Review: Tell Me How It Ends, by Valeria Luiselli

by Sunita

This is a shortish essay whose full title is Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. It is drawn from work Luiselli did in 2015/16 with unaccompanied immigrant children who were in deportation and removal proceedings in New York. Luiselli served as a translator, working through a 40-item questionnaire prepared by organizations and lawyers representing and assisting these children in the legal process. The children range from five years old to mid-teenagers, so their ability to answer these questions and help to build a case to fight removal varies quite a bit.

Quite apart from the literary merits of the book, which are considerable, this is an excellent introduction to the process children who arrive unaccompanied at the border go through. They are brought from the Central American nations (unaccompanied children from Mexico can be legally and summarily returned without proceedings), and once they have crossed into the United States they give them themselves up to detention by DHS/ICE. The lucky ones are united with family in the US and go through the legal process with them. The specific children Luiselli works with have been placed with family in the NYC area and have had their cases taken up by organizations who try to find grounds for them to be granted legal resident status.

Our recent conversation around immigration has understandably revolved around the draconian policies and cruelty of the Trump Administration’s immigration efforts, but one of Luiselli’s critical contributions is to remind us that harsh treatment of children and other undocumented immigrants is not unique to Trump. Her entire experience as related here takes place during the Obama administration, and the reader is shown why he was called the Deporter-in-Chief in his second term. And Bush before him, and Clinton, laid the groundwork for these policies. What distinguishes the current administration’s approach is its scale, racism, and barbarity, but the policies themselves are extensions of past practices, not major departures from them. 

The second, equally important, contribution is Luiselli’s description of the institutional conditions that have led to the exodus of people from Central America. It is a consequence of the wars of the 1980s and the unending demand for drugs in the United States. She doesn’t spare the United States or Mexico in showing how their decisions continue to contribute to an unbearable situation for thousands of ordinary people. Of course the governments of the sending countries are also at fault, but that fault is compounded and magnified by US policies and practices and aided by Mexico. Citizens are collateral damage, and even when immigrants are granted the right to stay in the US, they can wind up in the same network of gangs, drugs, and crime that pushed them away from their homes. 

From a literary point of view, this is a nonfiction essay with a narrative structure shaped more by the questions than by a character-driven storyline. It worked really well for me, because while we learn about the children and ache for them, Luiselli avoids sentimentality. Her writing is direct and empathetic. We know the toll it takes on her and her niece, who is translating with her, but apart from contrasting her situation to theirs (Luiselli and her husband were in the green-card process while she was doing this work), she doesn’t foreground herself or her emotions very often. The introduction, late in the book, of her college students and their activism, was a mostly successful section. On the one hand it reminds the reader that everyday activism can bring concrete benefits, and it injects a note of optimism. But set against the might of the immigration bureaucracy it feels so inadequate. 

This is a powerful, important piece of work and I hope that people who read her recent novel, which draws on these stories, will find it. That novel, Lost Children Archive, has been longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s in my TBR and I’ll report back after I’ve read it.