Literary Insights: Documenting the Undocumented

Stories With No Endings

By Susanne Carter

When Valeria Luiselli was writing Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, her young daughter wanted to hear the stories of the immigrant children her mother was writing. She kept asking her mother how their stories ended. But Luiselli had no comforting answers for her daughter because there were no happy endings. There were only more questions.

This article discusses the writing of Tell Me How It Ends (Coffee House Press, 2017). In the Writers’ Notes I discuss why I believe the book succeeds as both documentation of a serious social issue and as a literary work.

40 Questions

During the surge of undocumented children entering the United States in 2015, Valeria Luiselli began volunteering as a Spanish interpreter at a federal immigration court in New York. The answers to the 40 questions these children were asked during their intake interviews at the court determined if they would be granted refugee status or deported to their home countries.

Luiselli structures her short book around these 40 questions and the revealing answers of the undocumented children responding to them. Luiselli finds that the simplistic boxes on the interview form are inadequate to capture the complex and often heartbreaking experiences of these children. “The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order,” she writes. “The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.”

Through their responses to the 40 questions, we learn that most of these children have come to the United States, not to pursue the American dream, but to escape the nightmare of violence, poverty, abuse, and neglect that characterizes their lives in their home countries. They have “walked and swum and hidden and run and mounted freight trains and trucks” to make their way to the American border. Along the way, they have frequently been robbed, raped, or abducted; some have been killed and never found.

The Other Side of Horror

Children, writes Luiselli, “have an instinct for survival, perhaps that allows them to endure almost anything just to make it to the other side of horror, whatever may be waiting there for them.” What awaits them in this strange, new country is a bewildering, bureaucratic maze that is confusing and even hostile.

The American media reports the influx of these children, many of whom are following their parents who immigrated before them, as it if were a “biblical plague,” writes Luiselli, bringing chaos, sickness, dirt and their “brownness” into America with them. But for these children, crossing the border into the United States is their only hope for any kind of future.

“Why did you come to the United States?” is the first intake question on the interview form.

“Because I wanted to arrive,” a little girl responds.

Writers’ Notes:

I believe Tell Me How It Ends succeeds as both an exploration of a very timely social issue and as a literary work because of the author’s approach to her subject, the way she blends experiences and research, and her lyrical writing style.

  1. Luiselli has adopted a creative approach to a complex social issue. By structuring the book around the 40-question intake interview, she allows the questions to provide the book’s form and the children’s responses to speak for themselves.
  1. Luiselli blends her professional experiences as a Mexican immigrant and a Spanish translator with research she has found on the issue of undocumented children coming into the United States. The blend is transparent and balanced. Her personal insights into the children’s experiences help to humanize a very controversial “transnational” issue that affects an entire hemisphere.
  1. In her endeavor to portray the experiences of undocumented children and the complex array of questions they are expected to answer during the intake interview, Luiselli never loses sight of the fact that she is first and foremost a writer (she has published two novels and a book of essays in the past four years). There is a lyrical quality to her writing that softens the gravity of the book’s subject matter with grace. As an example, she writes:

I’ve had to ask so many children: Why did you come? Sometimes I ask myself the same question. I don’t have an answer yet. Before coming to the United States, I knew what others know: that the cruelty of its borders was only a thin crust and that on the other side a possible life was waiting. I understood some time after, that once you stay here too long, you begin to remember the place where you originally came from as a backyard might look from a high window in the deep of winter: a skeleton of the world, a tract of abandonment, objects dead and obsolete.

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Have you read Tell Me How It Ends, and if so, what did you think of the work?


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