The Children of No-Man’s Land: On Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” and the Problem of Representing the Migrant Story

By Jess CottonAugust 2, 2019

The Children of No-Man’s Land: On Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” and the Problem of Representing the Migrant Story
IN THE OPENING SEQUENCE of Nadine Labaki’s latest film, Capernaum, we witness an image of a 12-year-old boy on trial. Nobody can say exactly how old he is, not least his parents, who are also present. This childish body in juridical space is immediately disorienting, unclear, as it is, who is being judged and who is doing the judging. The Lebanese child, Zain (played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee), has brought his parents to a court in Beirut to sue them for giving birth to him. The image of the child on trial flies in the face of the spaces that we imagine a child can occupy and what actions we commonly think a child — and indeed a parent — might be held responsible for. Labaki’s decision to frame the opening sequence within these legal parameters is a reminder of the juridical hinterland occupied by so many refugee children at present. The film is guided by two central questions: what happens when we imagine that a child might know what is in their own interest, and what is the relationship between meaningful consent and child protection? Or, to put it another way, how innocent can a child be who has been deprived of the right to innocence? In drawing our attention to a crisis in the representation of children, Labaki tells us something about a broader political crisis, as well as the ability for art to articulate crucial debates concerning human rights.

The courtroom is an extraordinary scene that the film returns to through a series of flashbacks, and which suggests how the changing legal status of children is historically enmeshed with questions of consent. Capernaum closes with a long shot that tracks Zain’s face gradually molding itself into a smile, testing out this new expression as if he were suddenly aware of all the particular movements a face might make. The end sequence, in which he is photographed for an ID card, marks the moment in which the undocumented child becomes recognized and recognizable by the state and its bureaucratic apparatus. Capernaum, which is the result of three years of research, and which was originally written in response to the image of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee boy who was washed up on the beach in Turkey in 2015, imagines what he would say if he were given a voice. Labaki's film thinks about the relationship between speech and rights (Zain calls a child abuse televised hotline while in prison, thus alerting social authorities to his situation). Kurdi’s image, which is a stark reminder that there is no humane way to refuse large numbers of people fleeing unimaginable circumstances, has, as with all images of innocent children, elicited a politics of pity that eclipses our complicity in the brutality of the migrant and refugee problem. The gathering of refugee histories into stories always risks perpetuating this immunizing politics of empathy. But I think Labaki has done something quietly remarkable in this film: she gives us a child’s perspective unmediated by the adult desires that seek to contain it, and demonstrates how a child’s story is always a piece of a larger puzzle.

The challenge of representing migrant stories and the impact of violent borders on young bodies, which is playing out in unsustainable ways in the present (walled states emerging from waning sovereignty, to borrow the title of Wendy Brown’s book), has never been greater. These questions have found articulation in recent studies, most notably, Lyndsey Stonebridge’s magisterial Placeless People: Writings, Rights, and Refugees (2018), James Dawes’s The Novel of Human Rights (2018), which both demonstrate how literary history is bound to shifting definitions of legal and political sovereignty and border control and that literature and human rights consequently belong to the same archive. Stonebridge concentrates, for the most part, on illuminating the role that literature played as a blueprint for political theory in the work of Hannah Arendt and examines how the history of statelessness is explored in work by George Orwell, Samuel Beckett, Simone Weil, Dorothy Thompson, and W. H. Auden to reveal how literary history and legal history end up telling the same story about exile and statelessness in the postwar period. James Dawes, on the other hand, is interested in identifying “the centers of aesthetic gravity that pull texts together into […] the novel of human rights” — a genre that he designates as both contemporary and American.

