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The Migrant Crisis, Through the Eyes of Human Traffickers

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Sometimes a national conversation, no matter its constant news coverage, remains—at least for those not directly affected—in the realm of abstraction. But then, after a photograph, video, or audio clip reveals the human impact, “the darkness is suddenly ripped” open, and the story hits home. That’s what happened last summer when ProPublica released audio of wailing children, recently separated from their parents, being laughed at by Border Patrol agents. It’s what happened last November when a photographer caught a Honduran woman desperately hustling her two daughters away from tear gas launched by border agents in Tijuana.

Sometimes a novel can rip open that darkness, too, though the illumination happens on a different timeline. Mexican novelist Emiliano Monge—the ripped-darkness phrase is his—has done exactly that with his newly translated novel, Among the Lost. But illumination is not without its own complications: To read Among the Lost is to be trapped in, to borrow another Mongian phrase, a “cage of light”—a Goyaesque picture of the Central American exodus, and the horrors some migrants pass through along the transit routes in Mexico.

In Among the Lost, Monge tells the love story of Epitafio and Estela, a cruel and morally bankrupt Mexican couple, whose job is to capture, smuggle, sell, and sometimes enslave migrants passing through southern Mexico. Transporting the latest group, they’re separated from each other while finding a way around a military checkpoint. As the couple struggle to reunite, competing smugglers try to steal their cargo and kill the lovers, and the reader is basically guided through a humid hellscape of backstabbing, plotting and counter-plotting, and wanton disregard for human life.

If that sounds sensationalist or overwrought, the fictional elements are grounded by the much scarier snippets of actual testimony that Monge gathered from Central Americans as he traveled the migrant trails while researching the novel. In brutal detail, their testimonies describe a pervasive sense of panic. Braided throughout the text, and competing for raw emotional impact, are also quotes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Below is my conversation with Monge, edited for clarity, in which we discussed his dramatic influences, politicians who should be kicked through the gates of hell, and the immigration crisis in Mexico and the United States.

—John Washington

John Washington: What was it about Dante that made you want to bring his poem into your text about migration?

Emiliano Monge: It’s a question I asked myself a lot during the conception of this novel. Of course, there’s a lot of influence from the Greek tragedies: There’s the chorus, which is made up of fragments of testimonies I collected along the southern border, which are in dialogue with The Suppliants and The Bacchae. But the text most central to the book is The Divine Comedy, and that’s for one basic reason: From my point of view, when a migrant leaves their country and begins the journey, what they’re doing is descending into hell. They lose aspects of their identity, their personality, their voice, sometimes their language, their religion, and, above all, their individuality. They are converted into a mass. And they are always guided by someone. A Virgil. But a much more malevolent Virgil.

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Thanks !

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