Lost for Words

CREDIT: JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ / REUTERS

ESQUIRE article: https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a27813648/concentration-camps-southern-border-migrant-detention-facilities-trump/
LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE by Valeria Luiselli (London: 4th Estate, 2019), Hardback, pp. 416
TELL ME HOW IT ENDS: AN ESSAY IN FORTY QUESTIONS by Valeria Luiselli (London: 4th Estate, 2017), Paperback, pp. 128


Debates about immigration tend, for obvious reasons, to be semantic. It is easier to argue for the “detention” of “illegals” than to argue for the separation of children from parents, or for the internment of asylum seekers in concentration camps. And that last term has been much debated in recent weeks: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the other day, in response to an article in Esquire, that ‘[the Trump] administration has established concentration camps on the southern border of the United States for immigrants, where they are being brutalised with dehumanising conditions and dying.’

Much of the reaction to the Representative’s statement has been of the pearl-clutching and fan-waving variety. But “concentration camp” is the only possible definition of Fort Sill, a place that was used during the Second World War to cage those Americans who looked (subversively) Japanese. It had been closed as of 2014. But there is no achievement of the last administration so minor that it cannot be undone, and the camp will now open again, this time to intern children, seekers of asylum from the hysteria of gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. In the official and mathematical language of bureaucracy, Fort Sill will now be termed a “migrant detention facility”.

Andrea Pitzer says in the Esquire article – and her book One Long Night (2018) – that concentration camps are all, in the early stages of their development, roughly the same: the death camps of the Nazi war machine can therefore, without vulgarity, be compared to the camps of the British in South Africa, or the Americans in Guantanamo Bay. But a lot of the controversy here is practical rather than moral: administration officials and government supporters cannot go on defending the use of “concentration camps”, any more than they could defend the use of “torture” at Guantanamo Bay (preferring to deploy the more vague and professional-sounding phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques”).

In her essay Tell Me How It Ends (2017), Valeria Luiselli writes brilliantly about the surreal moment when this bureaucratic language comes up against real life and real people. In her capacity as volunteer interpreter in a New York immigration court, she hears the testimony of children who have survived the perilous journey to seek asylum:

…the intake interview is called a screening, a term that is as cynical as it is appropriate…stories often become generalised, distorted, out of focus. (11)

As she points out, the problem is not only euphemism but inattention to the nuances of language: children tell their fearful stories in analogue and she must translate them to digital, leaving undocumented the ragged edges and frayed patterns of life as it is truly lived. Into the blank spaces and yes/no boxes she must somehow adapt the ‘shuffled, stuttered’ answers of traumatised children whose words are ‘always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order.’ (7)

Luiselli finds meaning, and therefore humanity, not only in their stories but in the things they carry: a scrap of paper that comes her way during an early interview, for example, constitutes among other things ‘a road map of migration, a testimony of the five thousand miles travelled inside a boy’s pocket, aboard trains, on foot, in trucks, across various national borders, all the way to an immigration court in a distant city.’ But under the forensic scrutiny of bovine officialdom the scrap of paper means nothing, except as an item to be sealed in a clear plastic bag and stored as evidence.

Her focus on the interior life, on the untranslatable details that are lost to the court system, is illuminating but can only go so far in this non-fiction format. Hence the appearance, some years later, of a novel that will answer an open question from the essay: ‘Were they to find themselves alone, crossing borders and countries, would my own children survive?’ (18). Lost Children Archive (2019) takes us from New York to Echo Canyon on a grand road trip through the haunted empty deserts of Arizona and Texas. Echoes historical and political can be heard as the narrative winds down, deeper into the heartland, and into the interior life of characters: a young couple with two children, a boy aged 10 and a girl aged 6.

Luiselli has fun – if fun is the word – with some of the clichés and euphemisms above: at Roswell, near the UFO museum, we see a group of ‘alien’ children loaded into a plane and deported. David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is one of the songs on the playlist for the trip, and becomes a favourite of the two young children who watch all this with their parents from the other side of a high security fence. Sooner or later this protective boundary has to go, of course: the marriage is breaking down and the family is breaking up, and eventually the boy and the girl will make a break for freedom, heading off into the badlands on their own.

But before all that, before the children get lost, we get one of the best fictional accounts of a pre-divorce relationship to be found anywhere. Again Luiselli turns her focus on words, on the way that language often reveals to us emotional truths about ourselves: the going away of love, or the breakdown of a relationship where silence seems to oppressively fall between the gaps in conversation.

We started speaking more hesitantly about everything, even the trivial things, and also started speaking more softly, like we were tiptoeing with our tongues, careful to the point of paranoia not to slip and fall on the suddenly very unstable grounds of our family space. (26)

And again, her focus is not only on words but on the full scope and range of communication: the mother speaks in academic jargon that her son cannot understand. And the father becomes distant, ‘[focusing] on the road ahead as if underlining a long sentence in a difficult book.’ (157) Songs about being lost or alone in space echo significantly around the car.

But language can also keep alive the memory – or echo, or ghost – of the past: the father entertains the hope that his stories can preserve something of the lost tribes and fallen warriors who were killed or “removed” to make way for America. Faulkner famously said that in his native country the past is never dead and buried, or even past. Luiselli says, or her narrator-mother says,

the more I listen to the stories he tells about the country’s past, the more it seems like he’s talking about the present… I don’t interrupt his story to say so out loud, but the word “removal” is still used today as a euphemism for “deportation”. (133)

He takes the family to visit an Apache gravesite and finds, to his horror, that time has worn smooth the epitaph of the great warrior Geronimo. In a country premised on ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, the shame of genocidal history has resulted in a deliberate effort at forgetting, as well as a certain paranoid expectation of reckoning, reprisal, reparations. The graves are located miles out of town, hidden away, ‘as if even now the Apaches were a threat to be kept at a distance. As if Geronimo could still come back and retaliate any day.’

As Luiselli intuits, the denial, the excuse-making, the bad-faith arguments that say a “cage” is not really a “cage” but a “detention space” (to quote the Secretary of Homeland Security) all come from this deep historical unease. America cannot look itself in the mirror. So consider these lost children a second chance: a second chance to do right by the Constitution, and a second chance to make reparations for the darkest chapters of forgotten history. Either that or lock them in cages and make them the forlorn ghosts of history yet unwritten.