• If the Answer Is No One: Questions for Valeria Luiselli

    Which public conversations need more questions? Which questions themselves need more questions? Those questions came to mind while reading Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions. So as I read, I wrote 40 questions in response. Luiselli is also the author of the essay collection Sidewalks, and of the novels Faces in the Crowd, Lost Children Archive, and The Story of My Teeth. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award, and has just been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.


    When you asked “Why did you come to the United States,” when would that come across as accusation, as a doubting of someone’s sound decision-making, as a begging for flattery, as invitation to first-person narration, and / or more a rhetorical question reverberating within its asker — and how had first impressions, preliminary logistical queries (where this child now lives, who will sponsor this child, how to find this child’s current guardian, this child’s biological parents) determined how you would pitch it to kids (so basically: how did your own voice shape every answer to follow)?


    When you asked “When did you enter the United States,” did anyone first put this “when” on an individual / experiential timeline, then realize you’d requested numerical fact?


    When you asked “With whom did you travel to this country,” did syntactical compression sometimes cancel answers?


    When you asked “Did you travel with anyone you knew,” had you already started formulating Tell Me How It Ends’ dense, present-tense, personal-recollection-for-public-consumption temporality (including this public’s consumption of your own family’s relative comforts), musing aloud (at least for that future audience, maybe or maybe not including your kids): “Were they to find themselves alone, crossing borders and countries, would my own children survive?”


    When you asked “What countries did you pass through,” could you see, on any young faces, narrative / nonfiction / novelistic genius stir?


    When you asked “How did you travel here,” would this notion of “to travel” (or I guess of “How”) collapse sometimes upon itself?


    When you asked “Did anything happen on your trip to the US that scared you or hurt you,” with you driving around the US Southwest in the autobiographical present, where (specifically in terms of location) did you start grasping this embodied fact that “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” — or then when you again ask “How? Why? What do we do? Where did we go wrong, as a society, to make something like this possible,” was all that part of why you just had to repeat question seven?


    When you asked “Has anyone hurt, threatened, or frightened you since you came to the US,” after what point could you only picture, as answer, each person (each child) trying “to stick to the busier roads and walk openly along highways, until someone — hopefully an officer and not a vigilante — sees them?”


    When you asked “How do you like where you’re living now,” how much did you know then, as this book now knows, about the perhaps sadistic stakes (not necessarily in question-writer nor question-asker, but just in this question) of posing such a reflective prompt for those under age 18 given precisely three weeks to find a lawyer to make one’s case (a lawyer facing thousands of other kids needing the same right then)?


    When you asked “Are you happy here,” when did you recognize that any narrative arriving at this particular question probably first should have paused, delivered a proper literary setting, as Tell Me How It Ends does a few pages prior, taking us from mass-media interrogation-room scene to something much more public, impersonally overpowering, raw with real banality, recalling Orson Welles’s film-stealing typewriter (or waterfall) pan (or sound) for The Trial: “At its front, a wooden balustrade with a little door in the center cordons off an area with two large mahogany tables at which the children, lawyers, and interpreters sit for the interviews”:



    When you asked “Do you feel safe,” again, when would it comfort or amaze or perplex you to think of people putting together these questions as the “good” people, the seven nonprofits operating under the Immigrant Children Advocates’ Relief Effort umbrella — with those who provide less personal questions (“What do we do with all these children now? Or, in blunter terms: How do we get rid of them or dissuade them from coming?”) part of Obama’s administration, not Trump’s?


    When you asked “Have your parents or siblings been the victim of a crime since they came to the US,” or when your narrative delays delivering that question, did you want us to linger on the convoluted trajectory of, say, original MS-13 exiles (from a Salvadoran Civil War notorious for government-directed massacres, from a government first assisted by the Carter administration then much more so by Reagan, followed by Clinton-era policies leading to extensive Central Americans’ deportations, including many MS-13 members, but with — by now, does anybody even remember where this question starts — that gang now having become “a kind of transnational army, with more than seventy thousand members spread across the United States, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle”)?


    When you asked “Was it reported to the police,” which side (good, bad, home, away) would you now feel / find yourself on?


