“It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”
A departure from her playful and brilliant first three books, Valeria Luiselli’s latest is weighed down by the heaviness of its subject matter: the hundreds of thousands of Central American children who have fled gang violence and made the arduous trek to the United States in the past few years.
At 99 pages, Tell Me How It Ends is loosely structured around the questionnaire that Luiselli has given to scores of these children while working as a volunteer interpreter in New York’s immigration court since 2015. The questionnaire is meant to streamline their legal proceedings, providing the children with a better shot at remaining in the country. But oftentimes, Luiselli writes, their stories are “shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.”
The book does not so much explain or straighten out those individual narratives as it does reckon with the half-truths and omissions that plague the discourse around immigrants and refugees in the United States.
Luiselli was on a road trip from New York to Arizona with her husband and two children—all of them Mexican nationals—when the refugee crisis began to unfold in 2014. As they approached the Southwest, reports that thousands of unaccompanied Central American children were arriving at the border began to dominate the airwaves. Luiselli and her husband—both “alien writers,” she jokes, who had lived in New York for three years—had recently applied for green cards for their family to become “resident aliens,” a key step in immigration law before citizenship. But the running family joke about “aliens” paying a visit to the UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico, came to an uncomfortable end when they heard that planes full of children were being deported from a nearby airport.
Upon the family’s return to New York, everyone’s green cards had arrived—except for Luiselli’s. As she delved into her own immigration issues, Luiselli’s lawyer called to say she was leaving to work for a non-profit dedicated to helping the migrant children. “It was thanks to my lost green card,” Luiselli writes, “and thanks to my lawyer abandoning my case, that I became involved with a much more urgent problem.”
As a volunteer translator, Luiselli was thrown into the “absurd, circular nightmare” of the refugee crisis. In the 1970s, she learned, repressive U.S.-backed military governments in Central America forced millions of people into exile. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, children of these exiles got caught up in Los Angeles’ gang culture and formed the infamous MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. Then in the ‘90s, the U.S. deported thousands of gang members to Central America, creating a “kind of transnational army.” The instability and violence wrought by the returning gangsters led to the current refugee crisis.
The stories she hears in court tend to follow a pattern. The children, facing unimaginable violence at home, are placed in the hands of coyotes—people-smugglers—by their family members. The coyotes transfer them across the Guatemala-Mexico border and onto the freight trains nicknamed La Bestia—the Beast—where smugglers and children alike must avoid the Mexican authorities. That the trip through Mexico is often so awful clearly causes Luiselli anguish. A particular set of horrors await female refugees: eight in 10 women are said to be sexually assaulted on the way over. The coyotes’ duty ends at the U.S.-Mexico border; once they have crossed it, the children seek out Border Patrol agents in the hope of being granted legal permission to remain in the country.
By entering detention centers, the Central American children have the opportunity to find legal representation and try to stay in the country. But due to Obama-era rules meant to deal with the sudden influx of child refugees in 2013-2014, the children have only 21 days to find a lawyer and appear before an immigration judge, causing enormous strain on the already overburdened immigration system.
For many of the children now fleeing, their struggles do not end once they settle in the United States; MS-13 and Barrio 18 maintain a strong presence across the country. One child told Luiselli that Hempstead, the Long Island city where he has been resettled, is “a shit-hole full of [gangsters], just like Tegucigalpa,” the Honduran city he fled after MS-13 gangsters killed his friend.
“Between Hempstead and Tegucigalpa,” Luiselli writes, “there is a long chain of causes and effects. Both cities can be drawn on the same map: the map of violence related to drug trafficking.” This is the book’s keenest insight: the U.S. government and its citizens share responsibility for the fundamental tragedy of this refugee crisis. While government studies and media reports draw a sharp line “between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarity’ just below the Río Grande,” Luiselli writes, “they willfully ignore the role played by the United States in Central America’s problems.
This is not merely an academic concern. By focusing only on the gangs—and not on American drug consumption or American guns being trafficked into Mexico and Central America—American policymakers have wrought their own forms of violence. They have created an immigration system that focuses on detentions and fast-tracked deportations, and they’ve given millions of dollars to the Mexican government to stop the refugee surge at their southern border—despite the fact that many of the children fleeing are eligible for asylum in both Mexico and the United States.
One of her book’s most astonishing features is that it was largely written in the final years of the Obama presidency. The stories Luiselli describes are so wrenching that it’s easy to forget that things only promise to get worse under Trump. Still, one of the book’s happier moments is when Luiselli describes how a group of her students at Hofstra University formed an organization named TIIA—the Teenage Immigrant Integration Association—to offer resources to Central American refugees in Nassau County, New York. In the post-script, she describes watching her students transform into full-blown activists over the course of a few semesters: “If we all manage to pull through in these next years, it’ll be thanks to young people who are willing to give their minds and hearts and bodies to make changes.”
Tell Me How It Ends contains another important lesson. On the road trip, Luiselli and her family were repeatedly pulled over by border patrol officers who scrutinize their Mexican passports and asked what the family was doing so close to the border. After they explained that they are writers, one sarcastic officer proposed that they were there for “the inspiration.” Later, Luiselli reflects:
How do you explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity? How do you say: No, we do not find inspiration here, but we find a country that is as beautiful as it is broken, and we are somehow now part of it, so we are also broken with it, and feel ashamed, confused, and sometimes hopeless, and are trying to figure out how to do something about all that.
In the age of Trump, the call to bring “anger and clarity” to writing refutes the idea that literature is a guilty, escapist indulgence. Tell Me How It Ends insists that artists take action, and its message is clear: we are all deeply implicated in the plight faced by these children.
Lucas Iberico Lozada, Paste’s assistant books editor, is a freelance writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can follow him on Twitter.