Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tell Me How It Ends!

Valeria Luiselli is an author whom I've "discovered" in the past year. I first heard about her book The Story of My Teeth during the Tournament of Books in 2016.  Ever since, I've hoped to have the chance to see her in person.  With books published by small presses, it isn't guaranteed that authors will go on large-scale book tours, so I had resigned myself to traveling somewhere at a distance if I wanted to eventually meet her.  About a week ago, after finishing her most recent book Tell Me How It Ends, I decided to check out her publisher's (Coffee House Press...seriously, they're awesome!) website, to see if she was going to be on tour.  While not a book tour stop, I was delighted to see that she was going to be a guest of Wilkes University, which is only a short drive from where I live.  She was a guest lecturer throughout the day, and that evening she was reading from her book and signing copies.  I decided that this was my chance, and so I took it.  I grabbed my day bag, filled a travel mug with coffee, and hit the road to Wilkes-Barre.

Copies just waiting to be bought and read!

The event itself was quite small-scale, although it was publicized.  There were less than 50 people in attendance, and I suspect that I was the only one who wasn't in some way associated with Wilkes University.  It was held in the Salon of Kirby Hall, which was a Victorian style building that is home to the University's English Department.  There was this beautiful, marble fireplace next to my seat; even though the temperatures were near 80F, I wouldn't have minded a roaring fire because it was so picturesque and romantic.

A sneaky-pete shot that doesn't begin to do it justice!

The Chair of the department, Dr. Mischelle Anthony, made a few opening remarks then introduced Valeria.  The author read from her immigration-themed longform essay, then took questions from the audience.  All of the questions were either about Valeria's experiences as a court translator, that current state of US immigration, or her work with Hofstra University.   It's clear that she is a natural storyteller, by the way she writes and also how she speaks.  She answers your questions, but crafts her responses in interesting and compelling ways - you can't help but be in raptures listening to her!

Aren't those glasses just the most! 

Afterwards,  we convened in the lobby where there were light refreshments and a table where the author was signing her books.  More coffee and a cookie?  Yes please!  Valeria was incredibly sweet and engaging, and was attentive and chatty to everyone.  She seemed very down-to-Earth and generally interested and enthusiastic to be there.  There are some authors whom you meet, and that meeting drastically diminishes your opinion of them and their work.  Maybe they act aloof, pretentious, or like they're doing you (the reader) a favor by being there.  That was definitely not the case here; I really enjoyed meeting Valeria Luiselli, and will buy whatever she publishes subsequently so as to support her and her work.

Thank you so much to Valeria, to Coffee House Press for publishing her work, and to Wilkes University for sponsoring the event - making it possible for me to meet her.  It was a wonderful event!  Here is my review of her latest book, Tell Me How It Ends... 

Tell Me How It Ends, this brilliant little book, is a searing exploration of immigration, not only from the author's own experiences but also from those of the children she met during her time as a translator in the New York Immigration Court.  Luiselli, who is a Spanish-speaking Mexican, was working on this book during the period of time when she was waiting for her Green Card to arrive, so that she could reside permanently in The States.  Her particular story represents adult immigration to the USA, with the assistance of a lawyer and her rising literary fame.

In her volunteerism, she interacts with a variety of children who are hoping to stay in the country, having risked their lives to escape devastatingly violent situations in their home countries.  The particular group with whom the author works begins this process by asking the child a series of questions on a form.  Because Luiselli is fluent in Spanish, she is a translator, taking the child's answers and writing them in English.  Depending on the responses, a child may be eligible for asylum or another special status, and eventually a Green Card and, perhaps, citizenship.  If the answers are "wrong" (based on the requirements of the legal system and immigration rules) the child may be deported.  She knows that something as simple as a poor word choice, or a child's inability to articulate something fully/clearly may make all the difference in whether or not he/she can remain in the USA.  However, she cannot alter what the child says during the interview.  The author constantly wrestles with the weight of this while she is translating.

Through the lens of these children's experiences, Luiselli sheds light on the real, gritty realities of immigration.  Families may spend their entire savings, or even go into debt, to pay a "coyote" to guide the child through their home country, to the Mexican border where they ride a freight train nicknamed "The Beast" which carries cargo from the Guatemalan border to the US border.  Surviving this train ride is no easy feat - children may be discovered by train/cargo employees, kidnapped and/or raped, detained by the local police, may fall off the train (sleeping, losing footing, etc.) and be injured or killed, among many other possible fates.  For any children to survive this journey, often carrying no money or supplies, proves just how dire their home lives were and how much they want a chance at something safer and better.  Risking everything to escape, only to be deported back again, is a heartbreaking proposition.

Those children, who do reach the US border, aren't interested in sneaking into the country and living here illegally.  To do so would make life extremely difficult, not only because it would be very difficult to find gainful employment but because it would be impossible to undertake the formal, legal immigration process in the future.  Instead, they surrender themselves to the US Border Patrol as soon as possible after setting foot in the country.  They are funneled into detention facilities called "iceboxes" not only because they are overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but because they are kept at an extremely cold temperature.  If children have family already in The States, they are able to live with them while they await the next step in the immigration process, which involves the legal system.  This is the part where Luiselli became involved with the child, through the intake process.

The work itself is structured loosely around the questions that she asks during the interviews she conducts.  Questions include "Why did you come the United States?", "With whom did you travel to this country?", "What countries did you pass through?", "Has anyone hurt, threatened, or frightened you since you came to the U.S.?", "Are you in touch with anyone in your home country?", and many others.  As Luiselli lists each question, she delves deep into the realities that are contained within, and what the implications of a child's responses might be.  She also includes observations of her own, her interviewees, and those of experts; statistics; and historical information to provide support.  It's incredibly impressive that the author is able to accomplish this level of depth, breadth, and emotional appeal in such a short work.

While there were episodes of interviews from many different children, the main example was from the first child whom the author translated.  Known as "Manu", he was awaiting his appointed court date, and Luiselli was performing the intake process, so that he could be given legal representation.  His story forms the heart of her exploration into what is wrong with the US immigration system.  Manu left Honduras after he was threatened to join a violent street gang, and his best friend was murdered right in front of him.  His aunt funded his trip with a coyote, and he survived the arduous journey across Mexico on La Bestia.  After being detained in one of the "iceboxes", he flew to his aunt in Hempstead, on Long Island and enrolled in school.  However, the gang that caused his flight had a presence at his school, and he was experiencing similar dangers there as he did at home.

The title of this book comes from a question that the author's daughter asked her about the children she interviewed.  She wanted to know what happened to them, and if their stories had a happy ending.  Often, the best that Luiselli could offer is "I don't know", but she always hoped for better.  By the end of the book, the reader learns a bit more about Manu's particular situation.  It leaves with a slightly hopeful note, but just slightly.

For those who aren't well-informed about the realities of immigration, Tell Me How It Ends is an awakening.  The dominant political rhetoric in the US does not at all reflect the realities, and actively avoids admitting culpability in the root causes for this immigration.  They are fleeing their home countries because there is no future, except for violence and poverty.  They are willing to risk everything for a chance at a better life.  If that isn't the American Dream, then I don't know what is.

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