‘Without books, we would not have made it’: Valeria Luiselli on the power of fiction

I read an article the other day about a computer program that writes fiction. You feed it a few lines, tell it the genre – science fiction, horror – and it produces the rest. And it’s not bad at it. It writes in full grammatical sentences; comes up with metaphors and analogies; emulates a writer’s particular style and so on. The author of the article, who seemed a little too thrilled about the existence of this diabolical toy from the depths of Silicon Valley says, at some point, that this “tool” was going to be the “salvation” for writers who dislike writing, cual, according to him, is nearly all writers. I want to say to this writer: you are wrong. And to this robot that writes fiction I want to say … well I don’t want to say anything to it because, you know, robots are robots.

Fiction is one of the most pleasurable of human activities. It’s one of the most difficult, sí; but when it is driven by a deep desire, it is one of the most pleasurable. Fiction is also something quite like a bodily intuition, or an embodied knowledge, something we feel when our minds are able to pierce through the mesh of the present, and imagine someplace/something other. At times, when we try to peer into that other place what we see is too painful, shocking or simply abysmal. But we have to look at it anyway, and make something de it, make something con it. The word fiction, De hecho, comes from the Latin fingere, which means “to shape, to form”, and originally, “to mould something out of clay”. Fingere implies the action of making, or rather, giving form. It is not inventing something that is not true, but giving shape to something that was already there. Fiction requires a combination of insight, hindsight and foresight. In other words, it requires experience.

Lost Children Archive is a novel about childhood solitude and children’s boundless imagination, the fragile intensity of familial ties, about tensions between history and fiction, and the complex intersections of political circumstances and personal lives. But more than anything, it is a novel about the process of making stories, of threading voices and ideas together in an attempt to better understand the world around us. It is a novel about fiction. It begins with two parents telling stories – their children physically but also metaphorically riding in the backseat of the family car – but then shifts to the children’s narrative, to them becoming the voices that tell us the story of the fucked-up but sometimes blindingly stunning world that we are always fictioning, as in, always shaping and reshaping.

In this past year of isolation and doubt, and so much fear, my daughter, my niece and I have been reading out loud to each other, for company, for a better sense of togetherness, maybe, beyond cooking and eating meals and cleaning the house. We read to each other the way one seeks company around a fireplace – to be alone, together. Often, we play a game: we sit in front of the bookshelves, and one of us choses a book with our eyes closed, and then we read out loud from it, sometimes just a few lines, sometimes entire chapters.

We’ve been reading Audre Lorde, Marguerite Duras, James Joyce, and even a vampire series the title of which I will never confess. In any case, I can say, without a hint of doubt, that without books – without sharing in the company of other writers’s human experiences – we would not have made it through these months. If our spirits have found renewal, if we have found strength to carry on, if we have maintained a sense of enthusiasm for life, it is thanks to the worlds that books have given us. Each time, we found solace in the companions that live in our bookshelves.

Recently, for a project I’m working on, I interviewed some women in my family about what they feared most. What are you afraid of? I asked. My mother said: "Perder claridad” – to lose clarity. My daughter said: “I’m afraid of being left alone.” My younger niece said: “Expectations.” My older niece said: “I’m afraid of my relationship failing, losing love.”

“And what are you afraid of, Mamma?” my daughter then asked me.

What am I afraid of? I am afraid, like any adult, of many things. Of loss, of not being able to provide for those who depend on me, of political violence, of climate change and Silicon Valley. But I am particularly afraid of our spirits becoming stagnant, of not having a narrative to believe in, of not having a common space in which to listen to each other and understand each other deeply. I am afraid, en otras palabras, of a world without fiction. A world in which we do not share a collective space of imagination.

And so I am committed to that, to devoting my life to the improbable art of fiction.

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