There is a brilliant section (among many others) in Stonebridge’s study that considers how the right to speak and to tell stories — insofar as it is the right to reciprocal action — is rights-bearing and that the act of narration is consequently bound up with questions of citizenship. Both studies acknowledge the importance of rights at the same time that they treat the discourse around human rights with a certain degree of skepticism, wary as they are, of how they have been co-opted to constrain what we imagine as justice — and how human rights have also become a market space, as Dawes argues, in US literary publishing. Both, too, put pressure on the relationship between human rights and empathy, precisely because empathy often involves identification — and only certain subjects are deemed to merit empathy — children, of course, most of all. “Children are,” as Dawes writes, “in many ways, emblems of the paradoxes of rights,” noting that the plot of the human rights novel is often structured around miscarriages, dead or endangered children, and older children and young adults who are lost. The texts that Dawes takes as his case studies reveal the damage that is done to the family in states of refugee crisis. Authors are, he notes, increasingly focusing on families of choice rather than biological families, recognizing the need to reimagine the concept of the family — itself a walled, shadowy interior — to open it up to affiliations beyond kinship. The new family forms that emerge from this literature, as Crystal Parikh argues in Writing Human Rights (2018), foreground new kinship models which “exploit just how ‘strange’ the child is before the law” and which allow “the vulnerable, desirous, unpredictable, demanding child arrives in her own right.”

Nowhere might the family be seen to have been put under greater pressure, as a direct result of state policy, in recent years than in the surge of child refugees crossing the Southern US border and ending up in “tent cities” — detention centers that have already been added to the United States’s human rights record, which are discernible through satellite images that draw these hastily constructed tents, containing displaced children, into the violent optics of a drone imaginary. Since 2012, children have started appearing by the thousands at the US-Mexico border on their own, or they have been separated from their parents at the border and transported into detention centers. As a result, children as young as one year old have been made to appear in federal immigration courts to testify at their own deportation proceedings. When they are spoken to, they are often unable to understand the questions that are posed to them, and thus to speak of their own experience. The state, which has made it increasingly difficult for relatives to claim children from federal custody, seems set on enacting the separation anxiety that postwar forms of welfare have been founded on combating — putting in place what is effectively a system of enforced un-attachment. The violence and absurdity of holding these children to account for their own immigration story can hardly be overstated — and it requires new kinds of narrative to navigate the terrain of this broken community.

The Southern US border is a political and juridical hinterland, a historic schism in which violence ferments, a graveyard — and the site of Valeria Luiselli’s latest novel, Lost Children Archive. A story about stories and how children tell them, it explores the possibility of mourning the lost migrant children who have been quite literally wiped off the map — but from the experience of the narrator’s family, rather than the lost children’s own (and, in this way, it does not let the reader off the hook by coating our complicity in a narrative of empathy). Lost Children Archive, Luiselli’s fifth book, and her first to be written in English, is set in 2014 at the beginning of this crisis. Written in the guise of a road-trip-pioneer story, it grapples with how certain migration stories have been commemorated in the nation’s history while others have been erased altogether and it considers how these absent records bear on questions of the family. Crossing the road novel with the novel of the borderlands, it reimagines those genres, making their signifiers grow strange, as it acknowledges the ghosts that are also a part of the landscape.

Luiselli was born in Mexico City and raised between South Africa, India, and South Korea, speaking both English and Spanish, and her work is concerned with absences and silences — with stories that go missing — situating translation at the heart of cultural practice. The book takes up various ideas that crop up in her earlier work. In her first novel, Faces in the Crowd (2011), which is composed of three fragmentary, first-person accounts, the first of which is a mother who writes a “silent novel, so as not to wake the children.” This narrator works “as a reader and translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems.’ Nobody bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is treated with suspicion.” Luiselli’s generic openness and cultural attentiveness is driven by a principle of giving voice to those who are not often given narrative space. Her dazzling second novel, The Story of My Teeth (2015), was commissioned by the Galería Jumex, an art gallery outside Mexico City, as a serial narrative for the workers at Mexico’s Jumex juice factory. In it, she imagines the novel as an ongoing collaboration with the workers, one “where every new layer modifies the entire content completely.” For many writers, this collaboration might serve merely to reinscribe the chasm between the two worlds — gallery and factory, novelists and workers — but in Luiselli’s hands, the unclassifiable novel feels profoundly hospitable. Its protagonist, the collector, Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, tells the story of a life through the fortunes of his teeth, related in five allegorical parts. The novel’s wager — which is about how storytelling bears on the lives of ordinary people — is told with inventiveness and generosity, inviting the reader to enter into its conception.

