Courtesy of Elizabeth Yoon

As the pale, winter sky quickly darkened outside my window on Thursday night, undergraduates studying English, Helen Zell Writers’ Program graduate students and book enthusiasts logged on to the “Reading and Q&A with Valeria Luiselli” virtual event hosted by the Zell Visiting Writers Series. Luiselli was invited to speak in this series and read from her novel, “Lost Children Archive.” 

The book fictionalizes her family’s road trip to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, tying in stories of the Central American migration crises of the Obama and Trump eras. Her novel questions the divide between depicted reality and true reality, exploring the documentation of sounds, stories and people.

As described on the Helen Zell Writers’ Program’s website, Luiselli worked as a court translator for “unaccompanied child migrants caught in the labyrinth of U.S. immigration policy.” In her 2017 nonfiction book “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions,” she shares “the harrowing and fragmented statements that the immigration intake questionnaire elicits from children facing deportation.” 

She explained that writing this work of nonfiction was her immediate reaction to facing the devastating realities of these children. Her more recent novel, “Lost Children Archive,” presents a synthesis of the conflict within the fictional world of the book.

Luiselli prefaced her reading of several sections of her novel by saying that it had been a while, presumably before pandemic times, since she last read from “Lost Children Archive” out loud. Referencing the constant movement of her characters in their road trip across America, she said she was struck by how distant the world portrayed in the novel is from our current enforced immobility.

For a 2019 novel dealing with the Central American migration crisis, I was struck by the undeniable parallels between these events and the reality that many Americans face today. Separation from one’s loved ones and the chaos of not knowing when you will be “home” has never been as prevalent an experience as it is now.

Phrases like the “desperate togetherness” felt by the people of this country reverberated in my head as Luiselli read the first few pages, reminding me of how pervasive the issues of closeness and displacement were even before 2020. The fact that displacement wasn’t a part of my own life before the pandemic is certainly a privilege.

This passage she read aloud was particularly poignant: “Something has changed in the world. Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it … Perhaps it’s just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable.”

Luiselli’s words hold a universal meaning, applying to today, yesterday and different groups throughout history, while emphasizing the timeless condition of human struggle.  

English professor Daniel Hack brought up a particularly engaging topic, asking Luiselli her opinion on the ways we find meaning in a novel, and whether or not these methods should spill over into real life. 

Luiselli laughed, describing how she is not always sure what the clear boundary is between literature and life. She went on to say that the impression that a story or sentence can have on a reader’s brain and the way that it can modify our relationship “to life, to our day, to our body, to meaning, to love, is completely real.” 

In a sense, she said, there is no separation between the stories in a book and the experiences we live out because our reading informs our experiences all the time.  

During the last five minutes of the event, Luiselli was asked how she avoids sinking into despair after working with kids and being exposed to tragedies at the border. She took a deep breath and explained that she certainly carries a different weight now after being so close to these events, but “that’s what life is, right?” she sighed. “Experiences can scar us forever. Historical events mark us profoundly, and that’s kind of inevitable.” 

The more we live, according to Luiselli, the more we must carry. 

She posited that all we can do is find ways to move forward. Her words resonated deeply with me and the rest of the audience, as this past year has posed some seriously unexpected obstacles and tragedies from which we all are slowly trying to move forward. For her part, she found that through writing about her experiences she has been able to reorganize the situation in a way that makes sense to her. 

She also used her language skills to work directly with kids: In 2017 and 2018, she worked as a writing instructor in detention centers, facilitating creative writing workshops for undocumented children. The idea that she was able to give the necessary instruments to these children so they might one day write their own stories is what saved Luiselli, giving her life “meaning and direction.”

For me, this book and conversation were a reminder of the unlimited nature of the connections between literature and reality. Reading and writing help us understand our lives and hardships while imagining, informing and documenting.

Daily Arts Writer Caroline Atkinson can be reached at