Fiction Through a Different Lens: 2019 National Book Festival

Fiction Through a Different Lens: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Anya Creightney:
I’m Anya Creightney, the Program’s Manager
at the Poetry and Literature Center housed
at the Library of Congress. It is my pleasure to briefly
introduce the panel today, before turning it over
to featured author and Moderator, Aminatta Forna. Today, we’ll hear
from three women. Aminatta Forna, R.O.
Kwon, Valeria Luiselli, each of whom have written
beautiful and searing novels, and I’m confident Aminatta will
weave their [inaudible] lines literal, conceptual, or
political deftly and capably. Before we hear from them, let
me formally introduce the trio. Born in Scotland, raised in
Sierra Leone and Great Britain, while spending periods of her
childhood in Iran, Thailand, and Zambia, Aminatta Forna
is the author of novels, Ancestor Stones, The Memory
of Love, and The Hired Man, as well as the memoir, The
Devil that Danced on the Water. Her books have been translated
into more than 20 languages. Forna’s essays have appeared in
Freeman’s, Granta, The Guardian, The Nation, The New York Review
of Books, and The Observer. She’s currently Director of
the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at
Georgetown University. Her newest work is
Happiness, a novel. R.O. Kwon is a National
Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published
or forthcoming in The New York Magazine,
the Guardian, Vice, Buzzfeed, Time, Noon, among others. Born in South Korea,
she lived most of her life in the
United States. Her first novel,
The Incendiaries, is a national bestseller and is being translated
into five languages. The book was a finalist for the
National Book Critic’s Circle John Leonard Award for Best
First Book Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City and
grew up in South Korea, South Africa, and India. An acclaimed writer of both
fiction and non-fiction, she’s the author of the
essay collection Sidewalks, the novels, Faces in the
Crowd, The Story of My Teeth, and Tell Me How It Ends:
An Essay in 40 Questions. Her newest book is Lost
Children Archive, a novel. She’s the winner of two Los
Angeles Times Book Prizes, an American Book Award, and
she has twice been nominated for the National Book
Critic’s Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize. Her work has appeared in
the New York Times, Granta, among others, and her
work has been translated into 20 languages. Please keep in mind the
authors will have a book signing between 12:30 and 1:30
p.m. on the Expo floor. Their lines are as
follows: Forna, Line Eight; Kwon, Nine; Luiselli, 10. So, make sure to buy books and
find the appropriate lines. Before I turn it over, let me also remind you
this stage is sponsored by the National Endowment
for the Arts, the NEA’s independent federal
agency that funds, promotes and strengthens our communities
by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities
for arts participation. You can learn more at arts.gov. And with that, let me invite
this power panel to the stage. [ Applause ] [ Silence ]>>Aminatta Forna: Good
morning, everybody. Good morning. How wonderful to see
so many of you here. We’re going to have a
wonderful conversation with two amazing young
writers, whose books I’ve read. I hope you have, and if you
haven’t, I hope you come to Lines Eight, Nine, and 10 — we sound like an
Olympic Swim Team –>>Breaststroke.>>– after today’s talk. I’m going to talk to the
two authors, and then, we’ll hear a little bit from
each of the works, as we — as the conversation proceeds. So, last night, at the
opening of the Festival, we heard two authors
talk about writing from the peripheral
of the center. Reese Kwon, you were one
of them, and you said — correct me if I’m
incorrectly paraphrasing you — but you said that you did not
see yourself at the periphery; you saw yourself at the center. Could you talk to that a bit? I’m very interested, because
I have had this conversation several times, about
where the center now is. And some years ago, I was at
the Jaipur Literature Festival. If any of you get the
chance to go to India and go to the Jaipur Literature
Festival, it’s unbelievable. And I was standing
with a British author, and he was about to go on stage. And there must have been a
thousand people in front of him, and he said, “Oh, my goodness. I didn’t expect this.” And I said, “The
center has shifted.” Do you think the
center has shifted?>>R.O. Kwon: I love that. So, when I spoke last
night, I was quoting — there’s a quotation
from Toni Morrison that I think about a lot. And it essentially
has to do with this, and it says that she
stood at the center. She stood at the center,
she claimed it as central, and she let the rest of
the world move over to where she was, which
I love so much. And she — and I — that
was a bit of a paraphrase. But I think in some
ways, I never — I realized that with my fiction, it’s such a common
