An adult narrator, a wife and mother of two, glares through binoculars, watching a small, private airplane taxi on a runway in New Mexico. The plane contains migrant children, maybe fifteen or twenty boys and girls. They’re being deported. The wife loses her cool, screams, kicks the chain-link fence. Her husband restrains her. Defeated, she wonders whether to cover her ten-year-old son’s eyes, an impulse to shield him from graphic content. She decides against it.
Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli’s newest novel, takes us on the journey of a family, a family that is about to fracture. The book, filled with nuance, humor, and love, follows this family of four on a road trip across the United States, from New York City to Apacheria in the Southwest. The car also contains seven boxes, four for the husband’s work, recording the soundscape of lost Apache tribe members, one for the wife’s work, discovering how to tell the stories of migrant refugee children who fled violence in their home countries, and one for each of their children, to archive the trip.
Jealous of their mother’s focus on the migrant children—”children who have lost the right to a childhood”—the boy decides to set out with his five-year-old sister to search for the children himself and the two children become lost in the Arizona desert.
Valeria Luiselli earned her PhD in comparative literature from Columbia University and has received awards from the Los Angeles Times, the Azul Prize, and the National Book Foundation. Her books include Sidewalks, Faces in the Crowd, The Story of My Teeth, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, and now, Lost Children Archive. Her work also appears in the New York Times, Granta, McSweeney’s, and the New Yorker, and has been translated into more than twenty languages.
Our conversation flowed through topics from the book’s structure to Luiselli’s translation process to the foreignization of a decidedly American genre—the road trip novel—in favor of what Luiselli terms “documentary fiction.”
The Rumpus: There is a deep understanding in the novel of what it means to be a parent and how to love and raise a child, and it stands in stark contrast to the horrors that happen to these migrant children. This contrast is such an effective storytelling technique. How did you piece together the novel in that way? It’s also an archival structure.
Valeria Luiselli: Yeah, it is an archive, right? The novel is both the story and the archive of the story. The question that beats in the center of the novel is about storytelling, about how to tell the story of “now,” whatever that story is, and make sense, through that narrative, of the world—a very confusing and painful world. What’s the role of storytelling and how does it shape and affect children’s minds? They listen to their parents, to the news, to the people around them, and then replay that story in their heads. So, it was really important for me to be able to reshuffle stories inside the children’s heads, and primarily in the boy narrator, who is like a vessel that absorbs and combines and recombines the archive and puts together his own version of the story—which is obviously not necessarily the whole truth. You see him underscoring some things for his sister. He’s playing a similar role as his parents are with him. He’s retelling, so that his sister will remember the best possible story—or what he thinks is the best possible story—and carry that inside her soul.
Rumpus: The book is stunning. I finished reading it about two days before our interview and I’m still reeling. There was so much nuance, from the adult female narrator’s notions of love, relationships, and parenting, to the boy’s grit and intelligence. The five-year-old daughter is complex and funny. How did you develop their characters?
Luiselli: I don’t think of traits, for sure. I stopped writing in Word because it’s so chaotic, and I started writing in this program called Scrivener, which I really like because it helps me organize things in different files, and you can see every file you have in different projects. I just use the plain version of Scrivener, but there’s a version specific to writing fiction, where you can pre-divide the book into chapters. It also has this feature where you can write little biographical notes on your characters. I find that completely appalling and incredibly scary, as well as an imposition of form. This is all just to say that there’s nothing I know beforehand. It’s more a process of exploration. I did want them to be complex characters and certainly not sweet, cute, only innocent beings. To be real presences.
Rumpus: There are lots of influences of sound and echoes in the book. I believe I read in an interview with you that you’re a compulsive recorder, much like the female narrator in Lost Children Archive. How does sound play a role in the book? It almost seems like its own character.
Luiselli: It is its own character. It is a book about documenting and representing—worrying about how documenting our world can affect our relationship to it. It mediates the relationship to the world. When you take a picture or record something like tape, then you’re not only doing that, you’re also intervening your experience of it. You listen differently or you observe differently if you are at the same time recording or photographing. I feel that sound is a slower, more distinct documentation of the world, and one that reaches very keenly into our consciousness.
