By Vanessa Chan
Thoughtful, quiet, and yet at times troubling and terrifying, Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive refuses to conform. It is a story of a road trip, a journey of an evolving family, a snapshot of a dissolving marriage, an interrogation of who gets to write what, a history lesson, a political awakening, an investigation of the issue of undocumented children, an exercise of breaking tropes, and that’s just the first twenty pages. A pair of unnamed parents are driving southwest with the man’s ten-year-old son and the woman’s five-year-old daughter. Over the course of the trip, we observe the internal struggle of the primary narrator, Ma, as she observes the dissolution of the couple’s marriage, while becoming more absorbed by the plight of undocumented refugee children that she comes to call the “lost children.” Eventually, the narrator’s own children go missing, culminating in a 20-page single sentence climax that breaks every convention, and that the reader is unable to look away from. On top of this wide range of themes, Luiselli also creates a novel-within-a-novel – a book called “Elegies for Lost Children” that is interspersed throughout Lost Children Archive, about children who live atop train cars, trying to make their way through rough jungle and desert terrain to an unnamed land of their dreams. The metaphor is a clear spotlight on the current immigration crisis but does not feel over-wrought. Despite its range, Lost Children Archive remains incredibly readable, with the second half is so engrossing, one is unable to put it down for fear of missing something.
Luiselli spoke with New School MFA student Vanessa Chan about Lost Children Archive, how her background informed the novel, and her writing process. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are a child of many places – Mexico City, South Korea, India, to name a few. How has this very global upbringing influenced your chosen profession, and what you choose to write about?
The decision to devote my life to writing is something that sprung from a life of constant mobility. I had to find some kind of axis around which to organize the chaos of my experience. I found that axis rather early – in the page, and in putting my pen down on a piece of paper to make sense of things. All my books are about displacement. One thing that has emerged over and over again for me is how to move between languages. I speak four languages. I try find a space in which both languages that I speak natively, English and Spanish, can enrich each other and contaminate each other. Not necessarily in vocabulary but in cadence and flow.
More recently, there have been intense debates about who gets to write what – and the challenges of writing histories and stories that do not belong to the author. You even discuss this within the novel (and you obviously wrote this novel with care). How did you interrogate this concern with yourself, and how did that influence the narrative decisions you made in Lost Children Archive?
This is definitely an important question and one that I’m very attentive to. That’s the reason why at some point I stopped writing the novel all together. At one point when I was writing the novel, I realized I was trying to use it as a space to denounce what I was witnessing as a volunteer translator at immigration court. As I was writing the novel, I was also translating testimonies from undocumented children in immigration court from Spanish to English to help them find lawyers that would represent them before an immigration judge. I was transferring what I was witnessing at court into the novel and realized I was not doing justice to either the novel or the immigration situation. The novel was getting swamped, raw and heavy with not-well-thought-out material. At the same time, I wasn’t doing any justice to the issue because I was trying to fix it in some kind of fictional form. So, I stopped writing the novel, and I wrote [the narrative nonfiction book], Tell Me How It Ends, which was written from the point of view of a close observer of the court. Then I was able to go back to Lost Children Archive and not think about the novel as a novel about immigration at all. It’s a novel that thinks about the problem of how to build political narrative, and how to write political and historical violence.
Do you think writers should write stories that do not “belong” to them?
I think that writers have the freedom but also the responsibility to write about what they don’t necessarily consider close to home. It is part of our task to imagine others, and other worlds and other minds, but it has to be done with common sense and intelligence and sensibility. It cannot be done thoughtlessly. You have to find, as a writer, and as a creator of any kind, an intersection between your aesthetic, your aspirations, and your ethical stances.
Lost Children Archive is written in journal-like fragments, and in two sections (mother and son), interspersed with the story from a made-up book Elegies for Lost Children. What is your writing process – do you write from beginning to end, by scene, in fragments, or some other way entirely?
I write some other way entirely. My writing grows in many different directions at the same time. I don’t choose a form before I begin or in the early stages of the writing process. I like the form to emerge from the process itself and the research. That’s why I don’t have any fixed structure or process before I begin, or during the early stages of the writing.