question people ask. Who are you writing for? And I used to think that
that was kind of a boring — not a boring, but just like
a — I was just like, “Well, I’m writing for myself,”
because I find writing to be an intensely absorbing
act during which I can’t think about — I really can’t think about anyone else
while I’m writing. And so, I was like, “Well,
I’m writing for myself. I don’t know.” And then, I thought
more about that, though. And I realized that that really
did have political implications, because I was centering
an Asian-American, Korean-American woman who’s
queer and an immigrant. And this body, bodies like mine, have not been very often
centered in American letters. And so, there were a lot
of ways, there were a lot of choices I made in my book
in which I never wanted to — I never wanted to explain
from the inside out. I never wanted to
have to explain, “Oh, this is because this
is how Koreans do it.” I wanted to just
inhabit that world. And, you know, and like I
think it’s okay for readers to be confused every
now and then. Like I have read so many books in which I have looked
up sailing terms. Like, I don’t sail. I’ve read so many books by
WASP-y people in which — and I love these books. But like I’ve looked up so many
sailing terms, and that’s fine. I like looking up words. I think it’s good
to look up terms.>>Aminatta Forna: Valeria, when
you were growing up, did you — tell us a little bit about
the books that influenced you, the books that you
grew up reading and whether you felt centered when you were reading
those works. As a reader, did
you feel centered?>>Valeria Luiselli: I mean, I came late to reading the
Latin American tradition, partly because I didn’t
grow up in Latin America. I grew up in South
Africa and in Korea. And when eventually I did
start reading in Spanish and the Latin American
contemporary cannon, which is basically the so-called
Boom, the Latin American Boom, Cortazar, Borges,
Garcia Marquez. Not a single woman in
that list, by the way. Right? Not that there
weren’t any, but they were not considered
as part of the generation. I started to become
more conscious of the center-periphery
dichotomy, just to go back to this really interesting
question that you asked. I think that, in terms of
linguistic centers of power, the Anglo-speaking world is
certainly still the center, and it’s very much felt
when you write also in a language that
is not English. And the notion that a book — like a book kind of exists
once it’s — like exists fully, once it’s translated
into English, it’s of course not what I think,
but there’s a kind of feeling. And there used to be the same
feeling in Latin America, when you wrote from outside
Spain, and your book came out or not in a Spanish
publishing house. If you were a Mexican writer,
or an Argentinian writer, or a Peruvian writer, and your
book was not published also in Barcelona or Madrid, it
hadn’t quite come out yet. There was something
— there’ a notion — and that center-periphery
relation did shift, after the economic crisis
in 2008, around about, where a lot of independent
publishing houses in Latin America started
erupting, emerging, erupting, and Latin American writers
no longer had the sense that they had to go
through Spain, and also, no longer had the sense that
they had to write in a Spanish that was somehow palatable
for the Hispanic ear in Spain. So, a lot of Latin American
writers would use words in Spanish that were not our
own, like [foreign word] instead of [foreign word], or [foreign
word] instead of [foreign word], because that was the way that
not only Spanish writers wrote, but that was the way that
all books in translation from English or from whatever
the language, came into Spanish. So, the way of writing
literary Spanish was like [foreign word]
Spanish, which was this — translated in Spain
Spanish, right?>>Aminatta Forna:
It’s interesting. Does anyone know that TV
series huge in France? By the comedian, and he comes
to America, and no one knows who he is, and he keeps
saying he’s huge in France? It’s all about making it
in Hollywood, you know, as an actor globally,
you know, [inaudible], until you make it in Hollywood. But you talk about Latin
American writers no longer feeling that they’ve got
to get to Spain first. And I’ve seen exactly the same
thing with the African writers who now will publish first
in Nigeria and first in Kenya and first in Ghana before
concerning themselves with the market, the
Western market, and the same, I’ve seen happen before
that, with Indian writers and increasingly, Pakistani
writers who now, you know, there’s a burgeoning
industry and a huge market, and it’s possible to make
a career without, you know, without an American
agent or publisher. Reese, could I ask you to
read a little bit for us? You have your own copy, I see. Could you read a little
bit for us from page eight?>>R.O. Kwon: Yeah.>>Aminatta Forno: And we’re
just going to, the beginning of the book, when the
two main characters meet. And if you could just talk
