What to say about Valeria Luiselli, a Mexican writer now living in the United States? She’s… cool. Extremely smart. She’s lived in Wisconsin, Costa Rica, South Korea, South Africa, India, and now, the Bronx. She has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
As a part of the Humanities for Life initiative, Luiselli was brought to campus for a reading in the Interfaith Chapel on Thursday night. During the coffee hour before her reading, I watched, entranced, as she talked about being a dancer, artist, translator, and writer, and how her various endeavors have culminated into a messy, meaningful life.
She took to the podium wearing all black and thick silver earrings, a small nose ring on her left side. Nothing flashy, nothing fake. Previously, she’s written four books in Spanish — “Sidewalks,” “Faces in the Crowd,” “Story of My Teeth,” and “Tell Me How it Ends.” She’s received a National Book Award. Last year, she won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” award. “Lost Children Archive,” published last year, is her first book written in English.
Luiselli’s talk was about “Lost Children Archive.” It’s narrated by four different voices and follows two migration stories — one of a mother, father, and their two children road-tripping from New York to Arizona, the other about children attempting to cross the border from Mexico into America.
Luiselli defies rules in this book, and she doesn’t directly address the immigration crisis. When a student from the audience asked how she felt about giving voices to immigrant children, she said, “I don’t consider it that way, because it implies that these children didn’t have voices to begin with.”
Instead, she builds a story that takes place within the landscape of the issue. The New Yorker described her book as confronting “the complexities of bearing witness.” The mother and father are soundscapers — artists that record sound as documentary, which is Luiselli’s next project.
She writes about the desert, the sun, the sand, “fields sectioned into quadrangular grids, gang-raped by heavy machinery, bloated with modified seeds and injected with pesticides.”
“It’s a book with immigration, but not a book about immigration,” Luiselli said. “I’m not interested in writing a story that’s relatable.”
The event was highly anticipated. President Sarah Manglsedorf was supposed to be there, but couldn’t due to a family emergency. Instead, Luiselli was introduced by two different professors.
She read from two fragments of the novel, the first about the road-trippers. “She never drives,” Luiselli said, “it’s always her husband who’s always explaining things and driving their family to the border.” She read a passage about the family spending a night at an Elvis Presely-themed hotel before reading about the group of immigrant children on the back of a train.
The dichotomy of these two stories struck me. I listened to the daughter swimming in a guitar-shaped pool right before I heard one of the lost children making an imaginary phone call to his mother, promising her that he would be safe.
Before publishing any novels, Luiselli worked as a court translator for children caught in the immigration crisis. Her collection “Tell Me How it Ends” follows the format of questions she would ask the children, and many of the stories from her work inspired the process of “Lost Children Archive.” But Luiselli doesn’t consider herself an activist. She’s a writer.
“A novel should be a space where you walk in to find people making love and fighting and sucking their thumb and breathing and being alive, not a manifesto,” Luiselli said. “I want to tell the missing story in a way that doesn’t reproduce history.”
She said the point of a novel is “to rearrange the world in all its complexity and offer more questions to articulate, to question the world.” Now, she’s starting a creative writing workshop for girls in an upstate New York detention center. I sat in the back of the chapel and watched the stained glass windows of the chapel get dark. I love Luiselli. I love this messy life.