Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, Lost Children Archive (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) is a densely layered, timely, challenging book. It is a meditation on how we curate our thoughts and how we tell stories. It is about family and childhood, and who gets to have a childhood. It is also a beautiful, elegiac new American road trip which should move immediately into the canon. Luiselli is in high demand in literary circles, but took time to speak with Pittsburgh Current via telephone from her home in New York.
You write about Martha Graham (from Pittsburgh’s North Side) and I saw you have a background in dance.
I wasn’t a very talented dancer. That’s why I’m a writer.
Dance is hard to write about.
Definitely. It’s not easy for me, but there is a consciousness of very specific body movements. There’s hyper consciousness of the deeper places in your body. I like to be able to translate that to the page. People know the names of plants and trees. I pay attention to that kind of thing within the body.
How did you decide on “lost children,” because I think the nomenclature really matters.
It’s a little bit eerie now. That term has a political connotation that it didn’t quite have when I began writing the novel in 2014. I was thinking from the very beginning about childhood in the context of political violence and how childhood is lost. The title Lost Children Archive kept filling with different connotations as time passed.
This is a very a dense read. It slowed me down.
I take that as a compliment. I hear people say ‘fast read’ as a good thing. I don’t know. I think that slowness is something that is a great value. This novel is precisely about that—slowing down and listening. There’s such a focus on sound—it’s a medium that forces you to sit in time, really.
Talk about the seven boxes the family traveled with and the ephemera they contained.
I had to make them. I had to buy bankers boxes and make the archives to know where things were in relation to each other and how to group them. It involved leaving out and including and how things stood in relation to each other. The boxes are still there. I dare not open them. They feel like they’re not mine, like I would be intruding.
Can you talk about the narrative shift to the son’s voice and how kids think differently than adults.
It was challenging, but it also felt like a playground. I never write linearly, so I didn’t write the mom and then the boy and then the elegies. They were all growing together at the same time. How will these relate to each other to create its own narrative? Form tells the story as much as the content. I wanted clear echos between the three voices. There is a sadness and something painful about writing a boy who knows what’s going on, but also there was something lighter.
For many refugees coming to the US, they are trying to reunite with family or save their families. It’s not running away, but a moving towards.
Definitely. Migration has changed in this recent diaspora. Of course there is an economic motivation for survival, but kids who have to flee now from the northern triangle are also fleeing from death, death threats and being recruited as child soldiers for gangs. (MS-13) There is an element of urgency.
How did you land on the troubled marriage as a throughline?
I’m definitely not interested in drawing parallels between family separation and migration, and this particular family’s marital separation. The way this woman was documenting everyday moments of this trip had a kind of nostalgia of the present. It creates a dent in reality. She’s documenting a world that pretty much feels like it has ended, the very abandoned face of the America: closed down motels and empty diners, superhighways coming to replace smaller state roads, industrial farming. It feels to her that it has ended somehow. She says there’s a sensation of something changed, we don’t know exactly what. Our sense of time has changed. We live at such a fast pace, maybe we’ve lost the sense of a future. In that loss, we sense the present like an avalanche. It’s not so much backgrounds and foregrounds, but this entire braid of the last thing, the last of something.
Answers have been edited for length.