Books on GIF #93 — 'Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions' by Valeria Luiselli

Welcome to a special edition of Books on GIF, the animated alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's selection is ‘Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions’ by Valeria Luiselli.

I was originally going to send this review next week, but this essay in book form is so informative, sobering and important that I wanted to tell you about it now while you still have time to pick it up and read it before the election. Luiselli worked as a federal court interpreter in New York City, helping children who came to the United States alone fill in an intake questionnaire. She uses the form’s questions as jumping off points to describe the bureaucratic nightmare the children face to get immigration status, and the horrific circumstances that forced them to leave countries in violent turmoil like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and run a gauntlet of potential gang violence, rape and death through Mexico to get here. The stories are harrowing and heartbreaking. There is the teen from Honduras who saw his friend get murdered by gang members, and knew he had to flee the country if he didn’t want the same fate. There are the two sisters, ages 5 and 7, who were trying to reach their mother in the U.S.; her phone number sewn into the collars of their dresses for law enforcement to find. There are the thousands of others not lucky enough to be found by law enforcement: victims of murder, the elements or La Bestia, trains that carry migrants across Mexico. Luiselli tells these stories in a matter-of-fact way, which is a refreshing contrast to the hyperbole, fear and racism we normally encounter in the immigration debate, such as:

Perhaps the most important point Luiselli makes is when she reminds us that the United States is largely responsible for the problems that drive immigrants from Central America to seek refuge here through our insatiable demand for drugs and our decades-long history of destabilizing Central American governments. We are not innocent bystanders facing an invasion force. Building walls, sending troops to the border and fear-mongering headlines about caravans are smokescreens to hide our responsibility and complicity. Actual solutions will require facts, honesty, action and:

‘Tell Me How It Ends’ is a good place to start to get those facts. The book takes its title from a question Luiselli’s daughter would ask her about the stories of the children she translated for. The outcomes of their stories remain unknown, as does the future of immigration debate and policy. But there’s one way you, dear reader, an help determine how this all ends. Tell ’em Lady Miss Kier:

How it begins:

“Why did you come to the United States?” That’s the first question on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants. The questionnaire is used in the federal immigration court in New York City where I started working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015. My task there is a simple one: I interview children, following their intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English.

But nothing is ever that simple. I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered 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.

When the intake interview with a child is over, I meet with lawyers to deliver and explain my transcription and occasional notes. The lawyers then analyze the child’s responses, trying to come up wth options for a viable defense against a child’s deportation and the “potential relief” he or she is likely to get. The next step is to find legal representation. Once an attorney has agreed to take on a case, the real legal battle begins. If that battle is won, the child will obtain some form of immigration relief. If it is lost, they will receive a deportation order from a judge.

My rating:

GIF by @JulieSmithSchneider

‘Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions’ by Valeria Luiselli was published by Coffee House Press in 2017. 106 pages $12.95 at Book People Bookstore in Austin, Texas.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #92 featured ‘The Vorrh’ by B. Catling.

What's next: In two weeks you'll get a review of ‘Sabrina’ by Nick Drnaso. I’ll close out 2018 with ‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again’ by Edgardo Vega Yunqué, and ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh. There will probably be a gift guide/year-end wrap up in there, too.

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!

Until next time,