A few days before Christmas, a group of 20 or so people crowded into the Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli’s living room. Luiselli dipped in and out among her guests, serving mulled wine as school-aged children from Still Waters in a Storm, an educational center in Brooklyn focused on reading and writing, prepared to perform an original musical adapted from Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” The children had worked with the center’s founder, Stephen Haff, to translate the book from the Spanish and write songs reinterpreting the story with a chorus of migrant children. By the time Haff told the children to find their spots on the small makeshift stage, the seats had filled up, so Luiselli sat on the floor next to her 9-year-old daughter, Maia. It wasn’t the first time Luiselli had seen the show, but she still cried, as did her daughter, when the children sang songs with lyrics like, “Innocence needs a home.”
The experiences of asylum-seeking children from Latin America have preoccupied Luiselli for several years now and serve as a central theme in her latest book about a family road trip across the United States. “Lost Children Archive,” which will be published by Knopf next week, is Luiselli’s fifth book, and the first of her novels to be written in English.
When Luiselli, 35, started writing “Lost Children Archive” in the summer of 2014, she struggled with using it “as a loudspeaker for all of my political rage.” She had volunteered as a court translator for child refugees from Latin America and was therefore familiar with the migration crisis. She set aside the novel and wrote “Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions,” a meditation on the children’s stories and the circumstances that brought them to the United States. It was formatted after the questionnaire the court had her use to interview the children and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism in 2017. Afterward, Luiselli said, she was able to return to her novel and offer “more open questions and open ends instead of political stances that are too loud and obvious by themselves.”
The formal inventiveness of “Tell Me How It Ends” is characteristic of all of Luiselli’s former work. Diego Rabasa, who has edited Luiselli’s books with Sexto Piso, an independent press in Mexico City, said her first book, “Papeles Falsos” (translated as “Sidewalks” in English), contained elements of literary, personal and travel essays. “There has always been a distinct aura of brilliance and intelligence surrounding her,” said Rabasa. “What dazzled us was the audacity of a young writer who was starting on such an original path.”
“I have never written a novel that just sort of springs from the head of Zeus, from an absolute space of fiction,” said Valeria Luiselli. “I always begin my work documenting my everyday.”Photo Devin Yalkin for The New York Times