us into it a little bit?>>R.O. Kwon: Sure. Of course. So, the book is told
in three perspectives. There’s Will Kendell, who
falls in love with Phoebe Lin, who is a Korean-American
woman, who falls into a cult. And there’s a cult
leader, John Leal. And so, the three of them — it sort of alternates between
these three points of view. And this is from Chapter Four, and this is from the
point of view of Will. Oh, and Will is an ex — he
used to be very religious. He thought he was
going to be a pastor. And then, he left that faith,
and he opposes this cult, and much of what it represents. So, this is right
when they meet. Four, Will. I first met Phoebe in a
house full of strangers, five weeks into the
Edwards Fall term. I was new to the
Noxhurst School, but a sophomore, a late arrival. I’d transferred in from the
Bible college I’d had to leave, and I was often on my own. Then, one night, while I
was taking a walk alone, I noticed a loud throng of
students turning into a gate. It was left propped open. I followed them in. Hip-hop pulsed, rolled. Pale limbs shone. I’d learned that the alcohol
table was the one place where I could stand without
looking too isolated, and I was idling at
my usual station, finishing a third drink, when a
girl in a striped dress tripped. She spilled cold
liquid down my leg. She shouted apologies,
then a name, Phoebe Lin. Will Kendall, I said,
also in a shout. We tried talking, but I kept
mishearing what she said. Phoebe started tilting her
pelvis from side to side. Life as a juvenile
born-again hadn’t put me on a lot of dance floors. Uncertain, I followed
the girl’s lead. She swayed left, right,
bare shoulders sliding. Others writhed to the frenzied
tempo, but Phoebe’s hips beat out a slowed-down song. Punch-stained red
cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals. Palms open, she levitated
both hands. The room clattered into
motion, rising to spin. She dipped, glided along its
tilt, and still she moved to the calm rhythm she’d
found, dragging the beat until my pulse joined hers.>>Aminatta Forna: Thank you. [ Applause ]>>R.O. Kwon: Thanks.>>Aminatta Forna:
It’s interesting that you both set your
books in liminal spaces. Yours is at a university, and almost the first thing
we hear is that they’re in a room full of strangers. And Valeria, yours
is set on the road. So the couple know each
other, they’re married, but nevertheless,
they are in spaces that they don’t normally
inhabit, and they’re, you know, they’re outside their comfort
zone, to put it colloquially. Can you just, both of you,
talk a little bit to that, about the decision to take
people who are already, you know, somewhat slightly off
center in a society, and then, put them somewhere where their
axis is tilted even more?>>R.O. Kwon: Yeah. Well, maybe I should
start with — okay, so like the two sentence
summary that I gave people about my novel when
people asked, for 10 years, which is how long I worked on
it, was, that it’s about a woman who gets involved with a
group of radical Christians, fundamentalist Christians. The group turns out to be a
cult with ties to North Korea, and they end up bombing
abortion clinics, healthcare clinics,
in the name of faith. I used to like smile like really
big every time I said that, especially at parties,
when I just met people, so that people wouldn’t
think I was really weird. And then, a friend finally
did me the great service of being like, “Dude, it’s
so weird that you smile. You need to not smile. Just deliver it straight. It will be much better.” But so, for me — so, in a
lot of my research that I did into terrorist groups and
cults and extremist groups, high school and college
are really popular places to recruit. And I think it is because
it’s such a liminal space, because people are still
figuring out who they are. People are in flux. And in the U.S., in
particular, people move away from home to go to college. And so, in college, you’re
not only still figuring out who you are, but you
might not know anyone there. You’re making a whole
new set of friends. You’re maybe interested in becoming a different
kind of person or trying. And so, I think that’s
why college was such a fertile ground
for this book, for me.>>Aminatta Forna: And you’ll
accept friendships in ways that you might not have
accepted friendships before, because you don’t quite know who
you are and where you are and –>>R.O. Kwon: Exactly. Yeah.>>Aminatta Forna: And Valeria,
you set yours on the road, and I’d like to know two things. One, was that decision
organic, or was it deliberate? Like, did you say, “I’m going
to move these people around?” And the second question is, or
part of the same question is, we never find out their names. They’re always — it’s always
“my husband,” or, “the wife,” “the boy,” “the girl.” But we never find
out their names. Could you talk to that a bit?>>Valeria Luiselli: Sure. So, one and then,
the next, right? I mean, it was pretty
deliberate, to write a road novel. One of — I mean, one of
