To some degree, the battle for immigrant rights is a battle for control of the narrative. In the last year, especially, the conversation has reached a fever-pitch, with Trump’s election the plausible result of years of threats that painted undocumented immigrants from Latin America and unsecured borders as a threat to national security and the American economy. These narratives compete with journalistic narratives of the realities of immigration, muddying the waters of immigration policy discussions and the desire for a more just country. More importantly, however, they obfuscate the truths of individual lives caught up in the spaces between borders.
This spring, Mexican author Valeria Luiselli released a different narrative into the conversation: her book-length essay, Tell Me How It Ends (Coffeehouse Press), lays out the child migrant wave through the lens of Luiselli’s work as an interpreter for children seeking asylum. The book tries to bring the conversation back to the individuals – the children filling up detention centers and being quickly deported. To do this, it takes the structure of the intake questionnaire she helps the children fill out, touching on questions like “Why did you come to the United States?” “Did you have any trouble with gangs or crime in your home country?” Her narrative, and that of the children, is fit into these forty questions, but the book is allowed to spill over, to take up more space.
The overwhelming number of asylum-seekers and the limited number of volunteers has turned into a mad scramble.
I first read Luiselli’s book this January, in a Spanish edition published in November by Editorial Sexto Piso. That version was based on a shorter essay Luiselli wrote in English for the magazine Freeman’s in August. In each iteration, the essay has grown, covering a bit more of the current situation, expanding to fit the times. I finished the book on my commute into work, somewhere over the Manhattan Bridge, and spent the rest of my morning researching and emailing immigrant advocacy organizations that were looking for translators and volunteers.
Tell Me How it Ends is good for setting that fire. The need in her book is so urgent, and has only been magnified tens of thousands of times over by the news every day since its writing. While the child migrant crisis faced an additional pressure of time – unaccompanied minor cases were placed on an accelerated docket during the peak of the wave, and children only had a month to seek representation, adult migrants usually have far longer – the pressures of Trump’s America have created a similar condition across all asylum-seeker categories. While filling out bureaucratic paperwork with the looming deadline of a deportation court date has always felt like a speed-walking race against time, the overwhelming number of asylum-seekers and the limited number of volunteers has turned it into a mad scramble.
I’m ashamed to admit that it took this narrativization of the migrant crisis to prod me into researching ways to volunteer. I had known about deportations and the injustices of the immigration courts months, years beforehand, had done a little protesting, but Tell Me How it Ends gave me a concrete way to do work that went beyond the symbolic. Nevertheless, I went into my first week translating at the asylum clinic fully aware that whatever narrative I thought I had would be inadequate in the face of reality.
The idea that anyone needs to be better at telling their trauma is profoundly unempathetic, but in the end, helping someone fill out an asylum application is telling them how tell their story better.
Tell Me How It Ends is a book as much about crafting a narrative as it is about the child migrant crisis. The translation work Luiselli did, I’ve done, isn’t just a one-to-one transliteration. Its our job to take the stuff of the worst days of someone’s life – out of order, fragmentary – and then ask further questions, press just a little more for a detail that might help. Then, we take these stories, these fragments, and turn them into clean, tight narratives, focusing on what the court considers relevant. This process sometimes feels like an additional violence – the stories asylum-seekers can tell for themselves should be enough. An ill-advised woman I volunteered with and translated for asked me to tell one of the folks I was working with that she “needed to be better at telling her story.” The idea that anyone needs to be better at telling their trauma is a profoundly unempathetic one, but in the end, helping someone fill out an asylum application is telling them how tell their story better. In this way, Tell Me How It Ends itself is also a sharp, useful narrative, a “telling better.” It can be pressed into hands, recommended, and it will open wallets and drive people into the streets to protest.
There is also something to be said about who gets to share these narratives – a question tangled in complicity in political realities, in privilege. Luiselli herself struggles with this: “Question seven on the questionnaire is ‘Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared or hurt you?’…as a Mexican, this is the question I feel most ashamed of, because what happens to children during their journey through Mexico is always worse than what happens anywhere else.” Her complicity as a Mexican writer, living in the United States, telling the stories of those who have come to harm through the specific policies of both of these countries echoes through the essay. She has access to both sides – she is a Mexican writer, an immigrant herself…but she is also well-educated, she has an audience, and a publishing house ready to fast-track her book and invest in getting her writing into the hands of the wider public, an immigration lawyer to consult on behalf of the folks she mentioned in her book. She is safe herself, and can offer safety to those whose narratives she is allowed to tell – something they cannot necessarily give themselves.
Until it is safer for undocumented folks to share their own stories, to argue on their own behalf, Luiselli makes for a trusted guide.
Tell Me How It Ends is out now.