On the globally resonant subject of mass migration, Lost Children Archive is the latest novel by Valeria Luiselli, documenting a family road trip across America contrasted with journeys of migrant children like those of her non-fiction book Tell Me How It Ends, reflecting the writer’s experience as volunteer translator for unaccompanied children reaching the US-Mexico border.
Questions asked of migrant children after arduous travel build their case to stay; if insufficient, they’re deported, accommodated meanwhile in ICE detention centres. Human rights organisations warn of conditions behind the walls we are barely able to picture. Hundreds of children are reported to have gone missing.
The situation is grim. The process depends on volunteers and charities providing legal and other services, stretched too thin to accommodate demand. The fast-track system set up during the Obama administration, on the surface meeting needs of children quickly, narrows the window to secure legal help in practice. Voluntary translators such as Luiselli not only transcribe but communicate with children answering box-ticking questions with fear, non-linear answers, and lack of comprehension. Their journeys have had confusing beginnings, middles, and ends.
Some answers, difficult to hear, may bolster a case for clemency. Tell Me How It Ends shares the statistic 80 per cent of women and girls crossing Mexico are raped. Some take birth control as a precaution. Other migrants are abducted. It’s a world away from children asking “are we there yet?” on holiday.
Walking on the hot land of states bordering Mexico, migrants hope to be picked up by Border Patrol before vigilantes. When increased numbers of unaccompanied children were reported in the news, adults drove for miles to protest outside immigration centres. Some had deckchairs, holding handmade signs with slogans such as “Return to Sender”. Others practised ‘open carry’ of firearms. Volunteers leave water for children who cross the border; others kick it over. Some children, such as a boy named Manu, find life in their adopted country has similar problems to that left behind, like persecution by gangs. A migrant herself, from Mexico, Luiselli’s Green Card application asked “Do you intend to practise polyamory?” and “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” Bureaucracy, both sinister and tedious, and so irrelevant to a whole, lived life.
Other artists and writers try to humanise what’s often depicted as a logistics and resources problem. Indie magazine Nansen profiles one individual migrant or refugee per issue, launching with the cheerful face of campaigner Aydin Akin, born in Turkey, who is ineligible to vote despite 50 years residence. Photographer Sergey Ponomarev documents boats reaching shore or packed trains, close enough to see fatigue upon faces. I stood for a long time before his photographs on display in Ireland’s Gallery of Photography recently, unable to look away from the direct gaze of people waiting in a long registration line, herded by Slovenian police. The only frame of reference I have is petty frustrations of timetabled travel, assured of the destination printed on my ticket.
Brexit saw a decline in discussion of immigration in the UK. Farage’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster was reported for inciting racial hatred. Trump’s wall has erected barriers before becoming physical reality, designed to stoke paranoia. Large numbers in news reports are unfathomable and abstract. Images of the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi washed ashore in his red jacket, and the shock that accompanied it, feels like a long time ago.
Luiselli’s writing doesn’t avoid the big picture, of drugs and the arms industry, and governmental complicity in a multi-continent humanitarian problem. But telling us of few fraught young worlds successfully breaks through cultural numbness. Mass processing of human lives is inherently surreal; cruelty is by design. There is some hope. In Tell Me How It Ends, Luiselli describes teaching high school students about immigration who are inspired to voluntary actions. Manu, the child dismayed to be at the mercy of gangs once again, turns up to a football match they arranged. They make him captain.
While Luiselli is emerging as one of our greatest living writers, books and reporting don’t have all the answers, if any.
But asking better questions, about how migration can be addressed humanely, and asking ourselves what we really know about what’s happening, is something.