Valeria Luiselli: ‘Borders are testing grounds for brutality’

Although a bustling audience has gathered to see author and immigration activist Valeria Luiselli speak at the Santa Fe Literary Festival, a hush falls over the room in anticipation of a preview of her current project. The silence is broken by the mechanical clanking of a copper mine and Luiselli’s recorded impressions mingling with the voices of miners and other locals who she met and interviewed around the border town of Bisbee, Arizona. The gorgeous, revelatory soundscape is just a 12-minute extract from a planned 24-hour sonic essay, Echoes From The Borderlands, which Luiselli is in the process of creating in collaboration with audio specialists Leo Heiblum and Ricardo Giraldo. She tells the assembled crowd she believes the format can help us slow down and appreciate stories in a deeper way than the relentless onslaught of visual media online. “You can’t scroll through sound,” she says with a smile.

Afterwards, backstage in the festival’s Green Room, Luiselli tells me that the idea to create an archive and document of life on the border first came to her in the town of Shakespeare, New Mexico. Originally a mining camp, Shakespeare became a ghost town and later a venue for Wild West reenactments, a place where men, dressed up as Billy The Kid, would hold shoot-outs with nameless caricatures of Native Americans and Mexican Bandits.

“This project started, in my mind at least, while I was interviewing a couple of reenactor cowboys about reenactment, and about what gets told, what gets reenacted and what is left out,” says Luiselli, who became determined to document otherwise forgotten stories. “At first I thought it was a four year project, but now I’m really thinking it’s a 10-year project. We need to get more funds for it. We have some support from a museum in New York, but it all hinges upon our capacity to travel and then to have time to transform what we gather during those very concentrated trips into material that’s going to be interesting.”

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