Lily Meyer | Longreads | February 2019 | 12 minutes (3,198 words)
Valeria Luiselli has a roving, curious, collaborative mind. In her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, she merged her protagonist’s consciousness into that of the poet Gilberto Owen. In Story of My Teeth, she collaborated with workers at a Jumex juice factory to create a dizzying, hilarious adventure story. And in Lost Children Archive, her third and most ambitious novel, she invokes a chorus of books, images, recordings, and fragments to tell the story of a family traveling across the American Southwest as the country shatters around them.
The protagonist of Lost Children Archive is an audio journalist starting a sound documentary about the wave of undocumented children arriving in the U.S., fleeing violence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle, a crisis Luiselli last wrote about in her searing essay Tell Me How It Ends. Her husband is beginning a sound project, too: “an ‘inventory of echoes’…about the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches.” They live in New York with their children, a five-year-old girl and ten-year-old boy, but to make his inventory of echoes, he wants to move permanently to the southwest. The two decide to drive across the country with their children, not making further plans until they arrive in Arizona.
Luiselli writes the road trip in a series of lyrical fragments, creating an archive of the family’s time in transit. She records the landscape, the adults’ fraying marriage, the children’s confusion, the mother’s growing desperation to help the child refugees crossing the border, and the ten-year-old’s determination to help his mother — even if that means running away. Woven through these fragments is another story: seven children on a train north, trying to survive a journey through the desert and into the unknown.
The resulting novel is layered and surprising, able to twist without warning. Luiselli’s archival impulses transform her work into a collage of voices and meanings. Lost Children Archive weaves from mother to son, fiction to meta-fiction, Manhattan apartment to Arizona desert, but it never loses sight of its purpose: to tell the story of a lost family, trying to find hope and certainty however they can.
Luiselli and I spoke about Lost Children Archive over the phone. While we talked, bits of city sound intruded and faded: dogs, cars, other voices. During the interview, Luiselli invoked other languages, other writers, and, as she said, “archives, archives, archives.” Our conversation is archived below.
Lily Meyer: Lost Children Archive is the first novel you’ve written in English. How did switching languages affect your fiction writing?
Valeria Luiselli: It’s tricky, because while this is the first novel I wrote fully in English, I’ve always written all my notes bilingually. I wrote Tell Me How It Ends in English, then rewrote it by myself in Spanish. I also wrote a very long PhD dissertation in English, so the experience of writing in another language for this book was not new at all.
What was new was my effort to write the novel in English and Spanish simultaneously, which was interesting but ultimately unsuccessful. It was very naïve of me to think I could do that. There are many fragments I did write with that procedure, and I think those fragments are probably the best in the novel. Oscillating between languages forces you to weed out all the rubbish, the excess lyricism, the indulgences. It’s like translation — or self-translation — in that respect. It cuts out the bullshit, and so those fragments work especially well. But the procedure was impossible. Writing a novel is much more than crafting sentences. There’s a pulse you have to follow, the same as running, swimming, dancing, any activity that involves rhythm. You have to find the rhythm and go forward, and that’s impossible when you’re bouncing back and forth, crafting sentences in one language, then the other.
I had never written a novel whose characters were so alive to me… I’m still mourning. I miss spending time with those kids…. I spent more than half of every waking day with them, you know?
The novel was also affected by my being bilingual in Spanish and English, and thinking and speaking in a mixture of both. There are 60 million Spanish speakers in this country, and there are many different Spanishes flowing into each other. That means I speak Spanish in my daily interactions, but that Spanish is all mixed up with English. In the writing process, the result is that one language always has a word that’s more accurate. There are words that are exactly right, but the exact word doesn’t exist in the other language. It forces you to sit and think until you come up with the best possible distillation of what you want to say. Bilingualism forces you to be creative in order to be as precise and clear as possible.
In your Works Cited, you write, “I’m not interested in intertextuality as an outward, performative gesture but as a method or procedure of composition.” Could you describe that procedure?
I’m very much a documenter. I have never sat down, created a vacuum around myself, and then thought, Well, what am I going to invent? I don’t. I sit and observe. I document for a long period of time. I take notes, and then I use those notes to compose. Documenting means observing what’s in front of me — my kids, someone else’s kids, a conversation between a mother and son on a bus — but it also means observing the books I’m reading and underlining. All those things start flowing into each other, first in the form of notes. I must have filled twenty journals while documenting this novel, plus online archives. I like to think that the books and archives that I choose to consult leave a very clear fingerprint on my writing, and on the overall structures and rhythms of the novel.
Why did you choose to make your protagonist and her husband work with audio rather than written archives?
