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Valeria Luiselli On The 'Lost Children Archive'


U.S. Customs and Border Protection says they apprehended more than 66,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border last month - the largest number in almost a decade. The CBP says most were migrant families or children traveling alone, fleeing violence and poverty and seeking asylum in the United States. It's against this backdrop that Valeria Luiselli sets her new novel, "Lost Children Archive." It begins with a couple on a cross-country road trip to try to recover similar stories that have been lost. A mother, a father, a brother and a sister on their way from the towers of New York to the deserts of the American Southwest, an area called Apacheria where the Apaches once lived.

Valeria Luiselli, who was born in Mexico, grew up in India, South Africa and South Korea and now lives in New York and is the author of novels and nonfiction, including "Sidewalks" and "Faces In The Crowd," joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

VALERIA LUISELLI: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Your narrator and her husband are audio journalists and archivists. The husband declares they have to relocate to fulfill his project to tell the story of the Apache nation. But she finds a story, too, doesn't she, in a woman named Manuela who has two daughters.

LUISELLI: That's right. The narrator and mother of the kids who are travelling in this car from New York towards Arizona towards the old Apacheria has met - in her daughter's school had met a woman called Manuela. And she's been working with her husband on a big sound project recording all the languages spoken in New York. And she asks this woman, Manuela, if she can record her. This woman speaks (unintelligible) which is a very rare Mayan language. And the woman says fine, but in exchange, she asks her to translate some documents, legal documents, of her daughters who are on their way from Mexico to the U.S. border.

And these two girls, when they arrive in the U.S. border as happens with all the kids that arrive here seeking asylum, are first placed in an ICE detention space - an icebox they call them colloquially. And then these girls are transferred to a shelter. And at some point, they go missing. So the narrator of the novel becomes deeply involved with looking for these two girls, helping Manuela look for her daughters.

SIMON: I made a note of your line. The son says that if they ran off, he said ma would start thinking of us the way she thought of them, the lost children, all the time and with all her heart.

LUISELLI: Exactly, right? I mean, there's - at the end, these are two very smart kids, the kids in the novel. But they are also kids, and it's difficult for them to make sense of the idea that their mother - she will pursue her political preoccupations almost at whatever cost, right? And it's difficult. I mean, for I as a child of a mother who was a very involved activist had trouble understanding that she could put politics above family. Now I understand and respect so many of her decisions years, years later.

SIMON: A lot of soliloquies in this story from the narrator about the nature of art. Let me quote a couple lines from one of those soliloquies. "Isn't art for art's sake so often an absolutely ridiculous display of intellectual arrogance?" And the narrator wonders, why would I even think I can or should make art with someone else's suffering? Is this something you wrestled with in this book?

LUISELLI: I mean, I think what is really important is always recognizing where you stand as a person, where you're writing from, where your limitations of understanding the other are and what your motivations are. And I at some point had to stop writing the novel because I was trying to dump in it all my political frustration and confusion and sadness and rage because in those moments, I was working in court as a translator and screening children, interviewing them.

So I stopped writing the novel, and I wrote "Tell Me How It Ends," which is a very straightforward short essay nonfiction that's a kind of X-ray of the American immigration system, at least of children arriving alone and undocumented at the border and seeking asylum. So once I was able to write that, I was able to return to this novel and not think of it as a novel about the immigration crisis. It is not, in fact, a novel about the immigration crisis. It's a novel that grapples with how to document and write about and think about political violence and about political crisis. It's not a novel about immigration but a novel with immigration.

SIMON: Yeah. I was reading your novel when this week's report from Border Patrol came out and added to the feelings I hope I had for 66,000 or more actual people. I found myself thinking those were a lot of stories that we might never hear.

LUISELLI: Right. I think we need to hear stories, human stories, real stories because, otherwise, it's very difficult and very dehumanizing for people to connect to their stories if those stories are told in terms of masses and surges and caravans. Those kids have chosen to leave. They get on trains. They ride on trains. They come here. They're locked away. And they still hold on to the idea that they will at the end have a dignified life. So I think that we have to start telling the story not in terms of victimhood but with more respect for the people that come here

SIMON: Valeria Luiselli's novel is "Lost Children Archive." Thanks so much for being with us.

LUISELLI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.