Fifteen Questions: Valeria Luiselli on the Best Novel That Has Ever Been Written, Her Friend Crush, and the Perils of an MFA

The author sat down with Fifteen Minutes to discuss writing and teaching. “How do we reshape the view of the migrant as an inherently victimized figure or as an intruder of sorts by thinking, for example, of migration in its kind of heroic arc?” she says. “Of the migration story not as a tragedy, but as a form of epic?"


Valeria Luiselli is a visiting professor of ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration in the English Department. Luiselli is the author of several books including “Lost Children Archive,” which was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

FM: You were born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa, and India. Which do you feel most attached to?

VL: I think South Africa, in terms of the countries that are not Mexico, where I grew up. And I think the reason for that is that I spent the last drops of my childhood there — my transition into teenagehood, and into a much more politically conscious age.

I was there during the transition to democracy in South Africa during Nelson Mandela’s administration, so it was a particularly intense political time. For the first time, I inhabited the world politically, so to speak, understanding that we were political beings and that something was changing. It was a very, very intense time, so I remember it very vividly.

FM: You teach a course called “Plundering the Americas: Histories of Extractive Violence and Creative Resistance in the Americas.” How do you approach creating and discussing work centered around the ideas of empire and U.S. imperialism here in the U.S.?

VL: I think that we look at different instances in which official modes of knowledge — national archives, or final histories of nations — have congealed versions of history.

We try to go into the cracks of those archives and extract from those cracks the possibility of understanding what has been left out from them, what has been voluntarily silenced — in an engineered kind of silence, or in some cases just through a kind of inertia.

During the time of Obama, there was a document, a kind of “pardon,” or an “ask for an apology” written by the United States government, directed at Native American peoples. The document lists a shopping list of wrongdoing, so to speak, all beginning with the word “whereas.”

It’s a very disquieting document because of all the things it does not really say about the horrors of genocidal imperialism and colonization. And we saw one example of a response to that archive, which is this wonderful poem by Layli Long Soldier called “Whereas,” and she responds to this document with her own were “whereases.”

FM: What made you start teaching?

VL: Survival.

I had to start teaching while I was doing my Ph.D. I had some experience with teaching before that, and I had dreaded it. I taught English to businessmen in Spain. So it was a very bad experience of teaching. But then I started teaching as a graduate student — because that’s part of your responsibility as a graduate student — and for the first time, I actually really enjoyed it. I taught courses in language, but also in Latin American literature and culture. And that’s where something changed in my view of what can be done through teaching. And from then on, I really enjoyed the practice of it, and the commitment to teaching.

FM: Alongside your writing, you have also been involved in political advocacy, notably translating for children in immigration court and teaching creative writing to incarcerated girls in New York City. Is the impulse to do this kind of work different from the impulse to write or make other art?

VL: I think the impulse, or the pulse more than the impulse, might be a similar one. But I understand the limitations of one form and the other, and try not to aspire to more than what one form can achieve. So I know, in my case at least, that writing fiction in particular is not the best tool for political denunciation or activism. Some fiction can lead the readers to think as an activist or to act, but it’s not something that I would like to think about when I’m writing fiction. But then, on the other hand, when I’ve written nonfiction in the past, like “Tell Me How It Ends,” I did have a much more political agenda in mind.

How is writing a tool for reshaping accepted narrative, a narrative that forms a very congealed part of the collective imagination? And how do you reshape that collective imagination through thinking about narrative differently? How do we reshape the view of the migrant as an inherently victimized figure or as an intruder of sorts by thinking, for example, of migration in its kind of heroic arc? Of the migration story not as a tragedy, but as a form of epic?

FM: Can we say then that non-fiction can do certain things that fiction can’t? And vice-versa?

VL: I think each genre has its limitations and its scopes. I don’t know that they can be very scientifically marked and regulated. I wouldn’t say that the essay inherently is an instrument of political change and action, whereas the novel can’t. I think that kind of prescriptive attitude toward writing might do very well in a creative writing class of some sort, because people want rules and people want a takeaway, but that’s not actually how it is. It’s much messier than that. It’s very difficult to be normative about literature in that way or about the practice of writing.

FM: How do you know which medium or genre feels right for the story you want to tell?

VL: Trial and error. For ages. For four years now I’ve been working on a novel that until two weeks ago had no shape. And now I’m only starting to find an architecture within it; it was just a collection of notes.

Four years it’s taken me, and the result is that it’s both fiction and nonfiction. I couldn’t decide which one this time, so both.

FM: Was there a moment when you decided to become a writer?

VL: I think there were many moments in which I aspired to become a writer. There were certainly many years of writing and realizing that writing was the activity that gave me the most profound forms of intellectual and emotional pleasure, joy, curiosity, satisfaction, also frustration and fear.

It was not until when I was an undergraduate student studying philosophy at the UNAM.

