In “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions” (Coffee House Press, $12.95 paper), Valeria Luiselli recounts her experiences as an interpreter in New York City’s immigration court. The plight of the desperate Central American child migrants she served occasionally prompts uncharacteristic explosions of anger, but the soft-spoken writer, known for her novels “Faces in the Crowd” and “The Story of My Teeth,” generally prefers to persuade rather than hector. In conversation from her home in Harlem, the 33-year-old assistant professor of Romance languages and literatures at Hofstra University voiced faith that the generosity displayed toward immigrants by her students is a truer expression of American values than the prejudice she has also encountered. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
You write that you volunteered as an interpreter, “Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable.” Was that your motive for writing the book?
Yes, although the truth is, I don’t know how much a book can do. I know it can slowly change the perspective of the people who read it and meditate on the subject, but it’s hard to see the amount of political change that writing can bring, ever. You can’t write a book because you want to produce that change or teach a lesson; I think that often produces books that are terribly arrogant, intellectually speaking. You have to be modest as a writer, write as well as you can and tell stories and hope that others find empathy there.
One of the things you explain is that the drug violence and gangs these children are fleeing are not just Central American problems.
Latin America is always covered in the media as a barbaric separate region that the U.S. should protect itself from, so the barbarism doesn’t flood in. They don’t mention that American money goes to criminal governments in the region, the arms and guns that go back and forth, the drugs that are consumed here. I do hope that the book can open people’s eyes to those facts. There’s no use pointing fingers; the idea is to show how deeply we are all connected in the hemisphere so that the children’s exodus does not seem like a foreign problem we have nothing to do with, but a problem that is ours.
This situation must be especially painful for you, since you’re originally from Mexico and only recently got a green card.
As a Mexican, I live with an amount of shame that I don’t know how I can transform into something productive. The way the Mexican government treats Central American migrants at its southern border is a thousand times more inhumane and horrible than what happens in the U.S. It’s partly because of pressure from the U.S., but we could perfectly well say, “We are not going to do this.” I don’t know if I am going back to Mexico, ever. I’ve thought a lot about whether I want to raise my daughter here, where she’s going to grow up with a sense of stigma about being of Mexican origin, but I don’t really have much of a choice. This is where my life is; this is where I have a job; my literary community is here; this is very much my home.
Also, I have a lot of trust in that side of America, which I’ve only seen in America, which is people’s sense of duty toward their communities. All those nonprofit institutions, those people who work tirelessly — remember those photos of those lawyers from the ACLU at JFK Airport,[after the initial executive order banning immigration from seven countries] holding up signs that said, “Need a Lawyer?” Where else does that happen?
Your own students at Hofstra formed a group, the Teenage Immigrant Integration Association, to provide support for young migrants living on Long Island.
Yes, and I have shifted my energy from immigration court into working with TIIA and the kids who are in Nassau County. What is beautiful is that a lot of the kids I once saw in court I see again through TIIA; Manu, the first kid I ever translated in court, now lives in Hempstead and calls me once a week. It has some continuity with my work at court, but it’s transformed into the very tissue of my everyday life. So I have a lot of optimism.