Where is the child’s mother? Father? A review of “Tell Me How it Ends”

By Ruth McHugh-Dillon
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Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions

Valeria Luiselli

Coffee House Press

Translation is never a simple case of duplication, original to translation. Competing priorities complicate linearity: fidelity to the original text, intended meaning, linguistic aesthetics. But what about when the original “text” is the words of an unaccompanied child making a case for asylum in a court of law, with or without a lawyer? And how do you translate their testimony accurately and ethically when the stakes are unimaginably high – beyond, even, what the child may comprehend?

Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli tackles these questions in Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017). Originally published in 2016 as Los niños perdidos (“the lost children”) this slim non-fiction work ­– sharp and clear as a cold gasp of air – documents Luiselli’s time volunteering as an interpreter for unaccompanied minors in US immigration courts. In 2014, unprecedented waves of children began turning themselves in at the US-Mexico border to la migra (Border Patrol). The majority were fleeing gang violence in Central America and Mexico, risking their physical safety and lives by making the journey alone, often to join relatives already living in the US.

Tell Me How it Ends is deeply personal reportage. Luiselli first hears news about the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children as she travels south from New York on a road trip with her family; her own small children, sleeping as they drive, are the backdrop to the distressing radio coverage. In fact, the trip itself is a distraction as they wait for the results of their own green card applications. It is the family’s immigration lawyer who puts her in touch with the courts.

Personal reflections on immigration and family are thus woven through the essay, but driving its structure are the forty questions Luiselli must ask in the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants. They are apparently straightforward:

“Why did you come to the United States?” (one)

“How do you like where you’re living now? Are you happy here? Do you feel safe?” (nine, ten, eleven)

“Who would take care of you if you were to return to your home country?” (forty)

Yet Luiselli bristles with the inadequacy of these questions, a bureaucratic mesh through which everything important seems to fall. Her own, deeper questions push the essay forward. How can any child be expected to answer these questions? Especially these children, who have already suffered so much just to arrive? Finally, how is she to translate them?

She hears words, but in this context language itself is traumatised – by their experience, their age. The “children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order … I have to transform them,” she writes, “into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms.” She finds herself “not knowing where translation ends and interpretation starts.”

…proving a case for asylum remains extremely challenging. The definition of “refugee” is not expansive. To prove you are in fear of your life, or even that you are being personally targeted, does not necessarily suffice – a successful applicant must prove that their persecution is based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and/or association with a particular social group.

The problem is that children who somehow manage to contract a lawyer within the twenty-one days allocated may still not understand how best to frame their case; which details will make the difference between being labelled an “economic migrant” (deported) or being granted asylum with the status of “refugee.” Between English-speaking lawyers and Spanish-speaking clients – if you can call children, at times younger than five, “clients” – Luiselli acts as a mediator. She translates the children’s words from Spanish to English, loyal to her ethics as an interpreter. But loyal to her ethics as a human being, mother, and Mexican immigrant herself, she jots in the margins possible ways to reframe the words as a legal case.

Despite widespread and extreme violence in Central America, proving a case for asylum remains extremely challenging. The definition of “refugee” is not expansive. To prove you are in fear of your life, or even that you are being personally targeted, does not necessarily suffice – a successful applicant must prove that their persecution is based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and/or association with a particular social group. Luiselli notes the perverse feeling that an answer is “correct” because it strengthens the child’s case – by revealing a horrific trauma that nevertheless fits neatly on the form.

What Luiselli aches to articulate as an interpreter, but can’t, she pours instead into this urgent and important essay. Its title comes from her own daughter’s anxious response to the children’s stories: “Tell me how it ends, Mamma.” A genuine response is difficult, Luiselli writes, in a story that “has no beginning, no middle, and no end.” Obama broke records deporting minors during this crisis, but Trump seems intent to smash other records and thresholds. 2018 saw Trump use family separation as a deliberate weapon and threaten the imminent migrant caravan with thousands of troops at the border. Where does it end?

“Perhaps the only way to grant any justice,” Luiselli writes, acknowledging that justice may not even be possible, “is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us.

Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy separating families was at least hampered by international outrage. But Australia has been separating families and using children as hostages with apparent impunity for decades. The questions Luiselli raises are therefore urgent for Australia’s debates about asylum seekers, especially as pressure mounts with the #KidsOffNauru campaign. This campaign is urgent and gaining widespread momentum. But I am also afraid that children will be used by politicians, once again, to bully and blackmail other asylum seekers – especially unaccompanied adult men – into silence, depriving them of justice. Where does it end in Australia?

“Perhaps the only way to grant any justice,” Luiselli writes, acknowledging that justice may not even be possible, “is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

Tell Me How it Ends does not – cannot – provide a neat ending to a catastrophe that we can now place in the past. But Luiselli’s commitment to justice means she will not look away – and convinces the reader that there is purpose and possibility in this unflinching gaze.

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