Translating This Broken World: How to Tell a Refugee’s Story
Valeria Luiselli and Mark Lyons Reveal the Human Details of Our Inhumanity
When she was 13, Liliana Velásquez imagined that her adobe house, in the tiny village of Villaflor, Guatemala, had been recording the suffering she’d experienced growing up. Villaflor had 50 houses with dirt floors and plank beds, like hers, but hardly any jobs. The underpaid and uneducated teachers in the single school lasted a couple of weeks, on average, and anyway Liliana was only allowed to attend for one year. After that, at age nine, she was put in charge of her younger sisters, cooking and keeping house. Her mother separated from her alcoholic father but allowed him to stay in the house. She took her frustrations out on Liliana, beating her and berating her, and once she struck her with a pair of scissors. Liliana was sexually assaulted twice the year she turned 13 and in desperation she grabbed a bottle of pesticide and decided to kill herself. A younger sister stopped her, but her mother used the incident to taunt her further. Desperate and alone, Liliana fanaticized that one day the adobe walls of the house would testify to her suffering—her story would be told.
The next year, 2013, Liliana walked out of her village, across the border to Mexico, and, with extraordinary bravery and guile, 20 days later made it to Arizona, where she turned herself in to United States Border Patrol. Nearly 40,000 children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—countries of the “northern triangle” of Central American—and Mexico made similar journeys that year, swelling an exodus that began around 2009. Between October 2013 and June 2014, 80,000 more children arrived at the US border, provoking the American media and some politicians, mostly of the right, to declare an “immigration crisis.” The US, they said, was being overrun.
After traveling to the border from her home in New York City and learning about the children in exile, the novelist Valeria Luiselli began working with children like Liliana as a volunteer interpreter in New York’s immigration court, an experience she meditates on in her recent book-length essay, Tell Me How It Ends (Coffee House Press). With her own immigrant status uncertain—she had been living in New York as a “nonresident alien” for three years—Luiselli felt a particular empathy for the children put in detention centers and threatened with deportation. Like the adobe walls of Liliana’s house, she would bear witness:
Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.
This noble instinct probably feels familiar to the many writers who, since the American political crisis began with the election of Donald J. Trump, have been turning their work outward to looming racial, economic, and environmental injustices. But what Luiselli accomplishes, in her volunteer work and in Tell Me How It Ends, is quite a bit more pointed: a transformation of consciousness. For the swollen river of children flowing north into Texas and Arizona is as bewildering as the jammed inflatable boats washing up in Lesbos and Lampedusa.
“The children’s stories,” she writes in the opening of Tell Me How It Ends, “are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.”
Luiselli’s job as translator is to straighten the story, first so that it can be understood by English-speaking officials and second so that the child’s particular experience, of violence in or out of the home, of fear or hunger, might resonate with the court. Children who face immediate risk of danger in their home countries have a greater chance of being granted Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status or asylum by an immigration judge. A United Nations High Commission on Refugees study, “Children on the Run,” indicates that 58 percent of the children have experienced the kind of peril to make them eligible for international protection. They are indeed refugees and this is our refugee crisis.
US immigration police placed Liliana in a detention center in Phoenix called the “House of Dreams.” In fact, the social workers there gave her hope, and with their support and the diligence of lawyers working on her behalf, a judge gave her the temporary option of foster care in the US while her case awaited adjudication. Central American child refugees in the US have no legal right to a lawyer, but those who manage to secure one through a community non-profit, are significantly less likely to be deported. She was transferred to a family in Philadelphia.
A short time later, the writer Mark Lyons, who directs the Philadelphia Storytelling Project and had edited a collection of stories of Mexican migrant workers, Espejos y Ventanas/Mirrors and Windows (New City Community Press), offered to help Liliana tell her story. “Like many of us, including writers, all of my adult life I’ve worked and lived in situations that have challenged me to respond to social injustices, and not simply feel moral outrage,” he told me by email. “I don’t feel I have a particularly unique or insightful analysis of why these injustices occur or what can be done. But, as a writer, I feel I have learned about the power of voice and of crafting a story that people respond to.”
Luiselli observes in Tell Me How It Ends that “it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity.” Liliana understood that the walls of her old house were never going to tell her story; if she wanted it told, she would have to do it. She came to a reading of Lyons’ collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines (Wild River), and asked him to help her. The first few times they met Lyons worked to convince her she had something significant to say, that she had complete control over it, and that “in order to tell a profound story that people would respond to,” he said, “she would have to share difficult and painful parts of her life—she would have to trust me and the reader.” Liliana insisted they start with her flight from Guatemala—and leave what was perhaps most painful, growing up, for later. Even as the stories emerged shuffled, for Liliana the telling of them left her “unburdened.” After 14 months, fueled by anger and clarity of purpose, she completed a remarkably translucent memoir, Sueños y Pesadillas/Dreams and Nightmares (Parlor Press), which Lyons edited and translated.