the foundational myths of this country has to
do with this discovery and in the movement
of East-West. Right? This discovery
of the country or invention of the country. And, I mean, it’s a myth that has not been subverted
enough times, I think. Because it’s a myth that, it
raises a fundamental fact, which is that people lived in
that land that was discovered and settled and inaugurated,
and that there was a genocide, in order to — I mean, of
course, we all know that, that this is not something
that is revisited, I think, enough in contemporary
life, where, in a way, things are happening
all over again. Right? In a different sense,
because Native American migrants from Central America are coming
up to the U.S., seeking refuge, and are being put,
not into reservations, but into mass detention centers. Right? So, I wanted to revisit
history in order to also think about what was happening
in today’s U.S.A. And so, the novel tells the story
of a family who’s moving from the East Coast toward
the U.S.-Mexico border, while there is an immigration
— a so-called immigration — or refugee crisis,
really to be more precise, erupting in the Southern border. And it also tells the story
of seven children migrating across national boundaries
toward a Northern border. And the idea I had when
I put these two things in the same space, the space
of a book, was to go back to a very — to perhaps like
the American genre [inaudible] which is the road novel, right? And, but then, intersected
somehow or subverted somehow with a much more common,
true Latin America form of telling a travel story or
a voyage which has to do more with a kind of moving into a
territory that is also kind of a descending into a — into
an infernum or a hell, right? Political or psychological or however you want
to think about it. So, this prototypical
family trip is intersected with this violent descent
into a very dark, liminal, or limbo space in which most
migrants find themselves when they are in the
process of migrating, and then, when they arrive. So, that’s sort of the double
liminality in which I stand as a writer in this novel. Right? The family is
also kind of foreign, or some of the members of
the family are foreign. Most readers assume that
the whole family’s foreign, and the whole family is Mexican,
but I, very intentionally, left that, as well as
their names ambiguous, because I think that, I
mean, both obviously names, but also certain
physical descriptions, pin a character too easily and
too quickly for us readers. And I wanted there to be more
of a challenge and more of a — like a dialogue between
the reader and the book, in terms of what we
bring to it as readers, and what prejudices we
bring to it as readers and how a book challenges
our prejudice, basically. So, no names is one
of the reasons.>>Aminatta Forna: Can I
ask you to read a section from Lost Children Archive? Here we are, on page 129.>>Valeria Luiselli: Okay. Well, this is one of the places
where it’s very clear that she, the narrator, is
a Hispanic woman. Most of the times,
it’s not clear.>>Aminatta Forna: And we
all — this is well into it. [multiple voices].>>Valeria Luiselli:
Yeah, we’re well into — we’re well into the novel. This little section
is called Westerns. People start asking
us where we’re from, what we do for a living, and what we’re all doing
all the way out here. “We drove here from
New York,” I say. “We do radio,” my husband says. “We’re documentarists,”
I sometimes say. “Documentarians,”
he corrects me. “We’re working on a sound
documentary,” I tell them. “A documentary about
nature,” he follows. “Yes,” I add, “about the plants
and animals of these lands.” But the farther we drive,
the less these little truths and lies about us seem to appease people’s
need for an explanation. When my husband tells — when
my husband — sorry, I got lost. When my husband tells an
inquisitive stranger in a diner that he was also born in the
South, he gets a cold nod and raised eyebrows in return. Then, in a gas station outside
a town called “Loco” [phonetic], I get asked about my accent and
place of birth, and I say, “No, I was not born in this country.” And when I say where I was
born, I don’t even get a nod in return, just cold,
dead silence, as if I’ve confessed a sin. Later, we begin to see fleeting
herds of border patrol cars, like ominous white
stallions racing towards the Southern border. And when border patrol
officers in a town called “Camanche” [phonetic], ask
us to show our passports, we show them, apologetically and
display big smiles and explain that we’re just recording
sounds. “Why are we there, and
what are we recording,” they always want to know. Of course, I don’t
mention refugee children, and my husband says
nothing about Apaches. “We’re just recording sounds for
a documentary about love stories in America,” we say,
“and we’re here for the open skies
and the silence.” Handing back our passports,
one of the officers says, “So, you came all the way out
here for the inspiration?” And because we won’t contradict
