How to write about the migrant experience today? More particularly, how to write about the current crisis at the US/Mexico border? The multiple forms of violence compelling continued migration north, especially from Central America; the deliberate collapse of the asylum system and the rule of law; the separation of children from families amid the institution of a system of what are effectively concentration camps operated by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. As the Covid-19 pandemic grips us, these stories may be fading from consciousness, but immigration to the USA has long been denounced via the rhetoric of disease and contamination. And Trump is fond of referring to immigrants and people of color in terms of “infestation”, just as he wants to insist that Covid-19, “the Chinese virus,” comes from beyond US borders.
Earlier this year, this question of who and how to write about migration and the borderlands flared into a brief but intense controversy around Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a novel that was harshly criticized on the grounds that it commodified and exoticized migrant trauma for an Anglo audience. One text repeatedly put forward by that book’s critics as offering a better approach to representing the border crisis and its ramifications was Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which in fact puts the problem at center stage.
Luiselli’s novel is in some ways the inverse to Cummins’s. Though its narrative focuses similarly on a mother and her child, a fractured family making its way to the border, here the journey starts in the north, rather than the south, and the fracture is psychological or affective, rather than the very literal rupture with which American Dirt spectacularly opens. Here the family are (so far, at least) physically together: a husband and wife, with a child each that they bring from previous relationships. And together they are embarked on a trip from New York to the US Southwest. But whether they will remain together once the trip is over is uncertain, perhaps unlikely. Though the parents are both engaged in recording sounds (as either documentarians or documentarists; the difference seems both ineffable and yet somehow absolute), each has their own project, their own goal in mind. He is in search of the traces of the last Native Americans to surrender to the US state, the Apache band led by the semi-mythical Geronimo. She has taken on a vaguely journalistic mission to investigate the plight of children detained on the border, specifically the two children of a woman with whose legal case she has become involved. And however much the narrator (the first half of the novel is written almost entirely from the mother’s point of view) can reflect on the ways in which these two obsessions overlap, interact, and resonate with each other, she and her husband are barely able to communicate except indirectly, as they try to keep their two young children, aged ten and five, amused and more or less oblivious of the cracks opening up in the cramped atmosphere of the family car. At the same time, she also increasingly realizes that the children, too, are in many ways “strangers, especially when we add them together” (74). Indeed, the entire novel is a meditation on the many possible forms of alienation, the ways in which “the other can suddenly become a stranger” (21), as even those with whom we are most intimately connected become alien to us.
The husband seems to be much more sure of himself and what he is doing, though this may be a consequence of the fact that we have much less access to whatever thoughts and concerns may be preoccupying him. He tells the kids stories about the Apache, confidently if not necessarily reliably (“I don’t know if what my husband is telling them is true” ). When they stop somewhere, as they often do, he gets out his recording equipment to capture a soundscape of ambient noise, “collect[ing] sounds that are usually not noticed [. . .]. Maybe the rain falling on this tin roof, some birds if we can, or maybe just insects buzzing” (96). At other times, the four of them listen to the news on the radio, to music, or to audiobooks, notably William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But for all the assurance with which these narratives are presented, his wife notes that the children “combine the stories, confuse them. They come up with possible endings and counterfactual histories” (75). And, much more (apparently) than her husband, she is led to meditate therefore on the uncertain fate of any story, including (it is implied) the one that is told by Lost Children Archive itself.
When the mother tells us of her worries about her own project, these are surely then indications of concerns about any attempt, including Luiselli’s own, to have some kind of social impact through art. As the narrator says: “How can a radio documentary be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum?” This she terms a “political concern.” But she goes on, as the narration continues in something like stream of consciousness, to itemize other problems with what we could “politically-committed” art, including the “Aesthetic problem: On the other hand, why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know by now that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results.” This then leads her to consider the perhaps even more significant
Ethical problem: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else’s suffering? [. . .] Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry [. . .]. (79)
Luiselli’s novel steadfastly keeps these issues in view, as if by raising them (and not simply confining them to an “Author’s Note” tacked on at the end, as does Cummins) she may not quite ward them off, but at least warn the reader and invite us to think about our own complicity in the kinds of stories that are told about migration and their effects on others (and surely also ourselves). Hence too, no doubt, the obliqueness of Luiselli’s portrayal of the refugee crisis: we are halfway through what is not a short book, and still a long way from the border.
But we already realize that the borderlands stretch a long way. Space and time in this novel both expand and contract. Just as the narrator’s husband is convinced that the echoes of the nineteenth-century history can be almost materially registered by his recording devices, so Luiselli suggests that the injustice and violence of asylum and immigration policy can and should resonate far beyond their specific geographical limits. As we have been forcefully reminded of the current pandemic: this affects us all.