Towards the end of the novel there is an incredible 20-page single sentence which was a marvel to read.
I worked on that single sentence for a disproportionate amount of time, if you consider how long it took for me to write the novel. Those 20 pages might have taken me more than a quarter of the time I took to write the novel. It was necessary and also the hardest thing I’ve ever written.
Can you talk a bit more about the process of crafting that 20-page sentence?
I had to have a very clear and detailed sense of the imagined geography. My characters were coming from opposite directions moving towards a single center, above which there was a storm brewing, shifting, changing. That storm, that sky the characters had in common was an axis, but it was a mobile, moving axis. I had to provide a lot of clarity to move in a single sentence through that terrain. Plus, the sentence was not just a sentence – it shifts from second person in the past, to third person in the present. That constant shift had to be well-calibrated in order to work. And then that sentence had to branch out into descriptions of other scenes that were present in the minds of the characters who were brought together because they were a part of the same geography, like the woman that maps dead people in the desert. It was a hard section to write but it was one of the things that I enjoyed the most.
Congratulations, I thought it was incredible.
What was the first thing you wrote in Lost Children Archive?
I don’t remember what I wrote first because everything grew in such an organic mess like live matter. But I do remember the beginning as written, was the beginning. It took me about a year to write that beginning – a year of taking notes by hand until I felt the courage to jump into an electronic format. And when I did, the beginning I wrote then – the image of the children in the backseat of a car – was the beginning that stayed. It was also the seed of the novel, children in the backseat of their parents’ lives, but who slowly take control of their parents’ story and their parents’ way of telling their story.
You’ve received tons of compliments about your ability to write the children in this novel. My favorite line is when the girl says, “The point is, the point is, the point is always pointy.” And of course, the boy’s voice in the second half of the novel, is both observant and innocent. How are you able to access these children’s voices?
I have friends who are actors. I sometimes feel that part of the writing process is similar to what actor does when preparing seriously to embody another person, to become another person. In the novel, the character of the boy’s consciousness brewed inside me for a long time. And it was like once I felt fully inhabited by this other consciousness, I was able to write it. It came out swiftly because I had knowledge of this imagined person, once I sat down to write. That’s why for me the preparatory stages of writing are so important because it is where everything is slowly brewing. After that the writing process is much more joyful.
You’ve mentioned reading aloud parts of the novel to kids in your family.
I was very lucky because I have a lot of children around me – kids, step-kids, nieces, nephews, and I consulted with them a lot. I would say, “Would you do this” or “Would you say this” and they would say, “No that’s ridiculous, it would be like this.” Or I would read out loud and they would criticize and comment and give input. I was very lucky to have a very great team of experts in childhood.
Sounds like it was really fun.
I asked them, “If you ran away, what would you do?” And then, “What you would you do next if you couldn’t have a phone, what would you do then?” Just like, consulting, and imagining with the kids was an incredible process.
What book do you keep by your bedside or go back to over and over for inspiration or comfort?
I really read [German-American philosopher and political theorist] Hannah Arendt often. I don’t always agree with what she says but I reread her. I reread Maria Zambrano who is a Spanish philosopher. I go back to Anne Carson a lot. I go back to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. There are a bunch of books go back to; there isn’t a single one.
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa and India. An acclaimed writer of both fiction and nonfiction, she is the author of Faces in the Crowd, Sidewalks, The Story of My Teeth, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, and, most recently, Lost Children Archive. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award, and has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize. She has been a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and the recipient of a Bearing Witness Fellowship from the Art for Justice Fund. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, and McSweeney’s, among other publications, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. She lives in New York City.
Vanessa Chan is a Malaysian writer scribbling about race, colonization, and women who don't toe the line. Her stories have appeared, or are forthcoming in Porter House Review, Atticus Review, Jezebel, Fiction Attic Press, Fiction Factory, Mekong Teahouse, and more. Recently, she was a finalist for the Porter House Review 2020 Editor’s Prize, judged by Carmen Maria Machado. Vanessa is based in New York where she is an MFA candidate at The New School, and an intern at One Story, after a ten-year career in public relations, most recently as director of communications at Facebook in California. She is currently at work on a novel.