Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli

A few years back, probably around 2014, I heard an interview with a woman who was (I think) a U.S. House Representative, and who fumed at the irresponsibility of Central American parents who allowed their children to take the perilous journey north to the U.S. border, leaving them “for us to deal with,” or words to that effect.

For me, this was the voice of a suburban U.S. parent who doesn’t understand why the neighbors keep letting their kids play out on the street after dinner instead of keeping them home. It reduces the pain and terror in Central America to a question of parenting styles.

In other words, it was the kind of remark you can only make when you have a few basic facts and none of their context—on the order of a classical music lover blasting Buddy Guy or Stevie Ray Vaughan because their music doesn’t sound like Mozart.

Had it been published at the time, I would have sent the offended and uncomprehending (traits that hang out together a lot) House Representative a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s (@ValeriaLuiselli ) book, Tell Me How It Ends . Because in this book we are allowed to witness some of the stories Luiselli herself heard during interviews with those very children at the Federal Immigration Court in New York City. We are also given a chance to see the system that children have to find their way through.

It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”

The structure of Luiselli’s book is the list of questions translators are tasked to ask each child, whose answers must then be translated and written down. Translators then discuss the interviews with volunteer attorneys who evaluate each child’s situation against the parameters laid out by statutes regarding what is and isn’t grounds for asylum.

My description conveys the outline of the book but doesn’t approach the breadth of its content or the effectiveness of Luiselli’s writing. For balance, the following quote gives you a hint. After several pages describing the maps and stats of the ways and places that people determined to survive find death instead of help, Luiselli writes :

Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories … 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.”

For me, this quote goes a long way toward describing the origin story of this short, intense book and the reasons why we all need to read it. You can buy it here .

Blues for Paris

I studied photography in Paris a couple decades past, and at one point decided to take long-exposure night-time shots along the Seine. After living in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I already knew Paris was nowhere near as threatening an environment. And I’d been out at night there on my own, at concerts, plays, talks by photographers, always traveling on foot and by Metro. Still, I was wary about shooting after dark in a less populated spot.

The first time I set up my tripod on the Left Bank, near the Pont de Archêveché, my immediate surroundings were quiet and calm. Light rippled off the water. I sighted and framed potential shots and, with all my other senses, read the atmosphere for signs of trouble.

People strolled past, talking quietly, the flood lights of a bateau mouche spread their streak of daylight across both banks, music bounced down to the river from cars passing by.

There were no red flags, just peace and calm. And its epicenter, I finally realized, seemed to be Notre Dame, buttresses like wings spread out behind her, the spire with its watchful figures, her towers looking west.

My eyes to the viewfinder, vulnerable on all sides, that sense of a guarding presence calmed me down and let me work.

There are claims that buildings are simply enclosed air, objects built from inanimate materials, but I don’t believe it. Buildings are memory boxes, repositories of the voices, footfalls, and lives that have sounded within them.

During my time in Paris I passed Notre Dame on foot, on buses, ate my lunch in the square at her feet. Within her walls and in her deep quiet, I lit candles for my parents. She stands at the center of Paris like a guardian spirit keeping watch over her city and people. Her roots are centuries deep and she misses nothing, because the world comes to her with its news, sorrows, and triumphs.

And now the world is coming to her again, with aid and prayers for her restoration.

Reboot

In which the resident author goes back to speaking up.

To create today is to create dangerously. Any publication is an act, and that act exposes one to the passion of an age that forgives nothing.”

The greatest renown today consists in being admired or hated without having been read.”

The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies…the strange liberty of creation is possible.”

These are as clear-eyed a description of our time as anything I’ve read in a while.

Although I’d add one thing. It’s the trickiness of finding unfrazzled stretches of time when we’re not redlining through our task lists, when there’s enough brain-oxygen available to imagine and produce creative work. Personally, I have to switch out of hyper-mode and move from micro-focus to wide angle―what I call long-thought mode.

And then, after all the time, revisions, weighing of words and sentences, double-checking rhythm and beats, someone may read three lines (or three words) of what you’ve written, snap to an opinion, and dismiss it, all in a matter of a few seconds.

Carefully considered and constructed or not, whatever we put out there has to survive a click-bait culture where algorithms that serve advertising and the politification of everything rule. No pressure.

But that knobby little seed at the pit of all our souls still wants to reach out and make contact. We still want to share our latest story or song, that captured handful of our own aurora borealis of color and light, spits and howls.

Sometimes the response we receive feels thoroughly unrelated to what we’ve produced. Some people need to decontruct and apply labels so they can give the work a good drop-kick and move on. Some―and god willing our work finds them―say yes, I’ve felt that too, or hey, I’ve never looked at it that way, or just, thanks, that was cool.

It’s the reason we make that scary reach beyond the borders of ourselves, just to catch a glimpse of that slow dawn of recognition, of yes, of aha. So we keep on chasing the “strange liberty of creation.”

Which leads back to those quotes at the top that so accurately describe this specific moment on the planet: Albert Camus, December 1957, in a lecture delivered at the University of Uppsala. L’Artiste et son temps.*

Plus ça change, non?

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*Translated by Justin O’Brien, published in English as Create Dangerously in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death

Publiée dans les Discours de Suède sous le titre L’artiste et son temps