In “Notes towards the Definition of an Essay,” Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays book series, writes, “I can usually go through an entire year of America’s popular magazines and find at best only one true essay per periodical a year. This is because America’s major periodicals are mainly in the service, news, and information business and are reluctant to publish personal or reflective literary prose.” Leaving aside Atwan’s reference to specific types of publication venues, his distinction between journalistic and essayistic writing serves to emphasize how unusual Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions truly is. In just 119 pages, Luiselli’s book—like the best journalism—performs an invaluable service by giving readers (particularly U.S. readers) the news and information they desperately need to learn, even if they would rather remain undereducated and unaware. The book is also personal and reflective, perceptive and vulnerable—an autobiographical narrative of its author’s experiences working with children trapped in a brutal bureaucratic system: federal immigration court. As its title suggests, Tell Me How It Ends is about the uncertain fate of these children, but it is also about storytelling, about a writer’s experiences attempting to find narrative order in chaotic times.
A novelist originally from Mexico, Luiselli volunteers as an interpreter, conducting intake interviews of the unaccompanied migrant children appearing each day in a New York City immigration court. Many of these children arrived at the height of the 2014-2015 migrant crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, during which over 102,000 unaccompanied children were detained. The “Forty Questions” to which her book’s subtitle alludes make up the intake questionnaire used by Immigrant Children Advocates’ Relief Effort (ICARE), a coalition of organizations defending the migrant minors listed in the Obama administration’s priority juvenile docket. (Though the word “priority” may suggest positive connotations, Luiselli describes the cruelty of this government policy, which sped up the deportation process by requiring migrants to secure legal representation and appear in court within 21 days, rather than the previously stipulated 12 months.) Luiselli’s job is to go over questionnaire responses with each child and translate the resulting transcription from Spanish to English; lawyers then use these transcriptions to defend children in court and try to prevent them from being deported. As readers learn from Luiselli’s account, the children’s stories are not easy to comprehend, to confront, to hear. Through interview responses “delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear” and compiled into narratives that are “shuffled, stuttered, always shattered,” we learn about the terrors of travel with paid coyotes or on La Bestia, the freight trains that hurtle through Mexico with migrant riders clinging to the tops of their railcars. We learn about parents so afraid of gang violence that they send their children away from Guatemala, away from El Salvador, despite the dangers of the journey and the trouble awaiting at the destination. We learn about individuals: two Guatemalan girls, ages 5 and 7, reunited with their mother after three years apart but now heading for a deportation hearing and another possible separation; a boy testifying that his little brother was shot and killed by gang members; a teenager who has finally settled down in the U.S. only to find himself at a public high school with members of the same gangs he had to flee back in Central America: “I go cold at hearing [his] statement, which he delivers in the tone one might use to talk about items in a supermarket. He’s afraid of Barrio 18 but doesn’t want to join MS-13 either, even though they are not as bad.” Deliberate writerly and rhetorical moves to tug reader heartstrings are not necessary here, and Luiselli wisely avoids these, opting instead for a tone that is emotional, outraged, frightened, but never sentimental.
The book also challenges the stereotypes abounding in political and public discourses about immigration. Luiselli encounters minors crossing the border not to steal Americans’ jobs, but to survive: “It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.” Rather than allowing readers to rest on the comforting assumption that social and political turmoil inevitably “just happens” in what President Trump has called “shithole countries,” Luiselli asks that we acknowledge U.S. complicity in creating violence and chaos in Central America. For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Carter and Reagan administrations supported El Salvador’s military government, and that government tortured and killed many El Salvadorans. Other El Salvadorans then fled to the U.S. for safety, but many of those who fled—including some who joined the Los Angeles-based MS-13 street gang—were deported in the 1990s. MS-13 now terrorizes people back in El Salvador, as well as in Honduras and Guatemala. Today, people from those countries are fleeing MS-13 and other gangs; as Luiselli writes, it is difficult but crucial to raise awareness of the U.S.’s role in the crisis: “To refer to the situation as a hemispheric war would be a step forward because it would oblige us to rethink the very language surrounding the problem and, in doing so, imagine potential directions for combined policies.”
