FINALIST FOR THE 2019 KIRKUS PRIZE FOR FICTION
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 BOOKER PRIZE
“The novel truly becomes novel again in Luiselli’s hands—electric, elastic, alluring, new.” Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
"Impossibly smart, full of beauty, heart and insight . . . Everyone should read this book." Tommy Orange
Named a "Best Book of 2019 So Far" by Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, Vulture, and TIME
From the two-time NBCC Finalist, an emotionally resonant, fiercely imaginative new novel about a family whose road trip across America collides with an immigration crisis at the southwestern borderan indelible journey told with breathtaking imagery, spare lyricism, and profound humanity.
A mother and father set out with their two children, a boy and a girl, driving from New York to Arizona in the heat of summer. Their destination: Apacheria, the place the Apaches once called home.
Why Apaches? asks the ten-year-old son. Because they were the last of something, answers his father.
In their car, they play games and sing along to music. But on the radio, there is news about an "immigration crisis": thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detainedor lost in the desert along the way.
As the family drivesthrough Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texaswe sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can almost feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, harrowing adventureboth in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.
Told through several compelling voices, blending texts, sounds, and images, Lost Children Archive is an astonishing feat of literary virtuosity. It is a richly engaging story of how we document our experiences, and how we remember the things that matter to us the most. With urgency and empathy, it takes us deep into the lives of one remarkable family as it probes the nature of justice and equality today.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.78(d)|
About the Author
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa and India. An acclaimed writer of both fiction and nonfiction, she is the author of the essay collection Sidewalks; the novels Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth; and, most recently, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. She is the recipient of a 2019 MacArthur Fellowship and the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award, and has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kirkus Prize, and the Booker Prize. She has been a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree and the recipient of a Bearing Witness Fellowship from the Art for Justice Fund. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, and McSweeney's, among other publications, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. She is a Writer in Residence at Bard College and lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Part I: Family Soundscape
“An archive presupposes an archivist, a hand that collects and classifies.”
“To leave is to die a little.
To arrive is never to arrive.”
Mouths open to the sun, they sleep. Boy and girl, foreheads pearled with sweat, cheeks red and streaked white with dry spit. They occupy the entire space in the back of the car, spread out, limbs offering, heavy and placid. From the copilot seat, I glance back to check on them every so often, then turn around to study the map again. We advance in the slow lava of traffic toward the city limits, across the GW Bridge, and merge onto the interstate. An airplane passes above us and leaves a straight long scar on the palate of the cloudless sky. Behind the wheel, my husband adjusts his hat, dries his forehead with the back of his hand.
I don’t know what my husband and I will say to each of our children one day. I’m not sure which parts of our story we might each choose to pluck and edit out for them, and which ones we’d shuffle around and insert back in to produce a final version—even though plucking, shuffling, and editing sounds is probably the best summary of what my husband and I do for a living. But the children will ask, because ask is what children do. And we’ll need to tell them a beginning, a middle, and an end. We’ll need to give them an answer, tell them a proper story.
The boy turned ten yesterday, just one day before we left New York. We got him good presents. He had specifically said:
The girl is five, and for some weeks has been asking, insistently:
When do I turn six?
No matter our answer, she’ll find it unsatisfactory. So we usually say something ambiguous, like:
In a few months.
Before you know it.
The girl is my daughter and the boy is my husband’s son. I’m a biological mother to one, a stepmother to the other, and a de facto mother in general to both of them. My husband is a father and a stepfather, to each one respectively, but also just a father. The girl and boy are therefore: step-sister, son, stepdaughter, daughter, step-brother, sister, stepson, brother. And because hyphenations and petty nuances complicate the sentences of everyday grammar—the us, the them, the our, the your—as soon as we started living together, when the boy was almost six and the girl still a toddler, we adopted the much simpler possessive adjective our to refer to them two. They became: our children. And sometimes: the boy, the girl. Quickly, the two of them learned the rules of our private grammar, and adopted the generic nouns Mama and Papa, or sometimes simply Ma and Pa. And until now at least, our family lexicon defined the scope and limits of our shared world.