“When Mark and I worked together,” she told me, by email,
I unloaded memories that I was carrying around in my head. The memories were fresh, like everything had happened just yesterday. They were memories of painful things that happened in my life; and living with my new family in Philadelphia made me remember the things that I didn’t have in my life before—which was also painful. It helped me confront my own feelings, like hating men, or saying nobody will touch me, or the rage I had towards people who treated me terribly. It helped me get rid of my rage and need for vengeance, and move on. I left all these feelings in my book.
Luiselli structures Tell Me How It Ends around the 40 questions that comprise the unaccompanied minor intake form.
Why did you come to the United States?
When did you enter?
Where is the child’s mother________? father______?
Did you travel with anyone you knew?
Did anything happen on the trip that scared you or hurt you?
Did you go to school in Guatemala?
Are you in touch with anyone in your own country?
Any problems with the government in your home country?
All together, Luiselli remarks, the form “reads as if it were written in high definition, and as you make your way down its forty questions it’s impossible not to feel that the world has become a much more fucked-up place than anyone could have imagined.”
After performing dozens of interviews in the juvenile immigration court, the responses, and the stories, Luiselli says, begin to blur together. They follow a standard narrative: travel across Mexico with a paid smuggler called a coyote, who is supposed to safeguard the child from police, narcos, rapists, and gangs, a perilous ride on top of the box car train called La Bestia, and then the crossing through the borderlands, which Luiselli calls a “common grave.” (Once, during Liliana’s crossing, she stops near a cactus for some shade and discovers human remains at her feet). As Luiselli explains and Liliana’s story reveals, children crossing Mexico are vulnerable at every moment; a 14-year-old girl survives on guile, instinct, luck, and the intervention of angels. Luiselli, in characteristically knife-like prose, says, “Children chase after life, even if that chase might end up killing them.” Since 2006, about 120,000 migrants have disappeared fleeing through Mexico; in the last 15 years, more than 2,000 human remains have made their way to an Arizona border county’s forensic lab.
As writers of fiction, both Luiselli and Lyons are conscious of the vital need for detail; only from the particular experience of each child can we come to understand the universal experience of the child refugee. Luiselli is careful to include details in her intake forms because they provide lawyers with specific cause to fight against deportation. Precise terms like gang intimidation, rape, parental abandonment, sex trafficking, and sex slavery, compared to vague notions of poverty, lack of opportunity, and political dysfunction could be difference between being allowed to stay in the US and being deported. When Lyons became aware that Liliana was responding to his questions with generalities, he slowed the process down, and provoked her to recall what she had experienced with specificity: “Describe what you wore. How did you get on top of the train? Describe the coyote. How did you feel when your mother stabbed you with scissors? What are the rules you have for your boyfriend, so you feel safe?”
Liliana responded easily to these prompts because she vividly remembers faces and conversations and, being naturally reflective, she’d observed herself facing fear, anger, violence, and generosity (among the most striking things about her flight from home, aside from the extraordinary danger, are the near-constant acts of kindness). This capacity for reflection, encouraged by Lyons, gives Sueños y Pesadillas/Dreams and Nightmares an illuminating quality that, together with Tell Me How It Ends, shines a piercing light.
In giving her intricate essay the title Tell Me How It Ends, Luiselli is making a point about the conflict between the rules of narrative and complex, unruly reality. The north-flowing river of child refugees keeps running—nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children were arrested at the US border in 2016—and it’s impossible to imagine it drying out significantly in the near future. There’s no sign of political will among any of the nations involved to solve the problem at its root. (Last summer, President Obama announced that the US would accept many child refugees from Central America, and set aside resources for to aid those refugees and for the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, but President Trump has made clear his contempt for refugees and his intent to close the border.)
Once inside the US, the children’s stories, already messy, are subject to further reshuffling. The law is applied unevenly and sometimes arbitrarily. The foster family in Philadelphia Liliana was placed with as she awaited adjudication of her case turned out to be sending the funds intended for Liliana’s care to family members in the Dominican Republic. Though she managed to escape from that family into a stable and loving one (the angels showed up again), she remained anxious about her future and tired of telling her story to social workers, lawyers, and judges. “I cried every time because I went back to my past. It was all very confusing to me,” she writes in Sueños y Pesadillas/Dreams and Nightmares. She said to herself, echoing Luiselli, “When is this going to end? When?” (Italics in the original.)
No one knows, of course, how, or when, the pain of millions of children, many of them brave and all of them confused, might end. We only know, now, how to imagine the dimensions of the crisis. It is tangible, thanks to these writers, and something we can no longer ignore.
Feature image from the film Sin Nombre.