Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2017)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
In Tell Me How it Ends, novelist Valeria Luiselli sheds the cloak of fiction to write a different kind of narrative – one that, as the author’s daughter discovers, doesn’t have a neat ending. The book tackles Luiselli’s experience volunteering at an immigration court in New York City, where she translated the answers migrant children gave to the questions that stood between a return to their home country and the promise of a new life in the United States. Here, Luiselli examines the questions she asks these children, but also asks questions of her own – about how we view Mexican and Central American immigrants in the United States, about our own involvement in the gang violence that drove these children to travel thousands of miles on the back of freight train to a country they’d never seen before, about titles like “illegal alien” and “refugee,” and how skin color plays into who does and does not get to claim them. Beyond even its political message, though, Tell Me How It Ends asks interesting and evocative questions about how we create the narrative lens through which we see the world. In many ways, Luiselli’s book is a documentation of the way her own definition of what it means to be American (as an immigrant herself, and a woman of color) was ruptured by her experience translating the stories of migrant children. It is a book about the stories we are told and the ones we are not told; an account of the information we know about the immigration crisis in the United States, and the details that are, intentionally or unintentionally, left out.
Perhaps the strongest moments in Luiselli’s book are the ones in which she does the work of a fiction writer – that is, she reminds us of the humanity of the characters in this story. When writing about the fifth and sixth questions on her survey – “What countries did you pass through?” and “How did you travel here?” Luiselli teaches us a fragment of this narrative that, at least in my experience, had always been ignored:
“With a blend of pride and horror, most say ‘I came on La Bestia,’ which literally means ‘the beast’ and refers to the freight trains that cross Mexico, on top of which as many as half a million Central American migrants ride annually. There are no passenger services along the routes, so migrants have to ride atop the rail cards or in the recesses between them. Thousands have died or been gravely injured aboard La Bestia… the most minor oversight can be fatal…” (19)
The facts are accompanied by moments when Luiselli looks at her own children, asleep in their beds or the backseat of a moving car, and wonders if they would survive this kind of journey. These are the moments when Luiselli’s anger, which is pushes the text forward with the same ferocity of a bustling freight train, fades, and instead she marvels at the bravery and desperation of the people who arrive at our southern border. She writes “Children chase after life, even if that chase might end up killing them.” (19) and as Luiselli recounts the stories of specific children, there is both sadness and wonder. She reminds us that these journeys across the border are in fact a chase, not a wishful waltz toward a more promising life.
Luiselli also talks about the act of translating in this book – a subject which has always fascinated me, and which becomes even more important when the stories that are being translated mean the difference between life and death. It is a confusing and delicate practice, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. There is something intimate about the words we translate – they must move through our own mouths to come into the world in another language. The stories don’t belong to us, but we have touched them and worked them into their most perfect, alternate version. In this way they are both foreign and familiar, not unlike the people who arrive at the border, and about whom Luiselli writes. If you are American, who know parts of this story, the parts that newscasters and radio hosts have told you, but statistically it is unlikely that it’s your own story. With this book, Luiselli shows us that it is only when you take the words into your own mouth that it becomes possible to understand.
Luiselli makes it clear in Tell Me How It Ends that this is not a solution to a problem – only a way of coping and trying to understand it. She writes:
“Telling stories doesn’t solve anything, doesn’t reassemble broken lives. But perhaps it is a way of understanding the unthinkable. If a story haunts us, we keep telling it to ourselves, replaying it in silence while we shower, while we walk alone down streets, or in our moments of insomnia.” (69-70)
Tell Me How it Ends is a short, but powerful book – a translation of headlines into something more specific, more troubling, more beautiful. It is worth reading not only because it provides insight into a crisis that continues to dramatically impact the social and political climate of the United States, but because it offers stories rarely told, and which deserve to be heard.