After thirty-six hours of travel, VALERIA LUISELLI arrived at Amherst College LitFest on a freezing Saturday night just in time to speak with The Common’s editor-in-chief JENNIFER ACKER. Their conversation explored the capacity of memory to shape geography, the relationship between language and home, and the architecture of a book. Luiselli also spoke with honesty and ardor about her research in and around the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and her experience as a legal translator for refugees, experiences informing her acclaimed novel Lost Children Archive. This interview is an edited and condensed version of the live conversation; read more about LitFest, and watch a video of the full conversation online.
Let Me Open the Window: Valeria Luiselli in conversation with Jennifer Acker at LitFest 2023
“Why did you come to the United States?” That’s the first question on the intake questionnaire for unaccompanied child migrants. The questionnaire is used in the federal immigration court in New York City where I started working as a volunteer interpreter in 2015. My task there is a simple one: I interview children, following the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English.
But nothing is ever that simple. I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.
“What do you think happens after you die?” she says. “Oh!” I say. “Gosh.”
I was raised in a fully atheist household, so not much is the short answer. “Just toss me in the dumpster when I go!” my dad likes to announce, and when I’m like, “Um, Dad, I think funerals are actually more about—” he interrupts me. “In the dumpster!” “Okay!” I say. “The dumpster it is!”
The next day, a woman with a little pink umbrella showed up at my house at the crack of dawn. My mother always gets up that freakishly early, and I was up because something kept dinging even though my phone was on silent. It took me a few minutes to figure out that the sound was coming from my computer. I must have left YouTube open when I collapsed after my rant. The dinging was notifications for MakeupontheCheapCheap. I had 81 new followers and 147 new likes, and the count kept climbing.
This piece is excerpted fromCheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge by Ted Conover, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest. Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.
It begins with a moment of contact—of driving up to a homestead and trying to introduce yourself.
The prospect is daunting: a lot of people live out here because they do not want to run into other people. They like the solitude. And it is daunting because many of them indicate this preference by closing their driveway with a gate, or by chaining a dog next to their front door, or by posting a sign with a rifle-scope motif that says, “if you can read this you’re within range!”
The local expert on cold-calling is Matt Little, charged by the social service group La Puente with “rural outreach.” Matt has let me ride around in his pickup with him so that I can see him in action. Distances between households on the open Colorado prairie are great, which gives him time to explain his approach, which he has thought about a lot, as he does this every day and in three months has not gotten shot.
This piece is excerpted from The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness byMeghan O’Rourke, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest.Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.
The stories we tell about illness usually have startling beginnings—the fall at the supermarket, the lump discovered in the abdomen during a routine exam, the doctor’s call. Not mine. I got sick the way Hemingway says you go broke: “gradually and then suddenly.”
Excerpt from The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness
This piece is excerpted from Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World by Mark Vanhoenacker, a guest at Amherst College’s 2023 LitFest.Register for this exciting celebration of Amherst’s literary life.
I’m thirteen. It’s after school. I’m in my room, at my desk. I look out of the window over the drive and towards the garage. It’s late autumn and it’s almost dark outside. There’s frost in the corners of the window and snow is falling.
I look across the room, at the light-up globe on my dresser. I go to it, flip the switch on its cord and watch as the darkened sphere turns blue in the failing light and starts to shine as if it were in space.
I return to my desk. I sit down, pick up my pencil with my left hand and rest its tip on the sheet of graph paper. I love airplanes and cities and so, not for the first time, I’ve drawn a simple map of the world. I’ll draw a line that begins in one city and ends in another. But which city to start from?
Excerpt from Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey Across the Urban World
They say the accident that left me with temporary amnesia is my inheritance. No house or piece of land or chest of letters, just a few weeks of oblivion.
Mami had temporary amnesia as well, except: where she was eight years old, I was twenty-three. Where she fell down an empty well, I crashed my bicycle into an opening car door. Where she nearly bled to death in Ocaña, Colombia, in darkness, thirty feet below the earth, I got to my feet seemingly unharmed and wandered around Chicago on a sunny winter afternoon. Where she didn’t know who she was for eight months, I couldn’t remember who I was for eight weeks.
They say the amnesias were a door to gifts we were supposed to have, which Mami’s father, Nono, neglected to pass.