There’s a line in Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, Lost Children Archive (Knopf), in which a 10-year-old boy asks his parents what they were like at his age.
When Luiselli is asked what she was like at 10, she laughs, surprised by the question. How many of us retain clear memories of that age beyond our immediate desires and needs?
Luiselli does, noting that 1994 was “a very interesting moment in the world and I was in the middle of historical events and crossfires,” she says. It was the year the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. In her native Mexico, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation declared war against the Mexican government and a presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated. Luiselli’s mother joined the Zapatista movement, and her father took her to South Africa, where she witnessed Nelson Mandela’s election as president.
“It was my year of coming of age into the political world,” says Luiselli, who appears March 11 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings series. “I began to understand the world politically for the first time at the same time my father and my mother separated.”
Lost Children Archive reflects Luiselli’s ongoing interest in politics and global concerns, but it’s not an overtly political novel. Nor is it typical in any way, as Luiselli takes the timeworn road novel and burnishes it into a gleaming new form. A man and a woman, married with children by former partners, embark on a cross-country trip from New York to the Southwest. The woman hopes to create an audio documentary about migrant children; the man seeks to make a similar type of documentary about the ghosts of Apache Indians.
While most stories rely on concrete images for descriptive color, the author uses the sounds of urban landscapes, travel, wildlife, and conversations.
“It was definitely a challenge,” Luiselli says of her use of sound. “But it was also a great mental space to be in terms of where to situate myself in order to create absolute hearing. Whenever I sat down to work, I was immersed in the sounds of it.”
Those sounds are enhanced by what’s missing from the novel. The characters are never named, and there are few, if any, physical descriptions of them. Combine that with the lack of concrete details in Lost Children Archive, and at times the book takes on the feel of a ghost story, the story suggesting elements that may or not be there.
Luiselli compares this book to her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, which “was written from a place of things ending, a sensation of a world that is about to end,” she says. “Which is also true of Lost Children Archive. It’s a novel written with a kind of nostalgia of the present."
Midway through the novel, the narration switches from the perspective of the woman to the boy. Throughout the first half of the book, he has been taking photos with a Polaroid camera, his first few attempts revealing nothing until he becomes more adept at using the device.
It’s as if the world becomes more in focus as he crosses the country, but Luiselli says it is more a commentary on how the world can be viewed and documented.
“When you have a camera – and I don’t mean on a phone, a different kind of camera – a Leica or any kind of actual camera, as well as when you have a tape recorder or any other kind of recording device, you listen to the world differently,” Luiselli says. “It puts you in a space of more thoughtful, more active observation.”
Between the Lines
Poet Ilya Kaminsky lost most of his hearing during childhood when a case of the mumps was misdiagnosed as a cold. A native of Odessa, Ukraine when it was part of Soviet Union, Kaminsky will read from his latest poetry collection, Deaf Republic, on March 7 at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland. Kaminsky honors include the Milton Center’s Award for Excellence in Writing, the Florence Kahn Memorial Award, and Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize.
The reading starts at 7 p.m. - 412-622-8866 or carnegielibrary.org/event/poets-aloud-ilya-kaminsky