“I have never written a novel that just sort of springs from the head of Zeus, from an absolute space of fiction,” said Valeria Luiselli. “I always begin my work documenting my everyday.”Credit...Devin Yalkin for The New York Times
A few days before Christmas, a group of 20 or so people crowded into the Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli’s living room. Luiselli dipped in and out among her guests, serving mulled wine as school-aged children from Still Waters in a Storm, an educational center in Brooklyn focused on reading and writing, prepared to perform an original musical adapted from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” The children had worked with the center’s founder, Stephen Haff, to translate the book from the Spanish and write songs reinterpreting the story with a chorus of migrant children. By the time Haff told the children to find their spots on the small makeshift stage, the seats had filled up, so Luiselli sat on the floor next to her 9-year-old daughter, Maia. It wasn’t the first time Luiselli had seen the show, but she still cried, as did her daughter, when the children sang songs with lyrics like, “Innocence needs a home.”
The experiences of asylum-seeking children from Latin America have preoccupied Luiselli for several years now and serve as a central theme in her latest book about a family road trip across the United States. “Lost Children Archive,” which will be published by Knopf next week, is Luiselli’s fifth book, and the first of her novels to be written in English.
When Luiselli, 35, started writing “Lost Children Archive” in the summer of 2014, she struggled with using it “as a loudspeaker for all of my political rage.” She had volunteered as a court translator for child refugees from Latin America and was therefore familiar with the migration crisis. She set aside the novel and wrote “Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions,” a meditation on the children’s stories and the circumstances that brought them to the United States. It was formatted after the questionnaire the court had her use to interview the children and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism in 2017. Afterward, Luiselli said, she was able to return to her novel and offer “more open questions and open ends instead of political stances that are too loud and obvious by themselves.”
The formal inventiveness of “Tell Me How It Ends” is characteristic of all of Luiselli’s former work. Diego Rabasa, who has edited Luiselli’s books with Sexto Piso, an independent press in Mexico City, said her first book, “Papeles Falsos” (translated as “Sidewalks” in English), contained elements of literary, personal and travel essays. “There has always been a distinct aura of brilliance and intelligence surrounding her,” said Rabasa. “What dazzled us was the audacity of a young writer who was starting on such an original path.”
Luiselli characterized her first book, which was rejected by several publishing houses before it was acquired by Sexto Piso, as an attempt to “write myself into my mother tongue” after a lifetime living away from Mexico. She had always studied in English, so when it came to Spanish, “I never had the inflections of the people my age. It didn’t get renewed with slang and street talk.”
Luiselli first left Mexico at the age of 2, when her father moved the family to Madison, Wis., to complete his doctorate. From there, her father’s work as a diplomat took them to Costa Rica, South Korea and South Africa, where they arrived in 1994, shortly after Mandela’s historic election. By then, her mother had left the family to join the Zapatista movement in Mexico. “I come from a matriarchal line of women who have always been very involved politically and socially,” she said, referring also to her grandmother, who worked with indigenous communities in Puebla, Mexico. After attending boarding school in India, she decided, as she puts it, “I need to go back to Mexico and become Mexican,” Luiselli recalled. She was 19 when she enrolled at the National Autonomous University of Mexico to major in philosophy and began writing there.
Luiselli followed “Papeles Falsos” in 2011 with a novel, “Los Ingrávidos” (“Faces in the Crowd”). It has been translated into 20 languages. Rabasa noted that the book remains one of Sexto Piso’s most popular and is reprinted every year. “The Story of my Teeth,” Luiselli’s second novel, was the product of a collaboration with Jumex factory workers in Mexico, in which she sent them chapters, and they helped her shape the plot. Her books always reflect a deep plunge into her sensibilities — books and cultural references, and even real people and places where she’s been. In “Lost Children Archive,” for instance, Still Waters in a Storm is mentioned, as are Haff, obscure Italian writers and Ezra Pound.
“I have never written a novel that just sort of springs from the head of Zeus, from an absolute space of fiction,” Luiselli said. “I always begin my work documenting my everyday.”
“She’s really wrestling with a certain strand of Latino and Latin American identity in the U.S. in this political moment,” said the novelist Daniel Alarcón, who has sat on panels with Luiselli. In “Tell Me How It Ends,” in particular, he said, “she confronts directly questions of privilege and gaze, at the same time wrestling with a political moment that affects not just all Latinos but all Americans.”
“Without knowing it or planning to, she has opened doors,” said her friend, the writer Laia Jufresa, who told me she never imagined a Mexican writer could plausibly achieve the number of translations, awards or critical acclaim Luiselli has in her early career.
Both the novelist Francisco Goldman and Rabasa mentioned the — “insufferable,” in Goldman’s words — macho culture of Mexican literature. Goldman rattled off a list of woman writers, besides Luiselli, who have been causing a seismic shift in the country’s literary world over the last decade: Gabriela Jauregui, Guadalupe Nettel, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Jufresa and Fernanda Melchor.
The Argentine novelist Samanta Schweblin, whose second book, “Mouthful of Birds,” was published in January, said Luiselli’s vision is a cross between the Latin American and the North American views of the world. “Both visions are so nostalgic, critical, loving and painful at the same time. Valeria belongs to both territories and therefore understands their signals, but at the same time she seems to always understand herself as a foreigner,” wrote Schweblin in a recent email. Perhaps, she said, having one foot in each world is why Luiselli’s literature is charged with the lucidness of estrangement.
Luiselli is currently exploring different art forms altogether. She recently received an Art for Justice fellowship to research and write about mass incarceration in the United States, with an emphasis on detention centers. “The same companies own immigration jails and normal jails,” she said, and many don’t understand that “immigration detention and mass incarceration are exactly the same thing.”
She started a literary program to teach creative writing to girls in a detention center in upstate New York. She is also working on a performance piece related to mass incarceration and violence against women with the poet Natalie Diaz. In the fall, she will begin a two-year residency at Bard College.
Luiselli lives in the Bronx and jokes that she is raising her daughter, whose father is the Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrigue, in a household full of women (her niece lives with her and her mother visits often). “I feel my female bonds stronger than ever in my life, the way that women can group and discuss and think politically, and also just how friends can get together and be a network of support,” Luiselli said.
“Lost Children Archive” was in large part a response to seeing her daughter try to interpret the current migration crisis. “Children can add a tinge of bizarreness to what is possibly accepted as normal but actually is not,” said Luiselli. Her approach is to discuss issues with her daughter “in a way that she is not scared — that she finds the right balance between a certain rage or outrage and clarity to imagine possible change.”