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Tell Me How it Ends: an Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Aaron Bady By Aaron Bady Published on April 21, 2017
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Valeria Luiselli is one of PEN World Voices Festival's speakers for 2017 where she will speak about US borders and Central American diaspora, and will participate in the Dreamers Project Workshop and The New Salon: Writers in Conversation. Her latest novel translated into English is The Story of My Teeth.


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At the most basic level, Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends is something very simple, a personal essay about trying to help some kids. While working as an interpreter for a New York City immigration court, Luiselli helped children get lawyers and she helped lawyers who wanted to help those children. Before they could build a case for the right of migrant children to stay in this country, pro-bono lawyers would need information from the children—a variety of specifics about their individual case—while the Spanish-speaking children, in turn, needed help finding legal representation. And despite the desperate complexity of the issue and the byzantine politics of immigration law and enforcement, this part was extremely simple: there was work to be done, in the middle, and so Luiselli—a Mexican novelist living in the United States—found herself doing it.

This piercing simplicity gives this very short book a driving, urgent necessity. An “issue” can become diffuse and vague when we use abstractions like immigration, human rights, and international law to talk about it; it can become the sort of thing we need more information about, more debate, more data. Tell Me How It Ends is the most important and timely book I’ve read in years, because Luiselli does the interpreter’s work of digging beneath the issue to uncover what these words actually mean, uncovering the flesh and bones buried beneath what we might dismiss as the “central American refugee crisis.” “Crisis” is just a word. What’s real are the kids, kids with names and stories and dreams, and with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

When people refer to the “Central American refugee crisis” what they mean is the dramatic uptick in the numbers of young refugees to the United States, mostly unaccompanied minors fleeing gang violence and political instability in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. By the summer of 2014, the rising numbers of refugee children had been declared a “crisis”; by the following year, over a hundred thousand unaccompanied minors had been detained at the border. Those who survived their journey across Mexico would be taken into custody, and (under new rules declared by President Obama) would be given 21 days to find a lawyer to plead their case to remain. If they did not, they would be deported back to their country of origin.

To state the obvious, no one would make this journey lightly, least of all a child.

To state the obvious, no one would make this journey lightly, least of all a child. The physical terrain is brutal, and the dangers of the trip are too numerous to tally: from clinging to the roof of La Bestia (“The Beast,” the long-distance trains on which migrants ride) to being entrusted to the care of a coyote of uncertain goodwill, the journey is only for those who have no other option, nothing left to lose. So many would-be refugees reach the end of their journey long before reaching the US, and the dead are uncounted and uncountable. The numbers that exist are almost too horrible to be absorbed: what can you do with the estimate that 80% of female migrants will be raped during their journey to the United States? Sexual violence is so common, so expected, and so normal, that older female migrants often take contraceptive precautions before they set off, anticipating the nearly inevitable. That they still go tells you all you need to know about their desperation, about the urgency that impels them to flee. And yet it’s the arrival of these tens of thousands on the U.S. borders that we’ve named a “crisis.”

What word should we use for the multitude of corpses who never arrived? What word describes the situation so many are fleeing?

When she began volunteering, Luiselli had no answers, only questions. She didn’t know what she was doing—a conversation with her own immigration lawyer led to the spur of the moment decision to volunteer as an interpreter—so she was given an intake application, forty questions that lawyers would use to determine how a deportation order could be challenged. These questions are more or less standard, and they structure the book: Why did you come to the United States? How did you travel here? Do you still have any family members that live in your home country? Do you have any other close family members that live in the United States? Did you have any problems with the government in your home country? And so on. These questions are pertinent, informative, factual; through these questions, we get a rough sense of why it is that the children flee their homes, what they (and their parents) hoped they would find, and how they might rebuild their lives, having left everything behind. These questions point towards a sketch of the crisis, of the raw social reality a generation of children are struggling to navigate.

Luiselli is a prize-winning novelist—both Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth have been translated into English—so it’s no surprise that Tell Me How It Ends is filled with evocative, novelistic flourishes. When migrant children first arrive in this country, for example, they are kept in what comes to be known as the “icebox”—in Spanish, la hielera—as much for the freezing conditions in which ICE keeps them as for the Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (English) acronym. And yet what novelist would dare to invent a bilingual pun like that? 

what novelist would dare to invent a bilingual pun like that? 

She can only observe the blasting migrant children with freezing, chilling refrigerated air seems designed “to ensure that the foreign meat doesn’t go bad too quickly,” and that the children are treated more like carriers of disease than human beings.

In moments like these, it’s clear that the sketch produced by a legal strategy could never be enough. And so the book is structured by the breakdown of these questions, by the insufficiency of the application form to grasp the reality of the lives it seeks to comprehend. Those forty questions are essentially legalistic, built around the strategic search for answers that could give a lawyer an argument that a child has a legal warrant to remain. If it’s not safe to return—if a child has been persecuted by the government, or by gangs—or if they have no family to return to, or an abusive one, or if they have family in the US who will sponsor them—or if any other mitigating factor can be argued to be present—then a lawyer could appeal for relief from deportation. “An answer is ‘correct,’” she notes, “if it strengthens the child’s case and provides a potential avenue for relief.” As Luiselli gets more and more familiar with the process, she begins to learn how to search for the right answers, how to find the cracks in a deportation regime that aspires to send them all back.

Tell Me How It Ends is the best first book to read about the immigration crisis; if, like Luiselli, you come to the issue with nothing but questions, there is not a better hundred pages for you to read. And yet it’s ultimately, also, the story of how language and the law break down, in the face of a reality almost beyond human comprehension, and must be recreated. As the interpreter struggles to bridge the gap between the law and the experiences of children too young to fully understand what has happened to them—and, often, too traumatized to fully explain it—she tells a story without an ending, only a question, only a hope, and only a prayer: to arrive.


Author Photo Credit: Diego Berruecos
Banner photo: Reporte43Tamaulipas
A recovering academic, Aaron Bady is a writer in Oakland, California, and a bookseller at Diesel Bookstore.

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