How pliable — or how national — a project is the novel? What kinds of theater of belonging — or cultural coherence — does it make space for? In Lost Children Archive, one has the exhilarating sense of watching the novel’s structure being playfully (and carefully) taken apart like a puzzle or a model city that is reworked before your eyes — a playfulness that makes it feel socially real and that suggests how a centering of human rights in the novel brings about a change in literary form. While writing Lost Children Archive, Luiselli was at work on a collection of essays, Tell Me How It Ends (2017), which takes a question voiced by her child as its starting point (as Faces in the Crowd does, too), and meditates on the absurdity that child refugee’s legal sanctuary — and thus their future — depends on answering questions that they cannot understand, let alone answer, revealing the violence that is encoded in legal language. It is impossible, Luiselli finds, to fit these children’s stories into the restrictive boxes of the official questionnaire. Telling their stories thus becomes not only an ethical and political but also a narrative challenge. “The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order,” she writes. “The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.” There is a curious seepage between Tell Me How It Ends and Lost Children Archive: incidents that are recounted in the former take on a fictional life in the latter. The narrative shattering that Luiselli explores in the essay engenders a narrative retelling in the novel that opens up a different theater of belonging in the second half by giving it over to the voice of her child.

Stonebridge writes that “all too often literature about exile ends up performing the perverse trick of making those forced to disappear, disappear once more.” It is Luiselli’s skill as a writer that her book avoids precisely this risk at the same time that it does not let us forget “today’s toxic mess of bile and bureaucracy, bad faith politics, and ethno-nationalist posturing,” to quote Stonebridge once again. If it belongs to this new human rights genre, it also complicates it by attending to the children who are “listening, more attentively than we thought” and allows its plot to be guided by the “possible endings and counterfactual histories” that they imagine. The narrator notes how her own children “react violently” to the story of the “lost children” (which is their own term), and the alienness that is associated with these borderlands, with the UFO sightings that are reported and with the deportation of “alien” children, takes on a strange resonance in the novel. So that when they take off on their own quest to find the lost children, their project merges with the voice of David Bowie’s “Space Odyssey” — “This is Ground Control. Can you hear me?”

The children emerge in the book as curious, queer creatures: they are described “like anthropologists studying cosmogonic narratives, but with a touch more narcissism”; their games are “random, noisy, uncanny, like a television suffering a high fever”; and they “act like nasty medieval monks in the car — playing disquieting verbal games […] that involve burying each other alive.” The narrator grows slowly less maternal, “even unbiologically cold,” as she notes, over the course of the journey — which is also a growing away from the family — and she describes her own refusal to protect her children in terms of what they have already internalized: “[T]he world has already projected itself inside him — so what should I protect him from now, and how, and what for?” A Cold War imaginary emerges in the narrator’s relationship to her own body: we witness “the small-scale nuclear mushrooms of menstrual drops expanding in slow-motion,” a mesmerizing image which is at once a reminder of the rare occasions that menstruation is described in literature and which makes the mother’s body wonderfully strange. (She describes, too, a moment when she leaves her family sleeping in a motel and has a brief, flirtatious encounter in a dive bar; it is important here that the mother is desirous and exploratory — that her rights are taken into account too.)

The ambitious scope of the novel, which is staged as a kind of archive of lost children’s history, allows the current crisis of child political citizenship to speak to various others across time that have been written out of history: the family passes through Little Rock, the site of the first violent attempt to end racial segregation in schools. The novel documents the mass relocation of 200,000 children from New York between 1854 and 1930, records the adverse effect of the abolitionist movement on enslaved children, and imagines a counterfactual history that might have occurred if the Apaches “had never surrendered to the white-eyes.” Lost Children Archive is a story about a family who sets out to document this loss — but it is also in a wider sense an archive of loss (an archive that is dissociated from any national project) that contains migrant mortality reports, wanted posters, reading lists, and orphan images of the author’s own children as it attempts to grapple with the “hemispheric war” in which these children’s fates are implicated in the narrator’s children’s own. It is a hefty document (though not a long or uninviting one) that wrestles with the complexity of making present the children who are not here so that they, in fact, become everywhere, and so that we might begin to mourn them. It is a reminder of how hard the novel has to work if it is to go beyond being a simple conduit for empathy to something more uncomfortable yet hospitable — something that is harder to read.


Jess Cotton is a writer and academic based in London. She received her PhD in English Literature from UCL in 2018 and has since taught in the English department at Queen Mary, University of London.

LARB Contributor

Jess Cotton is a writer living in London. Her work has appeared in Harper's Magazine and the Financial Times, among other publications.


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