Critics have hailed Mexican-born author and New York resident Valeria Luiselli's "Lost Children Archive" for her inventive writing style, which includes poetic prose, sounds, Polaroids, documents and stream of consciousness writing.
Luiselli's convention-defying writing isn't something she learned from creative writing classes.
"I was never taught the discipline or the craft of writing," Luiselli said in a recent interview. "There is no such thing as creative writing in school in Mexico, or wherever I lived before. Now there are more programs beginning to exist. I didn't study literature, either, I studied philosophy."
Luiselli, the featured speaker at Just Buffalo Literary Center's BABEL series on Nov. 14, didn't even have designs on becoming a novelist until in her 20s. She came to New York to be a professional dancer.
"Literature has always been my love, but I never thought when I was younger that I, as a young woman, could ever be or become a writer," Luiselli said. "I guess I had no examples. When I studied in university in Mexico, practically none of the writers I ever read were women. The Latin American canon I read didn't have a single female writer, not that they didn't exist. I don't think I thought of myself seriously as a writer or think I could become a writer to much later."
Writing as a career began to take hold only after Luiselli's efforts at dance fell flat.
"I failed completely at it," Luiselli said. "I was very disciplined, but never very good. But I always felt in dance that there was something lacking. The physical discipline of it, I felt, drew me away from my intellectual interests, not that dance is not a highly intellectual discipline as well. But the way I was doing it wasn't. I didn’t feel completely fulfilled."
Not that Luiselli feels completely fulfilled as a writer, either. "I think a certain level of dissatisfaction is necessary," she said.
Critics, however, have found little to be dissatisfied with.
Luiselli has been called “one of the most exciting writers working today” by the Los Angeles Times, which awarded her first novel, "Faces in the Crowd," its Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Luiselli's 2015 novel, "The Story of My Teeth," was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 2017 "Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions" was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
"Lost Children Archive" (Alfred A. Knopf), Luiselli's fifth book, which came out earlier this year, is her first in English. The political novel follows a married couple whose relationship is fraying and their two children on a summer road trip to Arizona from New York. The father is relocating to the southwest to work on a somewhat nebulous project, and their lives become more complicated by the immigration crisis.
Luiselli was born in Mexico City, but moved to Madison, Wisc., at age 2 so her father could complete his doctorate. His work as a diplomat took the family to Costa Rica, South Korea and South Africa. After her parents separated, Luiselli, then 16, moved back to Mexico City with her mother.
She attended boarding school and college in India, and returned to Mexico to get a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. After continuing her studies in Spain and France, Luiselli moved to New York, eventually earning a doctorate degree in comparative literature at Columbia University.
Luiselli lived in Harlem for most of the last 10 years, but two years ago she bought a home in the Bronx. "That is very much a space that I think of as home right now," Luiselli said. "It is the closest I have ever actually felt to home."
Luiselli has been a wife, ex-wife, mother, author, immigration court translator and university teacher. She has also been a librettist for the New York City Ballet and is working on a performance piece. When told that sounds like a lot for someone who recently turned 36, she said, "I do feel like I'm 86, I must say," before adding with a laugh, "Not necessarily in a good way. I also feel like I'm still figuring out what to do with myself, to be honest."
For "Tell Me How It Ends," Luiselli drew on her experiences as an interpreter for dozens of Central American immigrant children dealing with a crushing bureaucracy she described in the interview as "a slow lava of frustration."
"What I wanted to do was offer a kind of X-ray of the atrocities of the immigration system," Luiselli said. That included telling the "hemispheric history of political violence" that reverberates to the present day, she said, including the Reagan administration's role in destabilizing El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s that led to waves of people coming into the United States.
"Lost Children Archive" also deals with the migration crisis, and what she has found to be an oppressive and dehumanizing system of mass incarceration that locks up thousands of children and families while often denying fair representation. Conditions in the mostly privately run facilities and immigration courts Luiselli first described critically occurred during the Obama administration in "Tell Me How It Ends."
Luiselli's anger with the system and desire to see change spills off the pages of her work.
"I think what a lot of people don't know is that arriving in a country without documents is not illegal," she said. "It is perfectly legal to arrive in a country and ask for asylum. You might get denied asylum, but it's perfectly legal to seek it. What is anti-constitutional is to incarcerate people while their asylum cases are pending.
"But incarceration is lucrative," she added. "Everybody incarcerated creates money for a company, basically, because the prison system is privatized."
Luiselli, who was awarded earlier this year a MacArthur fellowship, also known as a MacArthur “genius” award, said she is used to feeling like an outsider due to her frequent moves and travels between countries. That frame of reference often inhabits her books.
"The role I learned early on how to play was the role of foreigner, or of a person who has just arrived or is about to leave," Luiselli said. "Sometimes it can feel ghostly and at times deracinated, but also at times quite the opposite that comes with a very particular necessity. You’re either trying to take everything in to understand it or you're looking at everything with a kind of nostalgia soon to depart. There is an intensity that also roots me in the face of observation, which is a space I have written a lot of my books."
Despite success as an author, Luiselli said each new book project leaves her with a sense of uncertainty.
"My approach comes very much from the space of not knowing how to do it, or not knowing how to start," Luiselli said. "It’s a weird thing because even though I have now written five books, every time I begin a new book or a new project I feel like I won't know how to do it, like I have to start all over again. It takes me awhile and it's at times frustrating to feel like maybe I will never be able to do it again, and that I have to relearn everything. But I’m also interested in starting from a place of not knowing and then discovering along the way."
Luiselli will talk about her work and do some readings at the BABEL event at 8 p.m. Nov. 14 in Kleinhans Music Hall. A sit-down conversation and questions from the audience are also part of the program with host Barbara Cole, Just Buffalo Literary Center’s artistic and associate executive director.
Tickets are $40, $35 with Buffalo and Erie County Public Library card and $10 for students. Visit justbuffalo.org for more information.