Refugee Tales: A Conversation with Juan Pablo Villalobos

By Paulo Lemos HortaAugust 11, 2020

Refugee Tales: A Conversation with Juan Pablo Villalobos
THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT’S political use of the pandemic to target immigrant minors for deportation lends added poignancy to the journeys detailed in Juan Pablo Villalobos’s The Other Side: Stories of Central American Teen Refugees Who Dream of Crossing the Border (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), translated by Rosalind Harvey.

Villalobos marshals together the stories of 10 teenagers from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador who all display an irreverence that rings true to the universality of growing up, even in trauma.

Grace Kendall, senior editor for young readers at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, recalls the impact of a piece Villalobos had written for Medium in 2015 about teenagers in migration. “They were just kids, texting with their friends, finding girlfriends, making mistakes, and through it all, undertaking a terribly dangerous journey to find a better life.”

She was not unfamiliar with the reality of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where one of the two boys in Villalobos’s piece was from. Her godmother is from Honduras and she traveled to San Pedro Sula and to Tegucigalpa with her family in the early 2000s. Kendall hesitates to say that the personal connection led to the commission for The Other Side; she credits the dreamlike, circular quality of Villalobos’s narration. It went on to be a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers.

This online conversation took place in mid-May 2020.


PAULO LEMOS HORTA: Maybe you could begin by sharing the impetus behind telling this story of refugees from Central America.

JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS: Well, my literary ambition, if I can admit to that, was to write a book that obviously is about Central American immigration and about the migration of unaccompanied minors, but these stories are happening all over the world — in Syria, in the north of Africa, in Europe — and it was my hope that the book should resonate beyond the specific moment, and the American and Central American contexts.

Let us go back to the beginning. I’m always curious about how books come about. In your acknowledgment you thank Valeria Luiselli among other authors, and also Michael Benoist for giving you the original idea for the book.

It all started in 2014. That year about 70,000 unaccompanied minor immigrants were detained at the border. Michael Benoist, a story editor at Medium, asked me if I would be interested in writing about what was going on at the border. As you know, I’m a novelist and I work with fiction. This would be my first work of nonfiction, and I was insecure about doing it because I’m not a journalist and I’m not an activist. I wasn’t particularly well informed about the whole issue of immigration, about the politics, the laws, etc. But I thought that it was an important issue to write about.

Michael had the idea after reading Down the Rabbit Hole, my first novel, which is the story of a young boy, as told by the boy. He thought that I have the ear to tell the stories of children in their own voices. His idea was that I would go to Los Angeles to interview these kids but I would tell their stories in the first person. It wouldn’t be journalism. A journalist would write about the whole process of going to Los Angeles to do the interviews, creating a character out of his own point of view. So I really liked the idea of making their stories like testimonies.

So I went to Los Angeles in 2014. The idea was to interview a 16-year-old girl who had traveled from Central America to the United States earlier that year. She had made the journey with her best friend, who was killed in Mexico along the way. The story was terrible and very important to tell because we need opportunities to tell the stories of those who have disappeared during the journey. But I was in Brazil at the time and while I was traveling from São Paulo to Los Angeles, something happened. When I landed in Los Angeles, I checked my email to find a message from the NGO that was helping me, saying that the family had changed their minds and the girl wouldn’t talk to me.

The NGO did help me interview a couple of teenage boys from Guatemala and Honduras, who told me their stories and I published the article on Medium. 

It is a powerful piece. A boy explains how in his town in Guatemala gangs that had killed his uncle and grandfather would have killed him if he refused to join. Another recalls playing in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on a soccer field where his friends later got killed.

FSG, who published my first two novels, posted the piece for Medium on social media, and it caught the eye of editor Grace Kendall, who contacted me and asked if I would be interested in doing a book. In 2016, I started to contact NGOs, lawyers, and some writers involved with the issue like Valeria, to figure out the logistics of the book.

Finally in summer 2016 I was able to go to Los Angeles and New York, this time from Barcelona, and I interviewed 10 teenage refugees. I would like to say that it’s very important to work through NGOs and lawyers on these delicate issues because you have to protect and respect the kids. You need someone who knows their cases intimately, what they have been going through, if they are okay, and if they can tell their stories. You have to be mindful of their mental health. We discussed each case and sometimes they would say to me, I have this case but it’s better not to include it in the book because the kid is still dealing with a lot of problems and maybe it’s not a good idea for you to interview them. And sometimes you could even put them in danger, if they are still trying to get their papers.