anyone who carries a badge and a gun, we just
say, “Yes, sir.”>>Aminatta Forna: Thank you. [ Applause ] So, actually, the further this
family heads towards the West and the South, the greater
grows the sense of vulnerability and of them having to
explain themselves. And I wonder if you
share the thought that the immigrants’ lot is
never to enjoy the luxury of complacency, to always
be explaining yourself, accounting for yourself?>>Valeria Luiselli: Right. I mean, definitely. And it’s a place that never
— that never leaves you, that of being a foreigner
or a stranger. And, I mean, I’ve
been in the States for more than 10 years now. I’ve lived here longer
than I’ve lived in any other country, in fact. And this is very
much where my life is and where my daughter’s
growing up, and yet, I still — I still — the first gig I was
offered when I came to the U.S. as a student was to
write a dating column for some horrible
magazine from the point of view of a woman of color. I’d never heard the
term “woman of color” until I came to the U.S. Right? That was like a dating
magazine for women of color. What is that?>>Aminatta Forna:
Very specific.>>Valeria Luiselli: I
said, no, I don’t date. I mean, and you know,
all these editors want to have a Latina woman,
want to have an Asian woman, want to have an African-American
woman, because that’s the only
way to like, I don’t know, fill their void of content. So, I don’t know. I said, “No, I don’t date. Sorry. Bye. I’m married.” And I didn’t accept that gig, which I would have needed
otherwise, economically. But still now, 10 years later,
and definitely back to dating or almost — no, I’m joking — I still get asked to write
something from the point of you’re one or the other. This comes in much
more elegant ways, like it’s phrased
more elegantly. It’s more adulterated,
if you want. But it’s — there’s still
this thing that you can write from a place and
only that place, if you are in a certain
body here, right? And that — that irritates
me, to put it mildly.>>Aminatta Forna: So, you’re
always being positioned?>>Valeria Luiselli: You’re
always in position, yeah.>>Aminatta Forna: And
there’s that question also, being vulnerable to other
people’s assumptions, and vulnerability is a
big part of your novel. This young woman, Phoebe,
is evidently vulnerable. She suffered a great
loss in her life, which she is struggling
to recover from. She was driving a car and
was party to an accident in which her mother was killed. And Will is somebody who has
lost his faith, just at the time when Phoebe starts to find
faith, and she finds it with this extremist group. And I wonder if you could
read for us a little bit from Page 58, and then,
talk to us a bit about faith and whether — I
guess my question is, because there’s a mirror here
in your life, isn’t there? That you had faith,
and then, you lost it, which is something I personally
find completely fascinating, how people can believe so
deeply and what it feels like when that is gone. And if you could just
read the section and then, talk to us a little bit about whether you think there
are people who are predisposed to belief, or is
it a time of life, or is it a genuine,
God-given quality?>>Valeria Luiselli:
Hard question.>>R.O. Kwon: Yeah, definitely. So, I’ll read the section first. So, this comes like — let’s
see — a third of the way, a quarter of the way through
the novel, and this is, again, from Will’s point of view. The basin burned
white in the glass. No loss occurs in isolation,
and a side profit of the faith that I miss at time like this
was how easily Christ shown in each face I loved. If hatred cuts both ways,
to forgive can be a balm, and I often missed,
as I would a friend, the more tranquil person I
now have no reason to be. I open the spigot. I wash my hands, then
face, eyes closed. I saw my mother wringing
out long, baptized hair, twisting it into a rope. Released, the strands flew
loose, flicking wet silt. She picked me up,
my legs swinging. I thought I felt his
elation in her hold, glimpsed it in the
silt, spark light. I used to love imagining his
hand upon me, its heft and size. I’d known his impress in
the lattering of my ribs, his fingerprint in a
whorl, crowning my head. The God I followed had been as
real to me as a living person. More real, since I put so
much into inventing him. In time, they’d all want me to
explain how I lost my faith. John Leal, the others,
they kept asking, and I’d recognize
the fascination. Scripture indicates there’s no
hope for the apostates like me, having known his love,
then repudiated him and believed to be past saving. I exist beyond his grace. But I tried. Will that count for
anything, Lord? In the final list, you won’t
compile, allotting a life that you can’t give,
because in failing to exist, you’ve left us behind. I’d returned from the
Beijing mission trip split with doubts, unable to sleep. I begged his help. It was as I told Phoebe. I had no single problem
or quibble. The misgivings that piled up, questions I stifled