    When you asked “Do you still have any family members that live in your home country,” when you follow up by telling us “The family tree of migrant families is always split into two trunks: those who leave and those who stay,” when I assume this split has to do with taste, personal inclinations, not with basic demographic imperative (“The ones who usually stay behind are the youngest or the eldest, though children as young as one or two, and some even younger who traveled in the arms of slightly older siblings or cousins, have shown up in court”), does any charitable disposition you still might hold towards your reader get lost along the way?


    When you asked “Are you in touch with anyone in your home country,” so here with “touch” in play, did you ever envision eventually actually making macabre puns across this whole field of inquiry (“…a mass grave in Tamaulipas or Veracruz…the most common ‘permanent residence’ granted to Central American migrants who travel across Mexico…”)?


    When you asked “Who / how often,” which kids liked answering?


    When you asked “Do you have any other close family members who live in the US,” who took a moment to measure?


    When you asked “Immigration status,” did this question feel most syntactically lacking in terms of subject? verb? agent? recipient? empathy? originality? asker? question?


    When you asked “Who did you live with in your country,” did you ever want to ask everybody that question?


    When you asked “Did you ever live with anyone else,” did this very act of asking (prying) drive you towards protectively describing so many who “prefer not to speak of the familial situations they are fleeing, either to avoid the pain and humiliation they entail or out of loyalty”?


    When you asked “How did you get along with the people with whom you lived,” when did / should you / we also picture every single child who doesn’t make it across some border?


    When you asked “Did you stay in touch with your parents,” did that pause before most kids said “No” feel distinct, their own, always the same?


    When you asked “Did you go to school in your country of origin” (but first: when you start this scene by telling us how these two sisters’ story haunts your own daughter, when you describe the grandmother in Guatemala telling them a man “had taken many other girls from their village safely across the two borders to their mothers, and everything had gone well,” then this grandmother sewing “a ten-digit telephone number on the collars of the dress each girl would wear throughout the entire trip,” then how this court’s kids first need to admit their own guilt “to begin defending themselves against a categorical sentence and seek legal avenues to immigration relief”), and when then you sketch a few “correct” answers to your questionnaire (“a girl reveals that her father…an alcoholic…physically or sexually abused her”; “a boy reports that he received death threats or…was beaten repeatedly by several gang members after refusing to acquiesce to recruitment at school and has the physical injuries to prove it”), or when you then mention sometimes translating such answers in the first person (“No, my father didn’t send money at all”), sometimes in the third (“He doesn’t know if she abandoned him”), when, amid that particular explanatory build-up, the seven-year-old then “searched for her mother’s eyes, found them…smiled… She relaxed a little and began to speak,” would it only be banal or beside the point (but of course it’s not) for us to wonder whether she got in?


    When you asked official question 24 (“How old were you when you started going to school?”) after asking the unofficial preliminary (“Did you go to school in Guatemala”), so after this girl already had responded “No,” did you begin to feel, perhaps like this seven-year-old (like any reader might when posed these questions — though here the reader’s experience really shouldn’t matter), like you definitely wouldn’t get in, and were your mom’s eyes in this courtroom still a comfort then?


    When you asked “When did you stop going to school,” especially right there, how completely unfair did every questionnaire ever for any specific real-life seven-year-old seem?


    When you asked “Why not,” as a one-time off-script follow-up, did your own daughter feel some slight relief at this point in this story (was your daughter still listening at this point — or for whom does this more personalized embrace offered by question 26 provide what relief)?


    When you asked “Did you work in your home country,” but when you already have told us “I didn’t know how to ask questions twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and twenty-nine,” could you describe the experience of a question coming you won’t know how to ask (knowing you’ve gone through this before, will soon again after, amid that compressed scene’s questions clustered extra fast)?


    When you asked “What sort of work did you do,” how much of your own breath did you use, how much your own body (do you think questions activate primate mirror cells, for instance), and did your own brain offer poignant ways for seven-year-olds to answer some more profound sense of this question?


    When you asked then “How many hours did you work each day,” when you tell us “I had to find a way to do it…. I still didn’t feel sure…a lawyer would take on the case,” would you ever get some less detached sense for what people today might call “humor,” say again in some Kafka story — so much safer (less funny) 100 years after the fact?


    When you asked “Did you ever get in trouble at home when you lived in your home country,” did you later go back to add before this line: “The older girl answered them while the little one undressed a crayon and scratched its trunk with her fingernail”?


    When you asked “Were you punished if you did something wrong,” which questions were more present than answers?