So I came back to Barcelona with all the recordings of the interviews. I remember that I made transcriptions of the tapes and had the feeling that it was not going to work as a book of testimonies. The structure of each testimony is similar — you have an initial situation of violence or poverty, a total lack of opportunities and education, health, culture, etc., so they have to run away from that situation. Then you have the journey through Central America and Mexico, with all its risks and dangers, and the detention at the border. Then they go to these freezers to be held and if they are lucky enough, their names get called out and they can be sponsored by a family member already residing in the United States.

That the stories were the same, with the same beats, points to the underlying fact that the problem exists, as Grace Kendall stressed when speaking to me.

The details are different and each story is unique, but the structure is similar. I thought by telling the story over and over, the result would be repetitive, maybe monotonous. Maybe it wouldn’t be as emotional, or even shocking, as I believed that it needed to be. I imagined it as an opportunity to connect with the readers and to make them feel, in the first person, these kids’ experiences, to empathize with them. For the time it takes to read the book, readers would understand the issue through those journeys and those lives, beyond the statistics and the politics.

I’m interested in the literary quality of the book and your process. In the “Author’s Note,” you write that although it is a work of nonfiction, you employed “the narrative techniques of fiction in order to protect the protagonist’s identities.” Was there a conversation with your editor, Grace, about how to use the techniques of fiction in nonfiction?

I remember that I wrote Grace, “Listen I have all the testimonies, and I need you to give me some freedom to work with the material.” I needed to make it the work of a writer. My suggestion was to transform each testimony into a short story, to identify in each story the most important moment of the children’s journey, and to try to create from the stories a structure like a puzzle. You have one story set in Central America, another set in Mexico, and another at the border in the United States, and so instead of repeating the journey in each story, you can read the book as a puzzle completing the journey through all those stories.

My idea was that I would respect that the testimonies are nonfiction. My work as a fiction writer would be to find the perfect form for each story. What is fiction in the book is the form. For example, there’s a story in the book that is a diary. The kid didn’t write a diary. I created the diary. But the content of the diary is true, it’s the information that that kid gave.

When I was reading the book, I was struck by these sort of literary devices. For example, in the account of the two 15-year-old cousins from Guatemala attempting to cross the border and fearful of desert snakes. The narrator sees snakes in the eyes of the immigration agents, and these pervade memories of his alcoholic father. (“There are snakes there, too, in my dad’s head.”) I was just wondering if that is something that you picked up from the actual kid using that word a lot in these kinds of contexts.

It comes from the testimony, but there is a literary treatment. I remember that when he recounted the episode in the desert, the boy kept repeating the whole time, “Había muchas culebras.” Over and over. For me, it was like the symbol of all the dangers, fears, and risks. It was a very powerful sentence.

Take another example, from the story of the two girls in the freezer [the cold room where they were detained]. In the interview, I remember that when this teenage girl was telling me the whole story, there was this moment when she recalled being so tired and she couldn’t even sit because the freezer was totally full. And that there was this other girl who offered to swap positions with her. She told me about that moment just in passing, without emphasis. But I thought, that is the moment of the story, so I decided to locate the whole story in the freezer and in that particular moment between those two girls.

What about the story of the kid who crosses over to the other side, in a very vital sense, in his own town, where everybody recognizes this sort of invisible border almost like in China Miéville’s The City & the City, where everybody knows to which part of the city they belong and to which they don’t. I’m curious how much of that was in the testimony and how much was you shaping the story.

Well, I think there are a couple of stories that are maybe closer to fiction than to nonfiction. The content is still nonfiction — it’s true and it comes from the testimony — but the decisions I took were more intentional, drastic, perhaps risky. One is the story you mention, which gives the English translation its title. For that story, I decided to change the narrator.

The story begins with a kid, sweating profusely, pretending he does not know he just crossed over from the wrong side of town, and is immediately noticed with suspicion by the narrator, “This kid’s plotting something, he must be a lookout for the Salvatrucha.”

It’s not the kid who told me the story who is narrating the story, but the guy who picks up on him and takes him to his gang leader. So, why the change? Because I thought that it would be interesting to tell the story from a different point of view, not just the point of view of the victim, but the point of view of the perpetrator.

The story ends with a kind of ambiguity when he crossed to the other side — oh, to the other side of the city? No, to the United States —

Actually, the other side for many of those kids is to go to or from the criminal life.

And what was the other story closer to fiction?

And the other story is “I’d Rather Die Trying to Get Out,” which is also the only one that is told by a third-person narrator. Why? Because while I was finishing the book I was becoming uncomfortable with the fact that, obviously, we can’t have testimonies from those kids who didn’t survive the journey.

I felt that I needed to have a moment in the book when the reader felt the actual dangers and risks those kids faced when they make the journey. At the end of that story, brother and sister are in a very risky situation with a man who is driving.