as long as I could. The last hours I believed,
I’d knelt, asking for a sign. He assisted others,
Old Testament prophets, along with all the
pastors who heard God talk, friends exalting
about his presence. This much love, I thought,
must have its match in truth. I’d asked him to
help, then waited. Sunlight spilled in
from the afternoon. White curtains rippled, a
slight, late spring wind. I waited, and by
the time I got up, I knew I’d been pleading
with no one. So, the question about
faith and predisposition?>>Aminatta Forna: Well,
Phoebe gets drawn to faith, at a certain point in her life. So, I thought you could talk about that Will has lost his
faith, but he had it before. So, my question is this:
is there a golden moment in many people’s lives where
we’re more inclined to believe than others, or is
faith a God-given gift, which is sometimes withdrawn?>>R.O. Kwon: That’s such
a beautiful question. So, I, you know, I grew up
so religious that I wanted to be a pastor until I was 17,
and then, I left that faith. So, you know, I wasn’t going
to be a pastor anymore. But I was like super into God. Like, I was like, I was
like one of those like — like my idea of a really
fun Friday night was to go to a youth rally. I was very fun, as a teenager. And, you know, I was
so excited about it. I really wanted to devote
my life to God’s service. And then, I lost that faith,
and it was devastating. It was devastating in
ways I still have a lot of trouble talking about. I have trouble writing
non-fiction about it. I think fiction lets me get
at it, because I don’t have — because it lets me be
freer, in a lot of ways. And I wanted to write
about that. I wanted to write about
the enormity of that loss, but also about how
wonderful it was to believe. And I think part of what —
I do still have a taste — I mean, I’ve lost that faith. I left the garden. But I am left with
the taste for ecstasy. Like I am left with the
taste for absorption. So, what I love writing the
most and what I’ve loved most about writing is that when it’s
like really going, you know, like when I’m really
in a sentence, I lose all sense of myself. I forget I have an I. I forget all sense of ego. I forget the passage of time. I forget that I’m like stressed
out about Lord knows what. I forget to eat. All of that goes away, and I’m
just there with the sentences, trying to get at something,
trying to get at truth. And that — and I
love that so much. And I don’t know which came
first, which came first, if it was the God that
came first or that taste for ecstasy, that taste for –>>Aminatta Forna:
Trying [inaudible].>>R.O. Kwon: Yeah, that
taste for an expansion of the sense of the I.>>Aminatta Forna: I’m
going to come to questions from the audience
in a few minutes. So, if you have something
you’d like to ask either of the authors, could
you have a thing — I know we have two mics here. So, please step forward
to ask your question. But let me have time for a
few minutes, because what I’d like to do is ask Valeria
to read one final passage. And the emotion that
comes out most powerfully in your book — faith
has its part. There’s a point when they go
to church, and the pastor, reverend, is intoning the
voices of the disappeared, of missing migrants,
and he’s almost — he’s doing it in a sort of
— in the way that, you know, sounds like a —
it’s an intoning. But the overwhelming emotion in
your book, I think, is empathy. And the empathy that the
mother/wife begins to feel for these children
who are being deported and her own children
begins to blend. And I wonder if you could
read for us a section — and there’s a sense, too, where love is a large
part of both books. If you could read for
us, from page 182, it’s the most devastating scene. The boy and the mother
are in the desert. Where are they? In Texas?>>Valeria Luiselli:
They’re in New Mexico.>>Aminatta Forna:
In New Mexico.>>Valeria Luiselli:
Near Roswell, New Mexico, near the UFO sites.>>Aminatta Forna: Yeah,
and so, and they’re looking through a pair of binoculars, and something attracts
their attention.>>Valeria Luiselli: Yeah. They overhear, in a diner, the
waitress is telling another — one of the people eating
there that there’s going to be a deportation of children from a private little
airport near Artesia. That’s near Roswell, New Mexico. And as you know, foreigners
in the U.S. are referred to as aliens, and in many
publications refugee children are referred to as
illegal aliens. Or even removable aliens,
which is a violence of language that we need to think
about a lot, right? So, the mother and her son,
her stepson, but her son, are standing right outside this
airport kind of in the middle of nowhere and witnessing
this scene. “What do you see?”, I ask. “Just brown hills that are
blurry and the sky that is blue. And then the plane.” “What else? Look harder,” I tell the boy. “If I look too hard,
my eyes burn, and I see those little
see-through things that float in the sky, the sky
