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Author Valeria Luiselli on child migrants and her work's 'dark core'

Author Valeria Luiselli
Diego Berruecos Gatopardo
Courtesy of the author
Author Valeria Luiselli

In Santa Fe, an inaugural literary festival kicks off this weekend, bringing authors including Margaret Atwood and Colson Whitehead to the state capital for talks, readings and other events.

One author who will be present is Valeria Luiselli, whose 2019 novel "Lost Children Archive" tells the story of the crisis at the U.S. southern border when tens of thousands of children became caught up in a dysfunctional immigration system. The book blends fiction, non-fiction, poetry and photography.

KUNM's Alice Fordham spoke with Luiselli ahead of her talk, and began by discussing that mix of elements in her work.

VALERIA LUISELLI So the way I somehow think of my writing is a kind of unknowable, dark core or center that I circle around endlessly. And in that circling around the reaching out to documents archive more generally. And then yes, the kind of mechanisms of fiction too, is what allows me to to remain connected to that difficult ambivalent, unknowable core.

KUNM So "Lost Children Archive" and also your collection "Tell Me How It Ends" deal with the way the United States treats children coming over the border. Can you tell me a little bit about your work with those children?

LUISELLI Sure, I started reading about the crisis at the border in 2014. There had been between the fall of 2013 in the summer of 2014 about 80,000 children who had arrived alone and undocumented at the border. And the news started breaking out in 2014: there's a crisis at the border, it involves children. I couldn't quite wrap my head around the the sole idea that there was so many children who were facing a kind of limbo, like: how could - where were they? And why weren't they more immediately taken care of? Why, why did it seem that the country was calling their arrival a crisis, not on the basis of their experience, but on the basis of some kind of institutional overflow? And I decided, after a few months of trying to understand it to just get more and more involved on a daily basis. And I decided to translate in court, I became a court, not a court-appointed translator, but a translator in court, with a series of nonprofits, particularly one nonprofit here in New York, through which I helped, basically translating, and then doing interviews, gathering testimonies, and then translating those testimonies so that we could find lawyers to defend those kids against deportation.

KUNM Something people said to me, particularly during the Trump administration, that really stuck with me was that the stories of the treatment of child migrants were so appalling that they couldn't look, if you see what I mean. People who habitually follow the news closely, couldn't bring themselves to read the news. I wonder if your books are an effort to present what's happening in a way that means people can look, can, as you said, wrap their heads around what's happening?

LUISELLI That's a very, very good reading, the one you're doing, of what literature can do. And sometimes what literature as opposed to, to our close cousins, journalists do. Like journalism has a very daunting task of staying up to date with an ever-changing, rapidly-changing, baffling reality. And what writers of, not of journalism, but of nonfiction or fiction can do is take a step back from from the everyday news of of the changing events of the world and try to look at them within a larger historical context, and in their hemispheric interrelations and, perhaps in comparison to other historical moments that may be similar, and in doing so, might be successful at translating a difficult crisis. If you think of a crisis as an almost unreadable moment, a writer kind of translates it into a language that is more understandable.

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