"Tell Me How It Ends" by Valeria Luiselli

book cover

The best books are able to transport you across borders. They put you in another’s shoes for a few moments and allow you to see the world in a new light. In "Tell Me How It Ends," Valeria Luiselli has written a powerful and compassionate narrative about the Americas, about migration and our shared history seen through the eyes of children who have fled the poverty or violence of a homeland to have a chance at not only a better life but, in many cases, at life itself.

Though slender enough to carry in a coat pocket, the clear, precise prose of Luiselli’s essay contains multitudes: the recounted stories of children who have miraculously survived crossing thousands of miles and entire countries, survived roofs of passenger trains, rail yards and detention centers only to arrive and have mere weeks to find a lawyer and tell their story in hopes that the evidence of hardships they left behind is enough in the eyes of the court to be granted a chance at temporary relief in this country.

Valeria Luiselli became involved in writing about the child migrant crisis when, in 2015, she began work as a volunteer interpreter for the federal immigration court in New York City. She asked each child a series of 40 questions ("Why did you come?" "Has anyone hurt, threatened or frightened you?"). Their  answers will be used as evidence during the child’s deportation hearing, if they are able to find a lawyer to represent them – though, Luiselli writes, “Nothing is ever that simple. … The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story, is that it has no beginning, no middle and no end.”

At times in the essay, Luiselli hints at the crisis in its broader historical context, though it resists a rational explanation. She writes of the Salvadoran civil war that spanned 13 years, in which the United States “funded and provided military resources to the government that massacred so many, and led many others to exile.” She writes of the birth of gang violence in Los Angeles in the 1980s and the resulting deportations in the 1990s that exported this violence back to Central America, and of the anti-immigration strategies adopted in Mexico that made a migrant’s safety much more tenuous. She writes of continental arms trafficking and how drug consumption in the U.S. fuels the drug trade across the continent. In essence, Luiselli conveys the perpetuation of a tragedy and the root causes that would force a child to attempt such a dangerous journey. She writes, “The whole story is an absurd, circular nightmare.”

The real emotional impact of Luiselli’s writing comes as she describes her personal involvement -- sitting across from a child, asking them questions. She remembers asking two girls, ages 5 and 7, in dresses, “Did you stay in touch with your parents?” and of a young boy telling her why he fled. (“They kicked my door open and shot my little brother.”) There is an emotional difficulty of listening to these stories, and she has to remind herself “to swallow the rage, grief, and shame; remind myself to just sit still and listen closely.” Later, she asks, “How do you explain any of this to your own children?”

“Tell me how it ends, mamma?” her young daughter inquires. Luiselli does not know the answer. She does, however, get us to ask ourselves the crucial questions: What is our collective responsibility towards these children, and what can we do? This is a heartbreaking and essential piece of writing. If there is going to be a semblance of a happy ending to this story, Luiselli suggests, it will have to be a continental effort and an acknowledgement of our role, and each country’s role, in this humanitarian crisis. In effect, we are still at the beginning.