Tell Me How It Ends : An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli


Valeria Luiselli, successful author of “The Story of My Teeth” and “Faces In The Crowd” (both translated by Christina MacSweeney and both shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award), has released a new title, again through Coffee House Press, but this time written in English and not fiction, this time an essay.

Titled “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In Forty Questions” this is a timely release from a writer who has recently received her US “Green Card”, an exploration of Mexican US relations, through the view of child refugees arriving in the USA, via Mexico.

The book opens with a reflection of 2014, a time when thousands of “refugee” children arrived in the USA.

In varying debrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague. Beware the locusts! They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen – these menacing, coffee-colored boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes. They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays. They will make a racket, they will bring their chaos, their sickness, their dirt, their browness. They will cloud the pretty views, they will fill the future with bad omens, they will fill our tongues with barbarisms. And if they are allowed to stay here they will – eventually – reproduce!

We wonder if the reactions would be different were all these children of a lighter color: of better, purer breeds and nationalities. Would they be treated more like people? More like children? We read the papers, listed to the radio, see photographs, and wonder.

In this enlightening essay we learn of Luiselli’s role as an interpter for these children when they have to face the New York City’s federal imigration court, filling out a questionairre containing forty questions about their immigration status.

Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.

Which goes more or less as follows: Children leave their homes with a coyote. They cross Mexico in the hands of this coyote, riding La Bestia. They try not to fall into the hands of rapists, corrupt policemen, murderous soldiers, and drug gangs who might enslave them in poppy or marijuana fields, if they don’t shoot them in the head and mass-bury them. If something does go wrong, and something happens to the child, the coyote is not held accountable. In fact, no one is ever held accountable. The children who make it all the way to the U.S. border turn themselves in to Border Patrol officers and are formally detained. (Often by officers who say things like “Speak English! Now you’re in America!”) They are then placed in the icebox. And, later, in a temporary shelter. There they must start looking for their parents – if they have parents – or for relatives who will sponsor them. Later, they are sent to wherever their sponsor lives. And finally, they have to appear in court, where they can defend themselves against deportation – if they have a lawyer.

This is a brutal book, highlighting news reports of mass graves, relaying stories of horror, both at home in countries such as the Guatemala, EL Salvador and Honduras or along their journey through Mexico and upon arrival in the USA. It is through Luiselli’s role interviewing these children that we learn about a few specific examples, the painful lives that these children have already lived, simply to take a chance on a “new life”.

Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we call all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.

This is a very important book, and although looking at a specific cog in the massive wheel that is the refugee crisis, it uses a simple humanistic approach, the questioning by Luiselli’s own daughter “tell me how it ends?”

Debates about all refugees, not only child refugees, generally overlook the cause of the exodus but it is a “transnational problem that includes the United States – not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.”

An eye-opening, educational and important book, that I fear is only going to be read by people who are already wanting to understand more about the refugee plight, the audience of “wall builders” will somehow be missed.

Luiselli’s fiction includes humour, radical plot devices and bizarre tales, here the reality of her adopted home is brought to you in her new language, a stark shock to your senses. A book that I hope receives the attention it deserves, an important contribution to the worldwide debate about refugees, essential reading when attempting to understand the Donald Trump rhetoric about building a wall.

This essay doesn’t simply present the issue, there are glimmers of hope provided, although I personally found them a little shallow, it also works you through the forty questions that these children must answer as part of their application, factual but balanced with human stories. One of the highlights of 2017 to, date.

Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” where numerous nameless corpses mount up in the Mexico desert towns, may be a fictional account of the border area, here Luiselli puts a children’s human face to some of this horror and in the coming days I will look at a poetry work that made the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Longlist, “Antígona González” by Sara Uribe, a Mexican work whereby the poet is searching for the corpse of her missing brother. It is through these literary works that we can understand, and hopefully stop “normalizing” this “horror and violence”.


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