review: TELL ME HOW IT ENDS by valeria luiselli

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 3/9/17

Here’s a challenge: tell me a story, without knowing the beginning, middle, or the end. Now, tell it in your second language, or one where the handful of words you know transforms you back into a child. No, let’s say you are a child. Let’s say this conversation will be recorded, and what you say—and how you say it—will determine where you are allowed to live. Let’s say you came alone.

This situation happens every day at the immigration courts in New York City, where novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli volunteers as an interpreter. In her expanded essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Luiselli outlines the intake form for undocumented minors. The procedure, on paper, is simple: Luiselli presents the questions, the children speak, and Luiselli transcribes their answers in English for the lawyers who will fight to secure their legal status.

full review here | order thru coffee house press here

laia jufresa & valeria luiselli in BOMB magazine

excerpts:

I had never really read what you were supposed to, and I was always trying to pretend I had, or saying, “Well, I haven’t, but I will!” I thought I was doing something wrong. The idea that I had to read certain books was a little overwhelming and had nothing to do with the way I wrote. Bradbury showed me that you have the right to follow your own path, both as a writer and a reader. He had made his own way, and he was very sure of himself in telling other writers that it was all right.

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You learn by doing. You have to read a lot to be a writer. But I don’t think it necessarily makes you better. Only writing a lot does that. It would be ridiculous to say that going to museums makes you a better painter. It just doesn’t.

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When I’m painting, I’m very comfortable being a beginner—trying things out and making mistakes. It feeds my writing. When you begin to feel like you’re a professional and have deadlines to meet, it becomes really important to still be able to play.

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Mexico is incredibly porous to the English language in ways that are interesting and different from the situations in other Latin American countries. English seeps into Mexico at all social levels because of the enormous number of people moving constantly back and forth. But I don’t think I will ever stop writing in Spanish.

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VL: Gilles Deleuze says that all great writers are foreigners in the language in which they write, even in their mother tongue. Do you feel that foreignness in Spanish?

LJ: I do, but probably not as much as you. I haven’t lived abroad as long as you have, but I didn’t grow up in Mexico City, so Mexico City Spanish has always been always a little strange for me.

VL: It’s hard to speak good chilango.

LJ: I always feel like I am imitating someone, and I am very imitative. I used to feel bad about that. I thought it implied a complete lack of personality.

VL: I was always proud of being that way, until recently.

LJ: You should be proud. Someone explained to me that it has something to do with mirror neurons. It means you’re very empathic.

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I had left Mexico some years before because I had been in a shooting. Fourteen people were killed sixty feet away from me. I couldn’t bear it, and I had the privilege of leaving. So I did, and I didn’t want to give violence any more space, especially not in my writing. But I wanted to write about grief because we were all traumatized. Every time someone dies, it touches a lot of people. The same is true when someone disappears, though in a different and equally horrible way, because there’s no closure. So writing about grief was my way of making space for it.

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In elite international circles, “global” Mexican writers, the civilized barbarians of the south, are expected to both embody and contradict the national narrative, perhaps so that bien-pensant intellectuals can confirm their well-intentioned beliefs about us. At the same time, inside Mexico, those same writers are seen as a disconnected bourgeoisie who are not entitled to their opinions, because they speak from a situation of total privilege. In one world, we are smart little underdogs, in another we are oppressors.

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Mexicans are very politically incorrect. They have always disdained American political correctness. I myself did until I moved to the US. Now, I have these immense fights with my family when they say horrible things. I think that violence, whether it is social or personal, begins with language, which is much more powerful than people think it is. As a writer, what do you think about political correctness?

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full interview here