I wanted them to be listening instead of producing. I didn’t want them to be writing, even though documenting in writing isn’t dissimilar from listening. The way I write is listening: I transcribe what I hear and read to the page, rather than purely imagining or inventing. Beyond that, I thought a lot about the politics and aesthetics of sound. I thought about how sound might play against the flood of images through which we relate to news in the world. I’d already finished Lost Children Archive when this happened, but remember last summer, when that recording of children being separated from their parents was released? I listened to their cries and laments, and it crushed me. I’m deeply invested in the child refugee crisis and had seen innumerable images that crushed me, but there was something particular about that audio recording. I had never been so shaken by a piece of data. It haunted me. In part, that was the nature of the crisis, but sound is internalized differently. It moves you physically in a different way.
Early in Lost Children Archive, you write, “No one thinks of the children arriving here now as refugees of a hemispheric war… No one thinks of these children as consequences of a historic war that goes back decades.” Were you tempted to devote more space in the novel to explaining that war, and to explaining the child refugee crisis?
I was. I began writing Lost Children Archive in the summer of 2014, and it became precisely a space to explain those things, and a space to dump my political anger. I was really ruining the prose. I wasn’t letting the novel breathe. I was straying from the kind of fiction I’m interested in reading and writing, and I wasn’t doing justice to the subject itself, so I was really fucking up in every possible. I stopped writing the novel a while. I let it lie, and in that time, I wrote Tell Me How It Ends. Once I began, it was very clear that I had been accumulating all this knowledge, and I needed to write about it in a very straightforward way, in essay format. Once Tell Me How It Ends was done, I was able to return to Lost Children Archive without feeling the need to over-explain. I think that if a reader is curious, she can go looking for more, and if she’s not curious, it doesn’t matter. She can go on reading.
Does the idea of a reader not being curious bother you?
The idea of people not being curious saddens me, in general. Or to phrase it differently, I admire and fall in love with people who are curious. Friends and others.
Children’s bizarre electricity can change the atmosphere of the adult world.
Much of Lost Children Archive is devoted to the kids’ curiosity, especially once the narrative shifts into the boy’s perspective. When and how did you know that shift was necessary?
I don’t remember when I knew, only that at some point it became very clear. I had known for a while that I wanted a different voice, not only the mother’s. I thought about the husband, but then I decided they had talked enough. Also, it’s important for the novel that you never get his perspective. His silence is a source of the kind of speculation that I’m interested in as a reader. Next I thought about the girl, but it seemed to me that giving voice to a five-year-old was really dangerous. The novel could too easily become cutesy, or chaotic. It’s hard to sustain the voice of a five-year-old for too long. I kept thinking about Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which starts when the narrator is still very young. It works because he grows as he narrates, but imagine the whole novel in the mode of “there was a moocow comin down the road.” A ten-year-old boy, on the other hand, still looks at the world with the curiosity and innocence that are very specific to childhood, but is already pretending to be an adult part of the time. Not pretending. Ensayando ser adulto. Ten is an age where I could sustain the narrative while handing the book’s thematic material over to the boy’s gaze and voice.
I see Lost Children Archive as a book primarily about storytelling, the way we compose narratives, and how those narratives may or may not become the way we make sense of the world. We use narrative to make the world less horrifying, for example, or more beautiful. Within that, I wanted to explore the way parents hand stories down to their children, and how children unexpectedly hand those stories back to their parents. We had to see that movement on the page. To me, the most important part of the novel’s architecture is the fact that the boy tells his story into his mother’s tape recorder, wanting to pass it down to his sister, because she’s too young to remember. But the mother will hear the story first, since it’s her recorder. The novel is her telling the story of their trip, and then receiving it back.
How did you inhabit that ten-year-old intelligence? Do you miss it?
That’s our job as writers, right? To inhabit a specific other intelligence. I will say that I had never written a novel whose characters were so alive to me. The characters in my first novel are more ghostly. It’s a novel of voices. I’d never written a novel with characters like these, and I’m still mourning. I miss spending time with those kids. For five years, they were slowly coming to life in my head. I spent more than half of every waking day with them, you know?
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The mother in your novel mentions feeling a “rescue distance” between herself and her children, which comes from Samanta Schweblin’s novel Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream in English).
(From Schweblin’s novel: “I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.” -Ed.)
Did you feel a rescue distance between yourself and those fictional kids?
Definitely. I love that novel, by the way. Samanta’s a good, good friend of mine, and I asked her permission to use the rescue distance. But of course I felt it. I wrote with the rescue distance in my stomach, especially in the parts where the kids leave their parents and lose each other. Originally, I had planned that the boy’s story, in which he and his sister run away from their parents, would be pure invention. He’d be making it up for his sister. It wasn’t meant to be a real journey at all. But as I wrote, the journey became so real that I ended up deciding to make it absolutely real. To reconfigure what I had to because of course, of course the journey was real.