My husband and I met four years ago, recording a soundscape of New York City. We were part of a large team of people working for the Center for Oral History at Columbia University. The soundscape was meant to sample and collect all the keynotes and the soundmarks that were emblematic of the city: subway cars screeching to a halt, music in the long underground hallways of Forty-Second Street, ministers preaching in Harlem, bells, rumors and murmurs inside the Wall Street stock exchange. But it also attempted to survey and classify all the other sounds that the city produced and that usually went by, as noise, unnoticed: cash registers opening and closing in delis, a script being rehearsed in an empty Broadway theater, underwater currents in the Hudson, Canada geese flocking and shitting over Van Cortlandt Park, swings swinging in Astoria playgrounds, elderly Korean women filing wealthy fingernails on the Upper West Side, a fire breaking through an old tenement building in the Bronx, a passerby yelling a stream of motherfuckers at another. There were journalists, sound artists, geographers, urbanists, writers, historians, acoustemologists, anthropologists, musicians, and even bathymetrists, with those complicated devices called multibeam echo sounders, which were plunged into the waterspaces surrounding the city, measuring the depth and contours of the riverbeds, and who knows what else. Everyone, in couples or small groups, surveyed and sampled wavelengths around the city, like we were documenting the last sounds of an enormous beast.
The two of us were paired up and given the task of recording all the languages spoken in the city, over a period of four calendar years. The description of our duties specified: “surveying the most linguistically diverse metropolis on the planet, and mapping the entirety of languages that its adults and children speak.” We were good at it, it turned out; maybe even really good. We made a perfect team of two. Then, after working together for just a few months, we fell in love—completely, irrationally, predictably, and headfirst, like a rock might fall in love with a bird, not knowing who was the rock was and who the bird—and when summer arrived, we decided to move in together.
The girl remembers nothing about that period, of course. The boy says he remembers that I was always wearing an old blue cardigan that had lost a couple of buttons and came down to my knees, and that sometimes, when we rode the subway or buses—always with freezing air pouring out—I’d take it off and use it as a blanket to cover him and the girl, and that it smelled of tobacco and was itchy. Moving in together had been a rash decision—messy, confusing, urgent, and as beautiful and real as life feels when you’re not thinking about its consequences. We became a tribe. Then came the consequences. We met each other’s relatives, got married, started filing joint taxes, became a family.
In the front seats: he and I. In the glove compartment: proof of insurance, registration, owner’s manual, and road maps. In the backseat: the two children, their backpacks, a tissue box, and a blue cooler with water bottles and perishable snacks. And in the trunk: a small duffle bag with my Sony PCM-D50 digital voice recorder, headphones, cables, and extra batteries; a large Porta-Brace organizer for his collapsible boom pole, mic, headphones, cables, zeppelin and dead-cat windshield, and the 702T Sound Device. Also: four small suitcases with our clothes, and seven bankers boxes (15” x 12” x 10”), double-thick bottoms and solid lids.
Despite our efforts to keep it all firmly together, there has always been an anxiety around each one’s place in the family. We’re like those problematic molecules you learn about in chemistry classes, with covalent instead of ionic bonds—or maybe it’s the other way around. The boy lost his biological mother at birth, though that topic is never spoken about. My husband delivered the fact to me, in one sentence, early on in our relationship, and I immediately understood that it was not a matter open to further questions. I don’t like to be asked about the girl’s biological father, either, so the two of us have always kept a respectful pact of silence about those elements of our and our children’s pasts.
In response to all that, perhaps, the children have always wanted to listen to stories about themselves within the context of us. They want to know everything about when the two of them became our children, and we all became a family. They’re like anthropologists studying cosmogonic narratives, but with a touch more narcissism. The girl asks to hear the same stories over and over again. The boy asks about moments of their childhood together, as if they had happened decades or even centuries ago. So we tell them. We tell them all the stories we’re able to remember. Always, if we miss a part, confuse a detail, or if they notice any minimal variation to the version they remember, they interrupt, correct us, and demand that the story be told once more, properly this time. So we rewind the tape in our minds and play it again from the beginning.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation of Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, a searing story of belonging and history that unfolds over the course of a cross-country road trip, during which a family stands on the verge of fracture even as they seek to document the fractured lives and stories of immigrants along the Mexican border.
