Next on the SAL Podcast: Valeria Luiselli
March 30, 2020
By Alexis Chapman, Public Programs Intern
In our latest episode of SAL/on air, our literary podcast featuring talks and readings from across Seattle Arts & Lectures’ thirty years, we hear from Valeria Luiselli, the award-winning Mexican author living in the United States. Luiselli joined us back in April 2019 for a Literary Arts Series discussion about two books: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions (2017) and Lost Children Archive (2019). For Luiselli, as she reveals in this episode, these books are deeply connected; they are both experiments into the best way to bring attention to – and write about – a political crisis. What drives a story? What is the story – who gets to tell it – and how?
Her newest novel, Lost Children Archive, explores these tensions through a retelling of the American road trip genre, but with a twist. Following an artist couple and their children as they embark on a trip from New York to Arizona, the book shows their family crisis unfolding as a bigger one comes to them through the car radio: that of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American and Mexican children arriving in the U.S. without papers. Narrated by the mother, a sound documentarian, there is a collapsing of the personal and the political, an exploration of the influence that politics has on our personal.
As Luiselli tells us, she knew, “I had to write a novel in which political reality and the private sphere of family life collapsed into each other” because “politics affects our private lives much more than we maybe thought… Our private life is not private… We are fundamentally modified and affected by what goes on around us, even if it’s not our particular community that seems to be the object of political violence. But when there is political violence, the tissue of social interaction is hurt, and therefore, everyone is hurt.”
Listen to the episode or read a full transcript of Luiselli’s talk on lectures.org, or tune in wherever you get your podcasts (and don’t forget to “like” and subscribe!). If you don’t have time to listen to Luiselli speak, here are some highlights from the event.
On documenting the landscape of abandonment
I began documenting, more particularly, a kind of sense of a landscape of abandonment. Right, an America that I did not know. And that somehow was in contradiction to the way that I had seen it through its documentation by previous generations, by Kerouac, on his road trip novels, by Robert Frank and his photographic documentation of America.
What I saw and what I documented was the America of abandoned motels, of abandoned toys, and front yards of abandoned water towers, and diners and people, and never shopping malls, they’re never abandoned. And I also started documenting the vastness and the relative emptiness of – the very beautiful emptiness – of the landscape, those electric thunderstorms that surprise you in the middle of driving along a highway and somehow electrify your eye sockets and your brain. The landscapes of the deserts with their creosote and jojoba and cholla, bushes kind of spreading out like prickly beauty into my native Mexico.
On soundscapes and family lexicon
I also began documenting the soundscape around me, right? First of all, the accents change in varying accents, the conversations in diners, the questions we got from strangers, why are you here? Where are you from? And then the soundscape also of the family lexicon. What happens in the very particular space of a family enclosed in a car, two kids at the backseat asking weird-ass questions such as, who was the first person who milked a cow? [Audience laughs]. Or do the talking heads have hair? [Audience laughs]. Or, was Oklahoma part of Mexico? Was Arizona part of Mexico? Yes, it was. Who were the blue coats? Who were the white eyes?
And as I documented the family soundscape, the language of the world started coming in as well into our enclosed space of privacy and relative aloneness. It came in through the radio, that we are very devoted listeners of, and what we heard mostly on the radio was what was happening that summer at the border, the crisis that then came to be known as the immigration or the refugee crisis. I’m going to read a little bit, a more tiny fragment, from the novel now, not from the essay, precisely about – or that somehow reproduces – this collapsing of family lexicon into political discourse or vice versa, political discourse, somehow penetrating the family soundscape.
Reenactment is something that I find particularly bizarre, just this cultural practice of playing a fragment of history, relevant or completely irrelevant, such as a gunfight between Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, over and over and over again in this town where it happened, but it keeps on happening over and over again.
And it’s this kind of tool or event halfway between art form and, I guess, a product of mass consumption.
On reenactment and cultural representation
I reunite my family at the end of this horrific but very interesting day at the end. And we the kids wanted to take one of those really cheesy family pictures, all like, fake sepia, dressed in the costumes of back then, and they give us a menu to choose from: we could be Billy the Kid, more Billy the Kid, or Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday, or generic outlaw Mexican, or generic Native American. And then I thought, huh, okay, of course this is what it’s about, right? Reenactment is about underlining who gets a name in history? Who gets mapped into the story and who gets mapped out? Who gets to have a name and who gets to be some kind of, like, ornamental lettuce on the side of the plate, right?
So anyway, I dressed as something, I think it was outlaw Mexican. And we all choose our different costumes with our varying degrees of nationalism, post-nationalism, youth, age, etc. And that was it. And I began thinking about reenactment, not only really about reenactment as this very bizarre cultural practice, but also about reenactment as a more internal process, right, as a way of bringing history closer to one through playing it through, playing with it, right, a kind of almost philosophical or hermeneutical jump of bringing what seems very far closer.
And as I began thinking of that, I also noticed that our children in the backseat were, in fact, always reenacting what they heard, be it on the radio, or in the conversations that we heard or had, and they were mixing it all up. So, they mix bluecoats with border patrol, in their minds it was the same thing. And like the Chiricahua Apaches and the Eagle Warriors with what they call the group of lost children coming into the U.S. without parents, looking for some form of asylum.
On what a novel should be
I think of it as what a novel is, right, which is a space, a slice of life in which people make love and fight and pee and think and exist, right. So, the novel became that, as well as a space in which to question how the hell do we document political violence, political crises of the present? Through fiction? What kind of instrument is fiction? How does fiction enter into a conversation with a present and add anything of value to it?
On the responsibility of the narrator
I realized that I couldn’t, and I didn’t want to, report on the immediate present at all in the novel. And the way that I ended up threading the story of migration in the novel is, of course, through radio, through the kids reenacting in the backseat, but also through a third person narrator that tells the story of seven kids riding atop the train, migrating across national boundaries. You never know exactly where they are and if it is at all, North America, Central America, or where, it’s a narrative composed from bits and pieces of other narratives in literary history that have dealt with journeying, immigration, descending into an underworld of sorts.
On her approach to the American road trip genre
I wanted to somehow intersect the very American genre, par excellence of the road trip novel, with a story of journeying that perhaps is more common to Latin America, which has to do with journeying as a form of journeying downward, spiraling into deeper level of consciousness or spiraling into some kind of underworld. I’m thinking here primarily of Juan Rulfo and his masterpiece, Pedro Páramo, but not only.
And so I wanted the typical American road trip to be intersected by this Latin American form, to put it in very blunt and simplistic terms, therefore creating a kind of wider hemispheric narrative, thinking about us, us as a region, the U.S., Mexico, Central America, as a corridor of migration that has been for so many years and will continue to be. So yeah, that narrative is composed of bits and pieces of journeys, of literary journeys.
On naming and renaming
Literature, fiction, has the power, of course, to re-signify, to rename, to put story in the wider arc of history and remind us of our shared humanity. It has a power, as Ruth was saying – quoting – to give us some clarity and hindsight, and to remind us that the only thing we have between us are the stories that we tell each other. Right? The love that we give each other? Yes, of course, but the only thing we pass down are those little knowledges, ways of telling the world, ways of experiencing them, ways of experiencing the world, ways of articulating a narrative about ourselves and others. So that is what that novel is about, a novel about naming and renaming.