This summer, when people circulated that sound—that tape—of children at the border being separated from their parents and crying? I don’t know if you heard that, but it’s a very traumatic document. I felt that, being someone who is deeply involved with this situation all this time, nothing had reached deeper or affected me more than that sound recording. It’s as if sound is internalized in a different way than pictures are. I don’t know if there’s any neurologic theory about that or not, but I was interested in sound going against the instantaneousness and ephemeral quality of documentation of our every day.
Rumpus: Especially when it comes to the instantaneousness of TV broadcast news and our media. The book is also a multimedia, exploratory work. There’s this mix of the boxes, literary references, the boy’s Polaroids, and other material. I know you said that your characterization is more of an exploration, but did you decide on that archival structure ahead of time?
Luiselli: I wanted to explore the way that stories are passed on from adults to children, but then also back from children to adults. And how the process of that threading takes place, both in the space of intimacy of the family, but also how those threads become your political ties to a community. Language and narrative are the ways we are tied to a community and to a political space as well as to the people closest around us. That’s the intuition that I went through, and that’s all I knew. From there, I started. The form the novel took emerged after a couple years of working, where I had been collecting scraps and pieces of things and then eventually started thinking of them in terms of these boxes, then I ended up creating the boxes and played around with them and saw them physically. So, the form emerged with the content.
Rumpus: Speaking of political ties, to me there are clear parallels between the lost Apaches in Apacheria and the current US immigration policy. Was that intentional? I saw the husband and wife as pursuing these extremely similar projects, one in the past and one in the present.
Luiselli: It is. There’s a view of history there, as well. A rather cyclical nature of history but not in an abstract, philosophical way. Not in a Hegelian, dialectical way either. But more what happens when a country or countries don’t really take the time to think about reparations, to come to terms with the political violence of their past, to try to heal those wounds. What happens I think when you ignore violence that way, is that it just comes up again and again and again. When you don’t address historical trauma properly, it always returns.
In the psyche of this nation, the genocides and the taking-over of people’s lands still comes up again and again, not only still within native lands, or reservations now, but in the treatment toward other natives of the American continent, many of them indigenous peoples that are now migrating here. I talk a lot in my book Tell Me How It Ends about the shared responsibility of an attacked region, meaning the US, Mexico, and Central America, and our governments, and how we haven’t solved this problem. We haven’t assumed that historical responsibility. I’m not trying to make a very symmetrical, historical comparison between the Native American history and now, but there is of course a relationship that I’m trying to show.
Rumpus: This is a road trip novel, and the road trip novel is often a symbol of Americana. I found Lost Children Archive to be a clever inversion of that trope. Were you inspired by any road trip novels when you wrote this?
Luiselli: I was definitely thinking of the genre, as you say, subverting or turning the genre around. Also, foreignizing that genre. In the translation that domesticates, you have all the things that are somehow conceived as too foreign watered down in order to be understood more easily by readers in the target language. But in the translations that looks to foreignize, the opposite is done. It’s a foreign viewpoint being introduced into a language and therefore foreignizing that target language and making it more complex and layered. I really like that idea, which probably comes from, like, old German Hermeneutics but then was retaken by Walter Benjamin in his essay on translation, and Lawrence Venuti’s “Invisibility” in his 1995 book, The Translator’s Invisibility.
In a similar way, you can think of playing with genres that are typical of a literary tradition and subverting them through a foreignization of the genre itself. This is a road trip that then brings a foreignization to the genre or the sub-genre of road trips. It subverts it through a foreign gaze. It is a partly foreign family. They’re not all foreign, I think; the husband is definitely American. But there will be discussion, or assumptions more than discussion. It gazes through this abandoned America through these foreign eyes. They’re in movement, they’re displacing themselves through America, and therefore, somehow, also displacing America, looking at it out of context.
Rumpus: I love that.
Luiselli: So, yeah, there’s that, but that is also furthered and furthered, because the novel is intercepted by another narrative that is aesthetically closer to the Latin American journey novel, which has to do not with migration, so much as with descending into a space. Some of the most important Latin American novels of the twentieth century have to do with a kind of Dante-esque journey, either toward a version of underworld, or toward a deeper consciousness, a descent into yourself. So there are the Elegies in the novel that tell the story of seven kids migrating aboard a train, northbound, and those elegies intersect with the road trip story, which is a southwest-bound trip. South-north and east-west, but then at the same time, the whole novel is spiraling down as well.