That’s actually, I think, maybe the most disturbing story. They’re hitchhiking. It is the story of a desperate attempt to hitchhike to the border by a boy, no older than 16, and his sister, no more than 10. The boy wants to sit in the middle, the driver asks him to move over, he wants the girl next to him and unlike the other stories, we don’t know what happens next.

That’s why I decided to use the third-person narrator and, let’s say, to cut the story there, to use an ellipses — to disturb the reader, and to tell the reader, “Hey, a lot of kids don’t make it.”

Yes, and that context of danger is key to establishing their status as refugees.

I think that the most important discussion about words in the book is about saying “immigrants” or saying “refugees.” That is very important because if you consider these kids refugees, then they have an opportunity to get legal residence. And the problem, not just in America, in Europe also, is that the word and the concept of refugee is very limited. It is mainly about situations of war, and the definition of war doesn’t apply exactly to what’s happening in Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.

But it is a war, and the violence in those societies — and even in Mexico — creates situations that are so dangerous and so devastating that these kids and many people are actually refugees. So that was a very important discussion in the subtitle. I was very insistent in using the word “refugees” because I really believe that they are refugees. They are not running away from traditional war, but the violence they are living through in their countries is a situation of war. It is impossible for them to go back without risking their lives.

I sense some of that tension in the stories. So when you hear the voice of the case workers and the legal hearings, and these exchanges, “Can you tell us what will happen if you go home?” And there’s that kind of question, does this fit the legal parameter? I think it’s one of the stories toward the end of the book, which really brings that into focus.

Telling these stories is important because the kids need the stories to get papers. They need the stories to be — I was going to say, dramatic enough, but it is not about drama. It is about explaining properly how their lives were back in Central America and how actually they can’t go back because if they do they might be killed. So if you can’t tell your story, if you don’t learn to tell your story properly when you are in front of the judge, then maybe you will be deported. And this is totally insane, that it depends on a kid’s story.

Something else I liked about your book, is the reminder in the notes that some of the gangs which are chasing these people away actually started in the United States. I think it is an important context because some of the most popular books about border crossings — I’m thinking of books like American Dirt — present Mexico as a kind of a narco-dystopia, but don’t really stop and remind you that the gangs may have come from the United States, that the demand for the drugs comes from the United States, that some of the foreign policy decisions that weakened states south of the border are made in the United States.

Particularly the gang violence was imported from the United States. I mean, that happened when a lot of gang members were deported to Central America. They brought gang culture and violence. So violence, immigration, the refugee situation, it’s not a one-way problem, as Americans would like to imagine it. No. The problem goes both ways. So America is creating problems in the south through guns, the consumption of drugs, foreign policies, etc., and we, the southern countries, are creating other problems. It is not a problem coming from the south, like Donald Trump wants to believe, that can be stopped at the border. No, no, no, Americans are part of the problem.

And that’s one of the things that I worry about in terms of the impact of books like American Dirt. In some respects, I worry less about the question of who has the right to tell the story because the author isn’t Mexican, but more about the kind of dichotomies of the book, the binaries that to me seem to be reinforced. And I think writers like you or Valeria are trying to break down these binaries.

In order to do that you have two different options.

First, you can know the situation very well, you can be an expert. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to belong to that community or that country. I’m against the idea that if you’re not Mexican, you can’t write about Mexico.

Second, if you are interested, then you can learn to listen. I’m not an expert, not on immigration, American politics, or Central American violence. My first reaction was that I needed to become one, but in the end I decided that my job was just to listen to those stories. When I finished the first version of the book, I sent it to a friend who is an expert on immigration. She said something to me that I really liked. In the book, you’re including some points of view and some issues that we, the experts, are no longer discussing because sometimes we believe that they are obvious or that they have no relevance, and when I read your book, I thought, “Wow, this is a new point of view, a new way of seeing things.”

And I really liked that because I thought that it was my job to do that. There are a lot of very good experts working on the issue, and I’m not an activist or a journalist. I’m a writer. If I remember that the commission came as a result of my fiction, from an editor who believed that I had the narrative tone and the ear to write from a child’s perspective, then my job was trying to be loyal to that perspective and to respect the testimonies, to do something literary with them.


Paulo Lemos Horta is the author of Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights (Harvard); Cosmopolitanisms, with Bruce Robbins (NYU Press); and Aladdin: A New Translation, with Yasmine Seale (Liveright/W.W. Norton).

LARB Contributor

Paulo Lemos Horta is the author of Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights (Harvard); Cosmopolitanisms, with Bruce Robbins (NYU Press); and Aladdin: A New Translation, with Yasmine Seale (Liveright/W.W. Norton).


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