Luiselli’s prize-winning novel responds to migratory crisis

MEXICO CITY — Valeria Luiselli is pleased to have passed the libraries’ test with her first novel written directly in English, “Lost Children Archive” (“Sound Desert”), which received the Dublin Literary Award.

The 100,000-euro ($122,000) award, sponsored by Dublin City Council, is the top monetary prize for a single novel published in English. The finalists are nominated by libraries around the world.

“That really seems to me to be the most beautiful thing about this award,” Luiselli said in a recent interview with The Associated Press from New York, where she lives. “It is a prize that is not linked, like all other prizes, to the speed of the market, but to the speed of reading.”

Published in 2019, “Lost Children Archive” addresses the issue of migrant children traveling unaccompanied to the United States, something that the author has witnessed first-hand as a translator and interpreter for children at the immigration court of New York.

In the novel, a family made up of a couple of sound documentary creators and their children set out on a road trip from New York to the southern border, something Luiselli did in 2014. This and other trips gave rise to her story about displaced children that is intertwined with the domination and elimination of the Apache culture.

“Crossing this country a different urgency took hold of me, the urgency to write about political violence towards the communities that this country considers outsiders,” Luiselli explained. “Thinking about the cycles that are repeated in the history of violence against certain communities, almost always violence motivated by the deep racism in this country, traveling and touring this country and seeing that, I decided to write ‘Lost Children Archive.’”

The 37-year-old author has been previously praised by librarians. In 2020, her novel won the Andrew Carnegie Medal, presented by the American Library Association. At the time Luiselli called herself a “radical nerd” and remembered spending “more time in libraries — between the stacks, in silent reading rooms, in the rare books & manuscript sections, and hovering behind the lenses of microfilm readers — than is probably healthy.”

Before “Lost Children Archive,” she had published books translated from Spanish into English, including the novels “Faces in the Crowd” and “The Story of My Teeth,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and winner of the Los Angeles Times award for best fiction; and “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions,” winner of the American Book Award.

She has written extensively in Spanish. Luiselli, daughter of a diplomat father and Zapatista mother, was born in Mexico City in 1983, but has since lived in South Africa, South Korea, India and several European countries. She has lived in the United States for 13 years, where she awaits the birth of her second daughter with her partner, a Somali man raised in Canada.

Her “center of gravity,” however, remains in Mexico.

“I grew up in a house where we were constantly reminded of our Mexican roots,” she said. “I grew up with a feeling that we lived abroad, and that home was there in Mexico, that that was our home and that one day we would return.”

In “Lost Children Archive,” the mother is of Ñañú indigenous origin, a Mexican ethnic group. One day she meets Manuela, a speaker of Triqui, an indigenous language of Oaxaca, and asks to record her speaking this language to document it. Manuela tells her that her daughters were on their way to meet her from Mexico but were arrested and could be deported. Thus arises the mother’s obsession for those children who get lost along the way, while traveling with her own children looking at them, imagining what would happen if they were them.

As part of the plot, the mother participates in a vigil with a priest for the disappeared in raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in which the authorities seek to cover a detention quota: “At first, I thought Father Juan Carlos was preaching from a kind of Orwellian dystopic delirium. It took me some time to realize that he wasn’t. It took me some time to notice that the rest of the people there that day … were family members of someone who had, in fact, disappeared during an ICE raid,” an excerpt reads.

Luiselli pointed to the increase in detention centers for migrants. According to the National Migration Forum, the United States has the largest detention system for migrants in the world, which has multiplied by 20 since 1979 and expanded 75% in the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2019, nearly 70,000 migrant children were in U.S. custody. Children are often held in a network of shelters, such a convention centers or military installations, a situation that Luiselli calls “absurd.”

“It’s absurd … It has become a way to feed the great monster of the private prison industry in the United States,” said the writer. “Basically they imprison migrants and with that they earn billions of dollars. Instead of giving them due process, instead of allowing a boy or a girl to live with their relatives while they process their visa, they are imprisoned in a children’s center. ”

With the book, Luiselli worked directly with Daniel Saldaña Paris to translate “Lost Children Archive,” edited in Spanish by Sexto Piso as “Desierto Sonoro,” into a version that feels as vivid as the original. When writing in Spanish, she works with translator Christina MacSweeney to bring her books into English.

She highlighted other contemporary writers who have addressed the issue of migration and borders, such as Samanta Schweblin, Gabriela Jauregui, Brenda Lozano, Cristina Rivera Garza, Dolores Dorantes, Natalie Diaz and Fernanda Melchor, whose “Hurricane Season” was a finalist for this year’s Dublin Literary Award.

“I can only think of women who are writing very interesting things about the border,” she said. “There is a generation of writers right now with a very powerful voice … on topics that haunt and hurt us.”