. “I’ve lived longer here than in Mexico,” she reflects. Mexico felt more like home when her last book, The Story of My Teeth, came out in 2015. “Now that equation has inverted. This is my home now. This is where my daughter is growing up. This is where my literary community is.”
“The more complex layer is the linguistic one,” she adds. Luiselli wrote The Story of My Teeth in Spanish (it was translated into English by Christina MacSweeney); Tell Me How It Ends was composed in English. Speaking and writing in English, Luiselli explains, “is not a new thing. I learned how to write in English, in school,” referring to her childhood abroad. “But I started writing professionally in Spanish.” Still the years in the United States have added up. “Something slowly shifted,” she explains. “English is now the major language of my profession and work.”
Tell Me How It Ends is a book about translation: Luiselli’s work as a volunteer translator for lawyers representing, pro bono, children who have arrived in the United States unaccompanied; both Luiselli and the children’s individual efforts to join America—to become, in some sense, American; Luiselli’s efforts to understand and make legally sensible the stories these children tell her; Luiselli’s book-length explication to us, her readers, of who these children are and why we should care about, and take care of, them. Translation is a kind of digestion, a breaking down and a building up. Translating language, experience, bodies across space and time, thought and culture—Luiselli wants us to join in this work. Tell Me How It End calls for a wholesale reimagining of both the forces that have shaped contemporary immigration into the United States as well as the way many Americans, disconnected from fact, picture it. It calls, moreover, for action.
“The roots and reach of the current situation branch out across the hemisphere and form a complex global network whose size and real reach we can’t even imagine,” she writes of the interconnecting forces that spurred the record number of children from Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala in particular) to travel by themselves to the United States. They flee, most often, gang violence—the seeds of which were planted by or in the United States. Luiselli is particularly attentive to the role Mexico plays in the journeys these children take, a horrifying percentage of which end in death. Luiselli calls for a multilateral admission responsibility, and multilateral solutions. “To refer to this situation as a hemispheric war would be a step forward because it would oblige us to rethink the very language surrounding the problem,” she writes, “and, in doing so, imagine potential directions for combined policies.”
We talk about an American couple that Luiselli describes towards the beginning of Tell Me How It Ends, two older folks who look like they could be someone’s doting grandparents but who sit protesting in beach chairs in front of an immigration detention center packed with children. Their signs say “Illegal Is a Crime” and “Return to Senders.” (“Did they pencil in ‘protest against illegal immigrants’ on their calendars, right next to ‘mass’ and just before ‘bingo’?” Luiselli wonders in the book.) “I wish I could say it’s just an old generation—but it’s not,” she tells me over our glasses of carrot juice. She teaches at Hofstra, in Hempstead, Long Island. “I have a lot of students who support Trump.”
I ask how she responds to those students in class. “It’s your responsibility to challenge” their ideas, she says, “I ask them to explain.” I wonder aloud how Tell Me How It Ends fit into her larger sense of responsibility. “The only big responsibility a writer has is to write really well,” she says. “As a person in society? Those are social responsibilities.” This book is unusual for her. “I don’t like to write to teach a lesson or create political change. Many books can do that.” But this was a story she couldn’t avoid telling.
While Trump hangs over our conversation like a low cloud, the surge of children who appeared unaccompanied at the U.S. border occurred during the Obama administration. It’s his decisions Luiselli criticizes in the book for their inhumane repercussions. “We were very asleep to all the terrible things done during Obama’s administration,” she says. I ask if she feels hope now—after the election, after two horrific immigration-related executive orders. This too “changes with the times,” she says. “It’s not enough to go out onto the street once a year. Whether for LGBT rights, or immigrants, whatever community we can be involved with—it has to be a daily thing.”
“Sometimes, to be very honest, there are many days in which I feel there is no hope. Then I see my seven-year-old and I feel it’s my obligation—”
“There’s always a straight forward answer,” she says, for why a person stays. “Study, work, a better life.” Tell Me How It Ends returns to this central question: of why come, of why stay, of why it’s worth this—the money, the time, the risk to life and liberty. “Once you’re here,” Luiselli writes, “you’re ready to give everything, or almost everything, to stay and play a part in the great theater of belonging. In the United States, to stay is an end in itself and not a means: to stay is the founding myth of this society.”
Lead photo by Alfredo Pelcastre
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