Unanswerable Questions

Questions can come a place of curiosity, of genuinely wanting to know. Asking a person, or especially a child, can be a form of validation, affirming both. “I am interested in you and your answers. You matter to me.” These are the sorts of questions that I believe, perhaps with undue optimism, can bridge difference and connect us as fellow human beings.

There are other sorts of questions, though, questions that are tools of control and oppression. They often appear on forms.

In her brilliant and provocative Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Valeria Luiselli asks questions about questions, challenging us to think hard about immigration practice. Luiselli is an award-winning, a librettist, a teacher, a MacArthur prize recipient – in sum, an incredibly talented artist. Born in Mexico and living now, in the US, with a green card, Luiselli’s short book is born of real life experience. In 2015 she started working as a translator for the New York City Immigration Court, speaking to unaccompanied children from Central America who were caught up in the system. Her job was to ask these children forty stock questions, which were created by US Citizenship and Immigration, record their answers in English, and move their “cases” along in the system. The book, organized into four sections (Border, Court, Home, Community), is framed around the narrative – and more often than not, the “non-narrative” – of the children’s stories.

Ask a five-year old if there was anyone in their home who had an illness who required special attention. It’s a question on the form. What sort of response is possible?

Luiselli brings an intimacy to the proceedings as she wrestles with her day-to-day. Luiselli’s niece often accompanied her to court. She now wants to be an immigration lawyer. The demand for legal help for these children is overwhelming. Luiselli tells her young daughter about some of the children she interviewed. Her daughter, understandably, wonders what happened to children. “How does it end?” And there are no easy answers and very few stories with resolutions. The coda, which includes the story of one young boy who is able to start life somewhat again in Long Island, offers a thread of hope.

This is not a book advocating for a particular immigration policy. Luiselli’s perspective is that of a human being, interested and caring for other human beings whose life circumstances and stories have been cruel and unkind. Luiselli wants to help and she seeks understanding. The questions are not the path for either, though they must be followed. She wants us, the reader, to understand. And for what we cannot understand, more difficult questions are necessary.

US history and immigration practice in Central America is a disaster. It has been in crisis for decades. The costs are tremendous. Despite the overwhelming harm done to so many, especially the children, little has been accomplished that approaches justice. Or even basic fairness.

Tell Me How It Ends is a book well-suited for a college to read. Or a community. One of its great strengths is how it draws us in, humanizes what is all to often a media creation, and then forces us to think about justice and our common humanity. What can we do? What should we do? These are questions that do not have handy answers.

David Potash

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