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Reviewed by:
  • Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli
  • Marcus Embry
Valeria Luiselli. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. Coffee House Press, 2017.

Valeria Luiselli's Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is very timely in subject matter, but also in terms of our current critical moment. Luiselli is Mexican, a legal resident of the US who lives in New York, and the recipient of a 2019 MacArthur Fellowship. She is already known and celebrated for her novels, but this book displays the full power of her critical insight and writing skillset.

Titled "An Essay," it is written on many levels that weave the reader into the text alongside the author and the asylum-seeking unaccompanied children who Luiselli interviews. She begins the essay in the midst of her family's green-card application process. The reader is suspended through the text, waiting for the process to reach its conclusion. But, that is the outer layer of process that structures this text. While waiting, the reader journeys with Luiselli's family on vacation. As we all move away from New York, we become aware of the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the southern border of the US in 2014. Over sixty thousand unaccompanied children seeking asylum have been swept into the system, and as Luiselli and the reader get closer to the southern border, Luiselli finds herself also swept into the system, her Spanish language skills vital for interviewing the children and filling out their paperwork for asylum.

Each section of the book is structured around the forty questions on the form Luiselli fills out for the children she interviews. From the beginning, she focuses on the dissonance between the formality of the written questions and the answers of the children. The questionnaires dictate the form of the answers, but the children's narratives cannot conform. In question seven, for example, Luiselli must ask if anything happened on the child's "trip" that "scared or hurt" the child? The children's answers cannot begin to encompass the fact that eighty percent of migrant girls and women are raped along the way from Mexico to the US. In answer to the question "Why did you come here?" a little girl replies, "because I wanted to arrive" (99) a heartbreaking update of "When we Arrive" in Tomas Rivera's [End Page 219]

Beyond the interplay of the information Luiselli provides through the unique structure of the book, which many previous reviews have mentioned, I want to highlight the interplay Luiselli creates between the various narrators in her work. Of course, the children being interviewed are the primary narrators, but Luiselli simultaneously weaves the book through her wait for her green card long after her immediate family members have received theirs. As we proceed through the text we wait alongside Luiselli, just as the children in the detention centers wait for the words that Luiselli transcribes to bring resolution to their plight. As Luiselli locates herself, the undocumented children, and the reader in this place of waiting, she weaves in her own daughter's reactions to the entire process: Luiselli's daughter asks the question, "So how does the story of these children end?" (55).

This book, however, is not a story, nor is it a novel or a testimonio. Rather, it is an essay, and Luiselli demands that we consider the boundaries of what an essay can be in our contemporary world. On page 41, she presents a graph of information that one child provides to a question about home. As we puzzle through the paradigmatic and syntagmatic meanings evident in the graph, we realize that home for this child is not a place of origin but rather a destination, the family that the child naively and impossibly hopes to join somewhere in a vast country that has swallowed the child in the machinery of its border. So has the machinery of the border swallowed the author and the text itself: on page 62, for example, Luiselli translates the child's responses in sometimes first person, sometimes third, the child, the author, and the reader lost in a hopeless...


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pp. 219-220
Launched on MUSE
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