    When you asked “How often were you punished” (after receiving two consecutive “No” responses), would you sometimes panic, sense this whole process failing to arrive at localized logic even while staking some broader claim — though again feel relief from this seven-year-old’s perfectly lucid reply “Never,” though then realize you both had further hurt her case?


    When you asked “Did you or anyone in your family have an illness that required special attention,” when the seven-year-old responded “What?” did this prompt a pause in the moment (it does on the page), or more the escalating opposite (with us getting no more from this girl, with your daughter maybe then giving this book’s title, with that title’s demand soon transfigured back into some sort of question: “The girls were so young, and even if they had a story that secured legal intervention in their favor, they didn’t know the words to tell it”)?


    When you asked “Did you ever have trouble with gangs or crime in your home country,” after first noting “The numbers weren’t adding up…. There were so many more children awaiting interviews than…interpreters and lawyers to conduct them,” after warning (more like reprimanding) “Telling stories doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t reassemble broken lives”), after musing on how, for court translators like you and your niece, “If the story haunts us, we keep telling it to ourselves, replaying it in silence while we shower, while we walk alone down streets,” after coaxing your audience to wonder what it means to hear (here really what it means to read) someone else’s questions, after ruminating again on preceding questions from this particular questionnaire, repeated now, in some new present tense, yet now describing the very first story you ever translated, but now with us knowing (from subsequent stories) that “the majority, even the littlest ones, have heard the words ‘ganga’ or ‘pandillero’ before, and saying them is like pressing the button on a machine that produces nightmares,” but now with the interviewer having opened this “Pandora’s box,” hopefully just for “building the minor’s case,” what should we have felt about all that (about ourselves, I also mean, or perhaps about the “minor” pun / homophone)?


    When you asked “Any problems with the government in your home country,” should we again wonder (perhaps now together) how loosely one can apply pronouns lacking proper subject or verb?


    When you asked “If so, what happened” (or at least when you wrote down this question, so asking us), did you, could you picture us still wondering, with Manu and his first story, with one of the rival gangs, either MS-13 or Barrio 18, trying to recruit Manu and Manu’s best friend, with Manu and his best friend sprinting away from a gang — when Manu’s best friend got shot and Manu, still running, torqued around toward his friend no longer running, whether Manu here kept running from the recruiting gang (who cares which one?), or from its rival (and then we get returned to an earlier description of Manu, months before gangs killed his best friend, filing his police report against the gang, “but the police never did anything”)?


    When you asked “Have you ever been a member of a gang? Any tattoos,” or when you place “Beyond the dangers posed by organized…criminals in Mexico…the federal, state, and municipal police forces, the army, and the immigration officials who operate under the umbrella of the Ministry of the Interior…whose roles have been reinforced by new and more severe policies,” or when you present ordinary Mexicans as “eager and tireless critics of US immigration policies…. far too lax and self-indulgent when it comes to evaluating our own country’s immigration policies, especially where Central Americans are concerned,” or when you reposition this Central American exodus, “shifting from the Río Grande on the US-Mexico border to the Suchiate and Usumacinta Rivers on the Mexico-Guatemalan border” (of course with the US State Department funding this shift), or when you then reunite with Manu six months later, buoyantly informing him “about another coincidence…I’m now working at a university in Hempstead, the same city in Long Island where he lives,” or when Manu tells his new high-profile lawyers he desperately wants to leave Hempstead High School, “a hub for MS-13 and Barrio 18,” when you then say “Suddenly, we all suspect Manu and want to ask question thirty-seven,” again here, my basic question becomes: who gets included as “we” here (and / or: why this weird double question)?


    When you asked “What do you think will happen if you go back home,” would you ever have cared if, right where you just traced the “almost five thousand kilometers” separating “Tapachula, the Guatemala-Mexican border town from which La Bestia departs, from New York,” somebody has penciled, as marginal note in this library copy of your book: “3,106.85”?


    When you asked “Are you scared to return,” did you hide for us, from us (or who hid themselves from) showing somebody answer that question?


    When you asked “Who would take care of you if you were to return to your home country” (still picturing “some pandilleros” from the gang that killed Manu’s friend now perched outside his eldest cousin’s school every afternoon, “following her slowly…home on motorbikes as she walked along the side of the road, trying not to look back”), when you echo with “If the answer is no one, the only option you have is to leave and never go back,” who might “you,” even now, have left behind?