Rumpus: Especially because I assume we’re not supposed to be given the satisfaction that those four migrant children who are left at the end of the novel live. It’s implied that they do not, which is heartbreaking, but also so necessary to tell.
Luiselli: Yeah, and even if they make it, where do they make it to? They make it to a detention center.
Rumpus: Right. Yes. You mentioned that the husband is American, but there is no section from the point of view of the husband. I loved this choice. I found it powerful, especially because of this growing gulf between husband and wife. Can you talk a little about that?
Luiselli: Yeah. [Laughs] The short answer would be: they’ve talked enough. But I like the way you’re phrasing it as well. There is this gulf. Silences can reveal a lot more than the opposite of silence. It’s not her version against his, but by creating a silence in him, the reader gets to wonder, what would his version of this be? That was something I thought about a lot. I did think about the possibility of bringing in his voice, but decided not to. There was a similar question with the little girl. The decision there was different and had to do more with narrative efficiency and style. The voice of a five-year-old can easily become something cute and only that. Sustaining a voice like that for many pages? Ultimately, it’s not impossible but probably not very fruitful. A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man, which is such an amazing book, starts off with a very young consciousness speaking: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming…” You’re inside the head of a very young boy. But, then that character grows as you turn the pages, and the narrative viewpoint shifts, and that’s why it’s so interesting (and bearable).
Rumpus: And the daughter does get a bit of her own narrative, which is the inventory of her echoes from the road trip in Box VI. We’re left with this adorable list of echoes.
Luiselli: Totally, and it’s this very spare summary of the entire book. I guess you could read just that and get the story. [Laughs] All the different paths, people fighting in the car, and rainstorms, everything that happens, connects there.
Rumpus: The Echo Canyon section, shifting to the end of the book now, is one long sentence, one unbroken paragraph. It reminds me of lots of things—of echoes, of Virginia Woolf’s simultaneity, which I know you’ve mentioned before, and of the unceasing desert. I drove through this part of the desert on a cross-country road trip of my own last summer
Luiselli: Oh, God.
Rumpus: Yes, which was very intense.
Luiselli: Yeah. It’s a march in the desert. There’s no interruption. People don’t get a break from that. Time, I’d imagine, in a situation like that, is this ongoing, brutal, unbroken paragraph. It doesn’t work the way time works for us in say, our normal everyday lives, even during a road trip where you get to stop for a bathroom break or you change a song, you know? We’re accustomed to sectioning off time differently. I suppose that if I were writing a novel from the viewpoint of someone in solitary confinement, I would do something similar—represent time as this long torturous stretch. Choosing that structure also allowed me to shift viewpoints between the two groups of children—the two lost kids from the family road trip and the group of kids walking south-north who are all going to meet in the center of this valley. The geographical setting is this valley, the Willcox Dry Lake between the Chiricahua mountains and the Dragoon Mountains, where there is an abandoned train car—which by the way is there, it’s real. There’s a storm that’s slowly concocting in the sky, and that’s what they share. They see the same sky, the same storm cooking and they’re both walking towards each other. So, that entire paragraph shifts from one viewpoint to the other, walking towards each other, and when the storm finally breaks they are together, huddled together in the abandoned train car. That constant stream allowed that very liquid shift in viewpoint.
Rumpus: Yes, like Woolf does in Mrs. Dalloway, when Clarissa looks up at the airplane in the sky at the same time as several other characters
Luiselli: It’s the ultimate third person. I love her different techniques in that book, the way she explores them. Here, it had to be that, plus this sense of time. Again, a time when people don’t know when something is going to end. Then, time is eternal. It knows no brakes.
Rumpus: I left this last question for the end because I thought it might be a little too personal. The novel is this strongly grounded and incredibly personal story. Is it autobiographical fiction? You can choose to answer that or not.
Luiselli: [Laughs] No, not at all. I’m definitely not interested in that kind of exploration. If there’s anything there of my life, it’s just very raw material that I work with and then create fiction from there. But that’s only because, if that happens, when it happens, I never sit down and think of this completely fantastical, fictitious world that I then want to create. Rather, I’m more of a documenter. I would say that for this novel, which is not autobiographical fiction, but something more like documentary fiction.
Photograph of Valeria Luiselli © Diego Berruecos.