worms,” says the boy. “They’re not worms,” I tell him. “Eye doctors call them floaters, but astronomers call
them super strings. Their purpose is to tie
up the universe together. But what else besides the
super strings do you see?” “I don’t know what
else,” he says. “Come on, so many years of
schooling, you can do better.” He pauses and smiles back at
me, acknowledging my teasing, and then, maybe trying
a little too hard to give me a patronizing glance. He’s still small enough to
wear sarcasm and condescension like a suit several
sizes too big. He looks back through the
binoculars and suddenly says, “Look Mama, look over there.” I slowly walk my eyes
on the tightrope laid out between his steady
eyes and the line of small figures now stepping out of the hangar
and onto the runway. They are all children, girls,
boys, one behind another. No backpacks, nothing. They march in single file, looking like they’ve
surrendered, silent prisoners of some war they didn’t
even get to fight. There aren’t hundreds, as
we’d heard there would be, but we count 15, perhaps 20. It must be them. The night before,
they were bused from a Federal Law Enforcement
Training Facility in Artesia to this smaller airport
on State Road 559. Now, they walked
toward the plane that will take them back South. If they hadn’t gotten caught,
they’d probably gone to live with family, gone to school,
playgrounds, parks, but instead, they’ll be removed, relocated,
erased, because there’s no place for them in this
vast, empty country.>>Aminatta Forna: Thank you. [ Applause ] It’s one of the most
devastating scenes in the book, and the mother breaks
down shortly after it. And then, quite soon, you shift
the perspective to the boy, and we begin to hear the story
told from his point of view. I wonder if you could talk
a little bit about that, but also with the boy, the sense
of loss for the whole family — things are crumbling
within the family, and they’re crumbling
within the country. And for the boy, it’s almost
like there’s a moment where — well, this is his
loss of innocence, and that’s mirrored throughout
the book, it’s the loss of innocence of the boy, but
also perhaps a loss of innocence or a genuine innocence
or a feigned innocence for the entire country.>>Yeah, Yeah. Well, there was a
moment during — I think the Obama Administration
can be thought of as a hiatus of innocence, right, where
a lot of us were like okay, these are okay, kind of. They were not always great. There was NSA. And particularly in
terms of immigration, the Obama Administration
was not a great example of benevolent practices. But even so, it was definitely
not what there is right now, and this year has been —
the Trump Administration has, of course, been a
kind of brutal loss of innocence, all over again. So, I wanted to write
a book that had — where I could think
about the process of intergenerational
storytelling and passing stories down to the next generation. And then, that generation
kind of re-articulating them and bouncing them back to us,
who have been around longer, but will not be around
as long as they, right? And so, the book performs
precisely that leap. There’s a moment right
after this moment where the boy is looking
through the binoculars. The family witnesses
this deportation. He witnesses the whole thing
through his binoculars, and from there on, it’s his
eyes, his gaze, and his voice, that picks up the
story of the parents, the story that the parents are
articulating, the discussions that they are having in
the car, as they drive, about immigration, about the
genocide of Native Americans, and particularly, the
violence of the Apache Wars, what they listened to the
radio, songs by David Bowie or by Britney Spears, I think. I don’t listen to
Britney Spears. [multiple voices]. But sort of this whole thing is
happening in the adult world, or the adult world is kind of
in the control panel of things, and the kids are just kind of
listening in the back of the car and asking weird questions
like who was the first person that milked a cow and also, how
did Geronimo the Apache die. And they start kind of
reshuffling all of this, that comes from the adult’s
articulation and narrative of the world, and producing
their own narrative. So, the next half of the
book is that narrative, produced by a 10-year-old boy
who is in the process precisely of moving toward that grey
area of consciousness, light and darkness,
kind of mixed together, and he produces the
other narrative. And I think, in a way,
it’s a microcosm of how we as a society produce an
articulation of the world or a narrative that we pass
on and hopefully, sort of, before we go, hear back
from the next generation. Right? It’s the process
by which we communicate, by which we build community,
by which we build common myths.>>Aminatta Forna: All right. Who’d like to ask a question? [ Silence ] Don’t hold back. [ Silence ] Super.>>Audience member: Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you so much. This question is really for Ms.