1. Whom do you immediately associate with the “lost children” of the title? How many layers of getting lost appear throughout the novel, and is it always/only children who are lost?
2. What are some of the reasons behind the family’s trip to Apacheria? Discuss the parents’ separate and combined work projects and their expectations for what will happen to the family once they reach their destination.
3. What is the difference between a documentarian and a documentarist? How do the two forms of study, observation, interpretation, and synthesis make their way into the story of the family and the structure of the novel itself?
4. Can you identify the source(s) of conflict between the husband and wife? Which memories of their early life together and time at home with the children, as well as how they respond to the children during the car ride, suggest why they might not be able (or willing) to stay together?
5. The wife/mother is the arguably the primary narrator of the novel, and it’s through her that we understand the goings-on of the trip. Does she prove herself a reliable narrator, and if not, what are her biases in telling this story?
6. The seven boxes in the family’s trunk each belong to a different family member. Do you think you could identify the owner of each box based solely on its contents? What does this suggest about how the characters know one another, and also about how they chose to represent themselves in what they packed for the trip? Consider the wife’s question, “How many possible combinations of all those documents were there? And what completely different stories would be told by their varying permutations, shufflings, and reorderings?” (57).
7. Maps, news clippings, sound recordings, photographs, books, poems, loose notes—these are some of the items that appear in the boxes/text. The family also listens to music, and to audiobooks, in the car. How does having different media contribute to the polyphony of the novel? What do these documents suggest about whether the characters can, or cannot, know a definitive “truth”?
8. For most of the book the four family members don’t have first names, except their chosen Apache names: Swift Feather, Papa Cochise, Lucky Arrow, and Memphis. How are these names more or less representative of their identities in this time period, and to what degree are they chosen or given? How do they ultimately help unite the family when they’re separated, literally and figuratively?
9. How do the stories of Manuela’s daughters and the children on the plane motivate the mother on her journey and in her work?
10. What are the most memorable and significant stops the family makes along the way? How do they reinvent themselves in various situations, and what does this flexibility in their identity suggest both about their bonds and about America today?
11. Consider the repeated stories that are told and read throughout the novel: Geronimo’s fall, Elegies for Lost Children, “Space Oddity,” Lord of the Flies, etc. How do they overlap with and inform the narrative of the novel? Do these connections influence your understanding of the novel as an “archive” in and of itself?
12. Although “the boy” is biologically related to his father and “the girl” to her mother, what connects the boy to the mother in the novel? Describe their bond, including how they test and support each other along this journey, and how they share space as.
13. How do the sections in Part II and Part III narrated from the boy’s point of view reflect or shift the mother’s point of view? Reading his interpretation of the events she narrated, did you find any holes, gaps, or misunderstandings in what she knew about him and Memphis—or (potentially surprising) similarities?
14. How does the boy’s voice differ from the mother’s, besides the obvious differences of their age and life experience? Consider his reliance on his camera, the Polaroids in his box, and the stream-of-consciousness narrative in the “Echo Canyon” chapter.
15. What are the children’s ideas about what it will mean to be lost, and how do they each work to stay together even when they’re forced apart? In this sense, are they more in control of their memories—that is, are they more or less “lost”—than their parents?
16. By the end of the novel, has the meaning of “home” changed for the characters? What are some of the ways home was lost, found, and reimagined?
17. The author offers a Works Cited at the end of the book to describe the various references and allusions she draws upon throughout the novel. How does this information change your understanding of what is fact versus fiction, and of the ways stories get passed down among works of art over time? After reading Luiselli’s description of her methodology, would you describe her as a documentarian or a documentarist?
18. The novel draws upon a number of real-life current events and stories about the immigration crisis in the United States. How did you feel about the way this situation was presented? Does the author’s referencing of so many histories and time periods, and narratives of displacement, create a more universal portrayal of being uprooted or without a country? Have you ever felt a similar kind of displacement?