I’m so surprised! I was sure the children’s journey was integral from the beginning, since it so clearly parallels the journeys taken by children lost in the refugee crisis.
Not at all, but it wasn’t like I had to go back and rewrite the book, since I don’t write linearly. My novels grow from a core center in every direction, until eventually that core disappears.
So what was the original core?
There were two questions. The first had to do with how my own kid would survive alone in a circumstance like those children, and how I would react in that situation. I was almost reenacting it in my head. The child refugees’ journey belongs in the distance, not in my story or world, but I was bringing it inside. So there was that, and then there was the question of how children’s bizarre electricity can change the atmosphere of the adult world. Children’s energy and minds enrarece el mundo adulto, perhaps for the better. Together, those questions, or intuitions, were the core from which everything grew. I care very little for plot; it’s just the instrument that helps me move from intuition to intuition.
It’s so hard to find a book that you absolutely want to read in that moment … When you find one that is exactly what you want to be reading, it’s like a miracle of some sort.
Lost Children Archive has other instruments, too. There’s the boy’s Polaroid camera, which becomes central to his experience of the road trip. You even end the book with his photos. Was the camera an instrument for invoking the child’s gaze?
Yes, but the Polaroids had many different functions and meanings along the way. I began taking them while traveling across the U.S., on several different road trips, but I didn’t know to what end. I had worked with them before, in an essay I wrote when my daughter was younger. Visual Editions asked me to write a visual map, and I decided to make it a map of swings in Harlem. My daughter was little, and I was a student, and I only had so many hours of day care. I just decided that I couldn’t work against the time I had, so I needed to work with it, to integrate her into the project. We went around for months, taking pictures of every swing in Harlem. She had fun fooling around with the Polaroid, and then while she was swinging, I took notes. I think that’s a place you can write from: not insulating yourself from noise and mess and distraction, but integrating them.
Anyway, I’d had that experience, and then I decided to take the camera with me on my road trips. At first I just took photos, and then I began thinking about the ways the photos documented the country differently — or not differently — from the way I was writing about it. I started thinking about integrating them into the narrative. Not as illustration, not as stand-ins for what’s being said, but in a way that would create interesting tension with what is written. After that, I decided to start fabricating the pictures. They became an instrument of fiction. I started working with the kids and by myself, thinking about how children would photograph certain things. There were seventy or eighty original Polaroids, and very few made it to the final round. I had to decide exactly which ones were part of the boy’s gaze, and which ones were too well-framed or clichéd.
Another big instrument you use is Elegies for Lost Children, a fictional book within the book that tells the stories of seven children migrating alone. How did you arrive at that instrument?
I didn’t know how to write about the migration experience of the kids I’d been talking to in court. I wanted to bring their experience in, but not in a way that was testimonial or parasitical. I didn’t want to take their stories or to impersonate them. I have strong political stances in that sense: It was clear what I didn’t want to do. What wasn’t clear was what I did want, and so I began reading the way others have approached things. I read tangentially, obliquely, not reading about the child refugee crisis or even the crisis in migration from Syria. I read Marcel Schwob’s The Children’s Crusade. I read about orphan trains, ships during slavery, lots of historical documents, and just archive, archive, archive. Then I read a book called The Gates of Paradise, written by Jerzy Andrzejewski and translated by Sergio Pitol, and I thought, This is exactly it. This is the way in.
How did that discovery feel?
It’s so hard to find a book that you absolutely want to read in that moment. I begin a lot of books and then realize, This is really not what I want to be reading. Not the atmosphere, not the tone, not the voice. I don’t want to be in this world. When you find one that is exactly what you want to be reading, it’s like a miracle of some sort. That was how I felt. It was exactly the kind of gaze I had been looking for for a long time.
That experience sounds similar to the experience of naming in Lost Children Archive. Your characters have no given names, but while on the road, they choose “warrior names,” in tribute to the Apache warriors the husband is documenting. Why use that form of naming?
I didn’t want to name the characters because I despise narratives about political crisis that name the violent actors, but speak about the population suffering targeted violence as if they were nameless entities. It was a decision in that sense, first and foremost. Everyone is nameless and everyone acquires a name. The family gets warrior names, as do the seven kids in Elegies for Lost Children.
Also, to be blunt, I get put off when I read contemporary fiction and find very immediately formed people on the page. I like to discover a character slowly. I construct slowly, too. I never know where I’m going when I begin a novel, and I don’t know the characters. I discover them as I advance, so there isn’t anything fixed to the page. A name fixes too much.
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Lily Meyer is a regular reviewer for NPR Books, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Atlantic, Electric Literature, Tin House, the New Yorker and more. She studied creative writing at Brown University and the University of East Anglia. She won the Sewanee Review’s First Annual Fiction Contest, judged by Danielle Evans, and is a two-time grant recipient from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Editor: Dana Snitzky