Though the children’s stories and their context are, rightly, its main focus, this book is also the story of a writer raising questions and weighing possible answers in the classic essayistic sense. Luiselli asks questions readers might expect about how the migrant crisis happened, why it has continued, and what is to be done, but she also asks about the uses and limits of storytelling. The title phrase “tell me how it ends” is a phrase Luiselli’s daughter uses when she wants to know the fate of the young Guatemalan girls and their mother, but Luiselli finds herself unable to satisfy her daughter’s curiosity; as she notes when thinking about all of the children she encounters in the courthouse, she realizes that “[t]he problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.” When her family goes on a road trip through the American southwest, Luiselli tries to distract her children with dark tales from 19th century history—the Indian Removal Act, the Mexican-American War—rather than addressing the border crisis occurring just outside their car windows. During that same trip, Luiselli and her husband tell incomplete stories to the Border Patrol officials they encounter—they say that they are writers on vacation, but they do not reveal that they are Mexican, just in case of trouble. As a court interpreter, Luiselli learns that the point of the ICARE questionnaire is not to learn and circulate the migrant children’s stories simply because they are important testimonies that the world needs to hear, but because they are meant to be useful in court. Unfortunately, she notes, stories sometimes have limited use in court and elsewhere—for instance, when the bodies of 72 migrants were discovered in a mass grave in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in 2010, the public learned what happened, but nothing changed. In light of this realization, Luiselli acknowledges the pragmatic reasons for telling, writing, listening, and reading, but also pushes against these: “how do you explain that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather a combination of anger and clarity?” Her book, driven by such anger and clarity, is itself potentially inspiring to readers, whether by challenging preconceived notions of the migrant crisis or by suggesting, in its coda, some concrete action steps and some reasons for hope.
Here, then, is one of many reasons why people need to read this book. Storytelling’s power may have limits in the courtroom, but its potential to disrupt preconceptions and inspire action is boundless. Tell Me How It Ends gains a significant part of its disruptive and inspirational power through Luiselli’s use of what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola famously call the “Hermit Crab” essay form in their book on craft, Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction: “This kind of essay appropriates other forms as an outer covering to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly…[and] deals with material that seems to have been born without its own carapace.” In other words, a writer approaches sensitive or challenging content by “protecting” it within a familiar or conventional form, such as a to-do list or an academic bibliography or a rejection letter. Though the familiarity of the form may draw readers in or make them feel comfortable at first, the challenging content eventually renders the familiar strange and provocative. Readers, therefore, are not protected from harsh truths, and should not be: Luiselli’s use of the courtroom intake questionnaire, with its business-like, emotionless questions and its silences on the issues that really matter, forces us to confront the inhumane treatment of children, many of them on their own, who have come (or been sent) to the United States for safety, for asylum, for a viable future:
“Where is the child’s mother?—–father?—–
The interviewer has to write down whatever information the child can or will give to fill in those blanks—those two empty spaces that look a bit like badly stitched wounds.”
In this way, the ICARE questionnaire tells a story of its own: “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 ever imagined.” Indeed, the world has become even more fucked-up since Tell Me How It Ends was published. The lost migrant children—the 2016 Spanish-language version of Luiselli’s essay is titled Los niños perdidos—are the narrative’s haunting central figures, and the intensified atrocities at the U.S./Mexico border this year make reading the children’s stories more crucial than ever before. Tell Me How It Ends raises uncomfortable but necessary questions about American attitudes toward immigration. The only way to ignore a humanitarian crisis, it seems, is to dehumanize its victims—Luiselli contemplates whether or not white children would be treated “more like people” and “more like children” rather than as “foreign meat” and “carriers of disease.” She wonders how to explain the crisis to her own children, answering their straightforward questions even though the answers are inexplicable horrors. Given that this book was published in Spanish in 2016 and in English in 2017, one cannot help wanting to ask Luiselli’s advice on teaching children about the Trump administration’s 2018 policy of separating migrant families. How might one explain the toddlers screaming for their mothers and looking for parents they may never see again? How might parents tell their kids about the “tender age shelters” where terrified children are being held in federal custody?
Atwan, Robert. “Notes towards the Definition of an Essay.” Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time. Eds. Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 2012.
Dawsey, Josh. “Trump Derides Protections for Immigrants from ‘Shithole’ Countries.” The Washington Post. 12 January 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-attacks-protections-for-immigrants-from-shithole-countries-in-oval-office-meeting/2018/01/11/
Luiselli, Valeria. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017.
Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004.