An Evening with Valeria Luiselli

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Valeria Luiselli, author of this year’s highly praised LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE as well as her recent essay, TELL ME HOW IT ENDS, and her 2013 Spanish novel in translation, THE STORY OF MY TEETH.  Having finished ARCHIVE just a few hours before the event, I was thrilled to hear Luiselli speak on her experience writing the novel.  When she walked on stage in a cozy turtleneck, oversized pants, and giant Sorel boots, I knew I was in for a good time!

Given that her novel LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE covers the child refugee crisis at the Mexican-American border, Luiselli talked heavily about this process over the course of the evening.  Though this is an issue I deeply care about, there is still so much I do not know.  Thankfully, Luiselli shed some serious knowledge on the topic, including the state of the shelters the children are kept in, the U.S. government departments involved along the way, and the intense legal process the children must face in America.  Luiselli also discussed her personal role in the process as a Spanish-English translater in court, and how that played a part in her writing of the novel.

Speaking more on the inspiration behind LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE, Luiselli discussed the cross-country American road trip she took a few years ago, one similar to that which her characters embark on in the novel.  The trip resulted in her essay TELL ME HOW IT ENDS, which she wrote in bits and pieces on the road, but it also played a large role in ARCHIVE as well.  Luiselli remarked on the hilarious horrors of visiting a Wild West reenactment town on the trip, something the children wished to do: not only did it fill her with an “unnatural” feeling, but it was also upsetting to see the one-sided way that history is told, with American cowboys as heroes, Mexicans as outlaws, and few indigenous peoples recognized at all.

Luiselli also remarked on her writing process and the importance of a narrative.  She stated, “A novel has to be a place where people can breathe,” a sentiment I agree with strongly.  Where nonfiction books and other sources like newspaper articles can be heavy on pushing the facts with little story behind them, novels, as Luiselli believes, must be a place primarily for story, with less fact so we, the reader, have a little more space to breathe, swallow, and digest the information presented in a natural way.

After Luiselli’s lecture, she took a few questions from the audience.  One crowd member wished to know why she wrote the novel in English–her first.  Luiselli answered, when she began writing, she wrote a little in Spanish and a little in English, but after the back-and-forth, the English just worked better.  Luiselli also made sure to clarify that it is not the first book she wrote in English–that was TELL ME HOW IT ENDS, her 2017 essay, which she originally wrote in Spanish but had to rewrite in English in order to appease her Mexican editors and publish it.

Luiselli is such an inspirational woman, having already accomplished so much and only 36 years old.  It was an honor and a delight to hear her speak.

Photo Credit: Nancy J. Parisi for Just Buffalo Literary Center

4 Comments

  1. Literary Elephant

    Great post, this sounds like a fantastic event! It sounds like she talked about some of the same content that appears in Tell Me How It Ends, which was fantastic and I’m sure even more so coming from the author herself in person. It’s interesting that after going back and forth she settled on English for LCA, not having written a novel in English previously! Personally I think that was a good choice for reaching a necessary audience with the border crisis topic (we desperately need more awareness in the US), but I haven’t read any of her other (translated) work yet so I can’t say that’s any less effective, of course!

    I do completely agree with the sentiment that a novel should leave the reader room to breath; what a stunning way to pinpoint the difference between how fiction and nonfiction operate, even while using the same ideas. I wish Tell Me How It Ends had been added as an “extra” at the back of Lost Children Archive, as they really are such a perfect pair and I hope more readers will pick up the nonfiction piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hannah and Her Books

      It was an amazing event! I was really surprised by a lot of what she said, specifically the extent to which the mother character in the novel reflects herself. And yes, it was really interesting to hear her opinion on fiction vs. nonfiction, having written and published both. I’m interested in reading TMHIE not just for the content but also how her nonfiction take on the topic compares to her fiction!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Literary Elephant

        I was also surprised just by reading TMHIE how clearly the mother character in LCA was drawn from Luiselli’s life! I’m so intrigued by how the writing process works for different authors, and I really felt like I learned a lot by reading both Luiselli’s fiction and nonfiction and being able to look at how her own experience came out on the page in those two different forms. They really make for a great comparison, and TMHIE is helpfully informative besides. I hope you’ll love it when you get around to it!

        Liked by 1 person

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