Babel presents Valeria Luiselli
The author/activist explores refugee plight in fact and fiction
Luiselli brings multinational experience to her narratives of displacement and the quest for a home.
Photo by Diego Berruecos/Gatopardo
7 p.m. at Kleinhans Music Hall, 3 Symphony CIrcle
She writes what she listens to. Valeria Luiselli, child of a diplomat, was born in Mexico City, grew up in South Korea, South Africa, and India, and now lives in New York City, where she brings a well-tuned ear to nonfiction writing, and unique voice to fiction. The acclaimed author of Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, based on her volunteer work as an interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking legal status in the US, and the novel Lost Children Archive, published this year, speaks at 8 p.m. Thursday, November 14, in Kleinhans Music Hall, the second lecturer in Just Buffalo Literary Center’s 2019-2020 Babel series.
Lost Children Archive, the story of a family road trip from New York to the Southwestern border, where idylls of singalongs are disturbed by radio news of escalating border crises, is fiction but reads like a memoir. Tell us about your writing process.
I don’t envision this at all as a memoir. My composition method has to do with documenting minute details of everyday-ness and weaving them all together into a fictional fabric. This gives it a memoir flavor, an intimate tone or gaze. It began as a real road trip, and I began thinking of it as a novel, really thinking of it as how we pass on narrative, intergenerational narrative. Children shuffle it around and come up with a different narrative.
How do your own upbringing and diverse cultural influences inform your work?
I had my own experience of displacement, of foreignness. This kind of uprootedness is quite common. Every family has a story of migration somewhere in their line. My own story is crossed by constant movement. I am currently a resident of New York City, where I’ve been for eleven years. This is in fact the city where I have lived the most, though I do feel that I go back to some kind of home when I go back to Mexico City, like half my heart is here, and the other half there.
Volunteering with immigrants led to your essay collection. How did a novel ensue?
It was only after I wrote Tell Me How it Ends that I was able to return to the novel I’d begun.
After processing the rage and the grief of stories I was hearing, I returned to the novel, to a space for the imagination to flow, a space in which you can ask complex questions and not [have to] answer them. I don’t think of my writing as only a tool for my politics. I am a person who is politically active and concerned, and I use my writing as a vehicle for that, but not to be prescriptive.
You have been criticized for some of your nonfiction writing, a New Yorker piece on reenactment culture, for example, which some say was unfair to Tombstone, AZ.
I was interested to see the complete erasing of the presence of women, Mexicans, and native Americans in those reenactment scenarios, which reference the late nineteenth century. I came with questions, and saw no commitment to revisiting the way history is told and represented. I wrote what I listened to. One has to write courageously. Speaking your mind is obviously going to upset some people.
The border crisis does not seem any better. How do you help as a writer and activist?
As a woman in activism, a mother, a teacher—from all these vectors—I feel it is my obligation to remain hopeful. This becomes a daily discipline, not to throw in the towel. I remain active. I started a creative writing workshop in a New York detention center; we are working to expand the program to other facilities for those who are incarcerated only because they sought asylum. The hope is that this generation of incarcerated children will gain the tools to eventually tell their own stories. When I speak in Buffalo, I will talk about this particular political crisis, and what we can, collectively, put together to deal with it.