“The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela’s famous words echo the understanding that we can be judged by the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our communities, whether these are children, the elderly or the differently abled. Reading Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, we are reminded how we fail to protect those who need our care. The story she outlines is set across the two Americas, but it resonates with so many other tales across all continents where displaced people are escaping horror or looking for decent opportunities to build their lives.
As a volunteering translator at the federal immigration court in New York City, Luiselli has witnessed and given voice to some of the most terrifying stories about unaccompanied migrant children coming from Mexico and many countries south of its border into the United States, seeking refuge. She recounts only a few of these heart-breaking cases in her book. The questions of the subtitle are the ones asked of the children when they are apprehended and handed over to officials. The main question of the title is asked by one of Luiselli’s own children: her daughter wants to know how the story of the migrating children ends. There is no easy answer.
“The whole thing is a mess,” Luiselli writes, “a puzzle impossible to piece together using common sense and logic. But this much is clear: until all the governments involved – the American, Mexican, Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan governments, at least – acknowledge their shared accountability in the roots and causes of the children’s exodus, solutions to the crisis will be impossible.” We are speaking about thousands upon thousands of children making their way across the borders to either be reunited with the families already living in the US, or searching for ways out of impossible conditions at home, or both. They are running from poverty, abuse, trafficking, gangs, or military conflicts. Their perilous journeys often end in tragedy, and miraculously arriving in the US is often only the beginning of another ordeal which under the current Trump administration will see them most likely deported again.
Luiselli describes the challenges the children face, often despairing at her own inability to assist in more productive ways. But she points out that “perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording these 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.”
Luiselli does not look away. Driven by “a combination of anger and clarity”, she allows the reader to share in her emotions and thoughts about one of the most distressing realities of our present.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions
by Valeria Luiselli
4th Estate, 2017
Review first published in the Cape Times on 2 February 2018.