I met a girl my age, who is to this day like a sister to see me. We were smoking a cigarette outside class — you smoked inside and outside class in those days, but we were respectively smoking right outside class, not inside class — and I asked her her name. I’d been seeing her for weeks and I thought she was very interesting and I wanted her to be my friend, but I didn’t know how. And I asked her her name and what she did and who she was. And she said she presented herself like a writer. We were 19 years old, and I was like, “What do you mean? A writer?” I know it might sound trite these days, but I really had never read a female writer of fiction. Also, I was studying philosophy, not literature, so I came to literature on my own and later. But in high school, I had read only guys, really. Maybe I had read some Juana, the Mexican poet.

So it was really important for me to hear someone my age who considered herself a writer. And I think after that it became a realistic perspective to me.

To this day, every Monday, we check in, and we tell each other what we’re working on that week, where we’re going, if we did what we said last week, if the chapter is working or not, and we have a very tight discipline that’s now more than two decades long.

FM: What books in your life shaped you the most?

VL: Brodsky’s essays, that collection “Less Than One.” Anne Carson’s “Plainwater” is one of my favorite books. It’s such a beautiful book. Juane Rulfo, “Pedro Paramo.” I think it’s the best novel that has ever been written. Really plainly so. But there’s so many that it’s a very unfair question, so I’m only going to give you three. I mean, I could say Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” for example, that I read over and over and over and over again. So maybe that too.

FM: Your book, “Lost Children Archive,” is full of literary references, and you reference classics such as Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot. It seems like our time has a tricky relationship to these kinds of authors, the very classical authors with the classics, trying to find their meaning while wrestling with the fact that they’re written in very different times. Why and how do you still hold onto these classical texts?

VL: Why do I enter into conversation with other writers so overtly? I think first of all because that is very much my process in writing. I find it difficult to write if I don’t often stop to read and look at how others have done things before me. It’s what orients me. I get lost very easily, because I don’t write linearly: I write in a completely scattered way. It takes me time to build the cartography that I can navigate without getting lost. Once I build it, I can jump from A to B to C, but in the building of that cartography, my orientation posts — my lighthouses, so to speak — are usually other other writers.

FM: You’ve published extensively in both English and Spanish, sometimes assisting in translations of your own work. Does the language of the story change what’s being said?

VL: I’ll never know.

If I do it in one language, I’ll never know what it could have been in the other one. It’s just a mystery that I just have to live with.

Some things might be said more humorously in one language than in another, or some things lose that kind of vibrancy. But I don’t think that, inherently, a language produces, in me at least, prose that is more humorous or more melancholic or more anything. It has to do more with the moment and the material itself.

FM: As you were writing your novel “The Story of My Teeth,” you sent chapters to be read to factory workers at the Jumex juice factory weekly in Mexico. The workers would read the chapter out loud, sort of critique them, and send their thoughts back to you and then you’d revise the chapters accordingly with their criticism and then continue that process. My initial question is why did you decide to do this? But I guess a connected question is part of that, for you, figuring out a blurring of the lines between the writing that was produced by you versus writing that’s produced communally?

VL: Thanks to that mode of writing, I have more and more thought of collective experiences of writing or collective modes of documenting. The project that I’m working on is a lot more collective — like, brutally collective.

I don’t know if I was too conscious of it while doing it, but I think it taught me how to write in a way and how to listen in a way that has informed my work since.

One of the things that I was really interested in trying to understand was just how they understood their own place within this very complicated ecology created by the geographical proximity between the factory and this art gallery in the same plot of land and they belong to the same company.

Their tireless work during the day produces the revenue and the surplus of money that eventually goes into buying this expensive contemporary art that exists in this gallery that’s kind of vacuum packed and really well air conditioned, while the factory is super hot. And I really wanted to hear their views on that disconnection and connection.

FM: Do you have a reader in mind when you write?

VL: More than a reader, I have a ferocious critic in my head.

Sometimes it’s really important to read yourself through the lens of some kind of other critic, but also it’s really important to unlisten sometimes, because it’s really hard to produce creative work if you let those inner critics take over.

FM: The New Yorker said of “Lost Children Archive” that it “confronts the complexities of bearing witness.” Where do you draw the line between documenting pain as opposed to exploiting it?

VL: For me, it’s very important not to document pain as such. My books and my projects moving forward don’t reproduce the narratives that do a kind of pornography of pain. They don’t go into the details of violence.

That line for me is clear. It’s what should be clearly drawn. And it’s hard as a reader because the testimonies I come upon are brutal. But then as a writer, I don’t see my work as simply reproducing that archive.

FM: You write about people and topics that are very close to you. Do you see yourself in your stories, or do you keep a certain distance?

VL: I don’t really care much for autofiction. I just simply use the material that I have. Sometimes it begins with a family scene that then gets processed into something fictional as soon as it’s embroidered into a text. If that was originally true or not, if I was actually there, if I was in that scene — it doesn’t really matter to me. What matters to me is how to write fiction.

FM: What message would you give to an aspiring writer?

VL: Other than the typical one, which is you have to read and read and read?

Don’t fall into the trap of an MFA; rather, do a Ph.D., unless the MFA is tuition free and giving you a stipend. In that case, yes, if you’re being treated like a graduate student and have compensation for your work and research, fantastic.

MFAs are often a bit of a trick for people. So, don’t fall into the trap. Do a Ph.D.; it’s free.

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