February 12, 2019

Valeria Luiselli

“Between your mind and mine, the only connection are these words.”
Interview by

Valeria Luiselli, author of The Story of My Teeth and Lost Children Archive, discusses storytelling, child characters and the “beautiful machine” of fiction.

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Valeria Luiselli, author of The Story of My Teeth and Lost Children Archive, discusses storytelling, road trips, creating realistic characters and the “beautiful machine” of fiction.

Your novels don’t follow typical rules of storytelling and structure, but they’re also different from each other. Lost Children Archive is told in vignette-like chunks, with photos and other nontraditional media mixed in. Does the story determine the structure and tone of a book for you?
The story, as it grows, always determines the structure of my books. And vice versa. I see story and form as two tightly interwoven components of a book which need to grow together organically. I don’t ever have a prefixed plan when I begin a book. All I have is a bunch of intuitions and questions. In some cases, like The Story of My Teeth, I pay more attention to procedure itself as generative of form and content. (In that book, the procedure was weekly installments of a story, delivered to factory workers, and both the form and the story derived directly from that.) 

In Lost Children Archive, procedure was less of a thing. Or rather, it was completely at the service of the story. And the procedure basically boiled down to collecting—collecting notes, scraps, photos, books, audio, anything. This novel implied so much collecting that at some point I decided to get archival boxes and reproduce the fictional family’s archive in them. (I still have those boxes in a closet and feel somehow that I can’t open them or move them. As if they didn’t belong to me.) 

"I don’t ever have a prefixed plan when I begin a book. All I have is a bunch of intuitions and questions."

I had a particularly good time with the Polaroids—taking the photos, of course, but then picking which ones could go into the text, arranging them and thinking of the narrative they themselves told on their own. And especially thinking about the way they would interact with the text and in what kind of creative tension they would be inserted there.

Your descriptions of the places and landscapes along the drive from New York to the Southwest are so vivid. Is this a drive you’ve taken yourself?
Kind of. But that’s probably not relevant to the novel or its possible interpretations.

Without giving too much away, there’s a section told from the point of view of a child who’s separated from his parents and navigating the desert alone. The child is much less apprehensive about this than the adult reader! Was it hard to put yourself in the mindset of a 10-year-old and see this kind of journey as an adventure?
Well, I guess that imagining what a particular person (not a generic 10-year-old or 90-year-old) might do in a given situation is my job. I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t even know how to cook properly. But I spend all my time thinking about what my characters would do or think or say. Now, to be honest, I had a lot of help in this novel. I had help from a little army of children in my family. I’d spend long whiles asking them all sorts of questions. I’d ask them what they would do if they were lost, what they would fear the most, what would make them feel safe. I’ve also spent many hours talking to kids who migrate alone to the U.S. I interviewed undocumented children in court between 2014 and 2015 and now give a creative writing workshop in an immigration detention center for minors. So I spend a lot of time around children and am always trying to understand how they look at the world, how they try to make sense of it and how they interiorize it through narratives.

On the trip, your narrator observes, “The more I listen to the stories he tells about this country’s past, the more it seems like he’s talking about the present.” As someone who has lived in many different countries, do you feel that the past has a stronger echo in the U.S.?
Not particularly. I think the past is always present, everywhere. And it comes back to haunt us when we try to ignore it or shut it off. In every community or country, there are wounds—historical wounds—that remain wide open because society as a whole hasn’t properly addressed them enough. I certainly think that the U.S. has not yet done what it takes to address the violence inflicted (then and now) on indigenous and other minority communities.

"In every community or country, there are wounds—historical wounds—that remain wide open because society as a whole hasn’t properly addressed them enough."

Lord of the Flies is one of many literary touchstones in this book; the family reads it on the road. The mother pushes back against Golding’s view of human nature as war, saying “that’s not necessarily the only idea about human nature.” Do you agree with her, or do you take something closer to Golding’s view?
That’s a very good question. I studied Philosophy at UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico) and specialized in political philosophy. Basically, that means that for a long while I understood these issues through the somewhat artificially neat-and-tidy lens of ideas such as the social contract and teleology, etc. I’m not sure that any of those things explain the baffling chaos we live in today. I don’t think there is any such thing as “human nature” either. That idea presupposes that there is something before it actually exists—that we are one way or the other before actually manifesting any traits that suggest that way of being.

There’s a somewhat sinister encounter the family has with a man who is suspicious of them because of their non-U.S. origins—until they profess to be writing a Western. This felt like such a parallel to the immigrant experience: If you swallow our myths, we’ll accept you. It’s also a reminder of how travel can be a frightening experience for anyone who doesn’t look “American.” How do you see this encounter?
Yes, “if you swallow our myths we’ll accept you.” I like that way of putting it. It’s all respectability politics, right? Always having to demonstrate that, despite being Mexican, or despite being black or despite being a perceived minority of any kind, you will comply with dominant ideologies, values and practices.

This novel touches on serious issues: the genocide and displacement of Native Americans, and of course the current-day internment of asylum-seekers, including children. What role do you think fiction has to play in addressing issues like these?
Fiction brings together things that might usually be seen as disconnected—it suggests parallels and comparisons by juxtaposition rather than by explicitly relating things. But storytelling is also quite simply the way we come to know the world and the communities where we live and form a nexus with them. Between your mind and mine, the only connection is these words—and the way we make meaning with them. Fiction is like a machine for producing meaning. A beautiful machine. More like an old, noble beast.

As a bilingual writer, what is your writing and translation process like? Do you write in English or Spanish?
I write in both, dream in both, breathe in both. When I begin writing a book, I usually take notes in both for a long while—sometimes for a year or so—until one day I’m able to find the right language, the right tone, the exact voice I need.

What five things would you say are necessary for a successful road trip?
Not that I’m an expert in successful road trips, but . . .

– good music & books
– good company . . .  or no company
– the exact balance of silence and conversation
– no fixed plans
– a medium to document things that force you to look/listen/think differently

Children being held in detention at the border has become a national news item in the last year, but many readers might not realize it’s been going on for much longer than that. What would you suggest to readers who want to do or learn more about this issue?
I think that self-education on these matters is a responsibility we all have towards each other, especially in times like these. But not only in times of crisis. Committing time every day to educating ourselves on issues that are usually ignored or only brushed over in mainstream media is, I think, the only chance we stand against increasingly xenophobic governments that cater only to the economic and political elite, against social media authoritarianism, and against the increasing power of private companies.

What are you working on next?
I’m doing research on mass incarceration and immigration detention. But I’m still in very early stages of the process, just taking notes, reading a lot, thinking. (Still in two languages!) I have no idea what will come of it and am not in a hurry.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Lost Children Archive.

Author photo by Diego Berruecos-Gatopardo

Get the Book

Lost Children Archive

Lost Children Archive

By Valeria Luiselli
ISBN 9780525520627

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