Review: Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2017)
Tell Me How It Ends is upfront about its aims. The blurb admits the forty questions of the subtitle remain unanswered, and the book is a call for compassion and humanity in the face of the crisis of mass migration being felt around the world today.
The Forty Questions which form the structural backbone of this essay are questions which are asked of migrant children who arrive to the United States unaccompanied. Luiselli, as a volunteer translator, is the one who asks these questions, and the answers given by the children will form their case. Whether they are permitted to stay in the country many of them have undertaken arduous journeys to reach will be determined by the courts. If what they have answered is insufficient in building a case for their right to stay, they are immediately deported.
The situation is grim. And not only does the process depend on the volunteers and humanitarian groups who translate and provide other services for these children, stretched beyond their limits to accommodate the numbers of those in need, so too does it depend on law firms willing to work pro bono or for very low fees, facilitated by charitable groups, in order to represent them in court. As a result, many children (and adults) go without this help, and are deported. It emerges the fast track system set up during the Obama administration, which on the surface sounded like a way to meet the needs of these vulnerable children quickly, only made it more difficult for them to find the legal representation they required in time. The role of Luiselli and other translators is not only to transcribe, but to find a way of communicating with children who answer precise questions with a lack of comprehension, fear, and non-linear answers; journeys with confusing beginnings, middles, and ends. Although she fears the answers they will give to questions asking what difficulties have made them undertake dangerous journeys, she is required to listen attentively in hope something they say will bolster their case, and be inserted into the categories required. Death threats. Rape. Gangs.
Luiselli contrasts the questions she asks of migrant children on their arrival with the questions her own children ask when she discusses her work with them. She wonders whether they would survive a trip across a border on their own. A migrant herself, from Mexico, she considers her own Green Card application, with remarkably puritan questions such as “Do you intend to practise polyamory? Are you a member of the Communist Party?” and wonders why she wanted to enter the US. The difficult bureaucratic stage, with its stressful tedium, like the dangerous journeys faced by unaccompanied migrant children, is viewed alike as the hard crust of a pie, with goodness within. Some children find to their dismay that life in their adopted country contains some of the same problems as the one they left behind, such as Manu, a case study of sorts within the essay, who discovered members of the same gang he had fled in the American high school he arrived at.
Mass migration has made the headlines in the last few years, with reports of deaths (often from boats capsizing across the Mediterannean) appearing with tragic frequency. Rarely is the individual considered to merit mention. The unforgettable images of the little Syrian boy Aylan in his red jacket washed ashore in Turkey is one exception of few. One of the best indie magazines I’ve read recently is Nansen, which profiles a different migrant, refugee, or asylum seeker in each issue. “Get to know one migrant per issue, as we hone in on the minutiae of lives lived away from home – moments all migrants can relate to and many non-migrants will, too.” Not all migration stories are as fraught with immediate danger and despair, indeed there is a lot of light and happiness in its first issue with its cool design, focusing on Aydin Akin, his face emblazoned brightly on the cover. Making an uneventful journey for the prospect of a job in a country which was welcoming new workers, he has made a happy life in Berlin, and the magazine celebrates this, with imaginative features about his life. He’s frequently seen cycling around the city blowing a whistle, giving out lollipops, and campaigning for full legal rights for migrants. Currently in Germany, he is not allowed to vote, despite having lived there for fifty years. Brexit marked a turning point for the worse in discussion of migrants and their rights in the UK. Nigel Farage standing in front of the infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster depicting migrants entering the UK in a stereotypical flood was reported to the police for inciting racial hatred. On the day that I write this review, I glance at Twitter mid-way through and see Donald Trump has been tweeting about “chain migration” and threatening protections for child immigrants as a bargaining tool. Such inflammatory language and visuals removes the individual from their migration story, in order to capitalise on fear and make the migrant a target of hatred, using tactics of dehumanisation.
Valeria Luiselli’s book, which largely concerns child refugees from South America journeying to North America, was prompted by the sheer scale of the crisis, and the need for the work she could provide as a translator as numbers spiked. She discusses the drug war and arms industry, and governmental complicity in a multi-continent humanitarian problem. But what Tell Me How It Ends does very successfully, through describing some of the process in a bit more detail and telling the stories of only a few of these children, is to break through a cultural numbness to try to explain, at least a bit, what it must feel like for the individuals – unaccompanied – who face this. Through breaking open the bureaucratic format, we learn what does not fit neatly into a box, and what is nonsensical to even try, but that regardless, the real lives of individual migrants and refugees depend on what little can be captured of their lives in this attempt to mass process them.
Question 7 asks whether a child has experienced anything which caused them to feel fear or harm during their journey to the United States. We learn that 80% of women and girls crossing Mexico are raped. Some take birth control as a precaution, anticipating this. We learn that violence is common: there are abductions and executions by gangs. What is a ‘right’ answer to this question which Luiselli dreads but must ask? There are myriad other dangers to children (and the adults) who flee circumstances to reach the United States, and how much they have suffered along the way counts towards their application to stay. We learn that when children (and adults) reach the border, they are keen to surrender to Border Patrol, because it is then they will be processed and begin the proceedings to be allowed to stay – or be deported. While they walk in the dry, hot land of the states bordering with Mexico, they have to hope they will be picked up by Border Patrol before a vigilante. When particularly high numbers of unaccompanied migrant children reaching the US were reported in the news, adults drove for miles to protest outside immigration centres. Some sat in deckchairs, holding handmade signs with slogans such as “Return to Sender.” Others practised open carry. It is a moment in the book at which nausea for the way human beings make a sport of cruelty reaches a pinnacle. Some volunteers instead put out water for the children who reach the other side of the border.
It’s this kind of small gesture which imparts the book with its necessary hope and call to action, as a way of signalling an alternative strategy to apathy. Most significantly of all is the description by Luiselli of a group of her students who take it upon themselves to form a volunteer group who help migrant children in various ways. Ready to stop talking and take some action, these members of a younger generation practise what they have learned from group conversations, and before her eyes, demonstrating the value of talking about immigration, she sees them offer their time to make a difference in the lives of other children who are not quite so fortunate. Manu, the child dismayed to reach America to be at the mercy of the gangs once again, turns up to a football match they arrange. He’s made captain, and he’s proud.
Luiselli has been one of my favourite writers of recent years, for the fragmentary novels including Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks, and the topics she writes on including writing, translation, and identity, always teetering on the edge of reality. I watched her, shyly, address a crowd at the first London Book Fair I attended, with her face on huge posters outside as Writer of the Day. In Tell Me How It Ends, she is truly a writer of our day. This is a book which strives for hope and the gestures which can make life a little bit easier for others facing the unimaginably difficult situation of being an individual whose life depends on the coldness of mass processing, and the mass misunderstandings they face. It doesn’t have all the answers, or indeed many, but asking the questions, the right ones about how migration can be addressed humanely and with compassion, what we really know of the reality of it, and how to interrupt cynical narratives about migration is a starting point. This is an important book. Read it and ask questions.