Kwon, and that is that I noticed in the book, that Will really
loses his faith when he is in Beijing, or he talks
about it, with the mission, and I was really interested in
the way that race, colonialism, and white evangelism sort
of are added in the book, in relation to how Phoebe
gains her faith through trauma, but Will loses it, when he sort
of has to face it as a white man in another country,
proselytizing.>>R.O. Kwon: That’s
a great question. Let’s see. So, just a bit of context. Will goes to Beijing
on a mission trip. Right before he comes back,
and he loses his faith in part, not long after that, but I
would say that more directly, he loses his faith in part because of the other
losses in his life. So, I don’t think I’m giving
too much away if I say that he also loses a — he loses
— there’s a parent who leaves, and this upsets him greatly, and
this upsets his mother greatly. I think it’s that level
of loss, that level of — that sort of profound sense of
displacement that has something to do with how he
loses his faith. But as with — I think as
with my own loss of faith, these people have been asking —
it’s a very reasonable question, “What made you lose your faith?” Right? Like you believe and
believe and believe something, and then, one day, it’s gone. And for me, it was never
one thing, you know? It was really an accumulation
of questions, an accumulation of pressures that
cannot be accommodated within the framework of what —
of the world as I understood it.>>Aminatta Forna: How
old were you, may I ask?>>R.O. Kwon: I was about 17. So, those are like the most
directly autobiographical things I give to Will, other than his
being like a man who’s white, other than like all that stuff. And I think in some ways —
this is only in retrospect, because I did not set out
to write a book that is in some ways primarily narrated by a straight [inaudible]
white man, like that was not — I did not set out to do that. But I think in some ways, having
him, giving him my deepest pain, giving him the pivotal loss of
my life that has divided my life into a before and after, so that
in a lot of ways, I truly feel as though I continue to live
in the aftermath of loss. It made me so much
freer, you know? Because he was so
demographically unlike me, that people wouldn’t
necessarily think he was me, and they really don’t. Like they’re always mixing me
up with Phoebe — readers are. Which is totally understandable,
and they’re like, “So, what was it like to
be a piano protege?” And I’m like, “I
wasn’t a piano protege.” Like that wasn’t me. But like, you know,
but that’s fine. So, I think that
that was a way — that’s a long way of saying that that wasn’t necessarily
a central part of what led to his loss, but that was
one of many components.>>Aminatta Forna: I think
we’ll take one more question, and then, we’ll close, if
we make it a brief one.>>Audience Member: My
question is for Valeria, and it’s regarding tone. The Story of My Teeth was
very different, it seems, in tone, from this new book. I’m not even sure how
to describe the tone of the previous book,
fatalistic or magical realism or surrealism — I’m not sure. But this feels like a
very realistic book. And I’m wondering if you can
talk about whether or not that was just an evolution —
your evolution as a writer, or whether or not you enjoy
sort of, you know, moving back and forth between
these different tones.>>Valeria Luiselli:
Definitely the second. And more than tones,
for me, it’s — what sits me down to
write every day — I don’t know if I’m a
particularly disciplined person, although I write every day, and
when I’m deep into a project, I write every day for
six or eight hours. But what gets me to down is
enthusiasm for what I’m doing, a deep curiosity and love and
enthusiasm for what I’m doing. And the only way that I
can trick myself into that, that which sits me down
to work some hours a day, is not knowing, is not knowing
where I’m going, is not knowing where I’m going to
arrive that day, is playing with a new
set of rules every time. So, all my books are
very different in tone. I mean, of course,
there are constants. At the end, we all repeat
ourselves and we are — there’s a set of
questions that interest us and will interest us always,
but I try to always trick myself into unknowing and into
exploring, so you will find that my other books are also
very different from this and The Story of My Teeth.>>Aminatta Forna: Well, we
look forward to the next one. We look forward to yours. We hope it doesn’t
take 10 years.>>R.O. Kwon: I hope so, too.>>Aminatta Forna:
It’s been wonderful. Thank you very much.>>R.O. Kwon: Thank you.>>Valeria Luiselli: Thank you. [ Applause ]

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