By Deborah Van Hoewyk
Last month, the New York Times profiled a “new vanguard” among the women writers of Latin America (October 9, 2022, “For Latin American Women, Horror and Fantasy Capture Everyday Struggle”). Make no mistake, though, book critic Benjamin P. Russell, warns – the fantasy he’s talking about is not the magical realism we have known and loved from Columbian Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), Chilean Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, 1982) or Mexico’s own Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate, 1990).
Magical realism integrates the magical or supernatural into a realistic setting (although you can easily argue that the magic overtakes the real in Like Water for Chocolate!). The magical elements serve to comment on how the real world works – often very badly. In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita falls in love at first sight with Pedro; however, Tita is her mother’s youngest child, and is expected to stay single and care for her mother until she dies. Mom makes Pedro marry Tita’s sister. Esquivel uses Tita’s magical ability to incorporate her emotions into the food she cooks to comment on the injustice of her loneliness. While magical realism can include death and destruction, the very fact that it combines magic and realism, that it makes the magic “real,” means that it does not lend itself well to depicting true horror and evil.
From the Magic to the Unusual
But there are women writers who have no qualms at taking on true horror and evil. Russell points out that a “conspicuous number of women writers are using fantasy, horror and the unfamiliar to unsettle readers and critique social ills” throughout Latin America, with half a dozen authors from Mexico. The critic finds the trend unsurprising, given the widespread “frustration against restrictions on women’s rights and rising gender violence.”
Russell quotes the work of literature professor Carmen Alemany Bay, from the University of Alicante in Spain, in defining this work as the “narrative of the unusual” (narrativa de lo inusual). Fantastical and horrific elements are presented realistically, Bay says, but leave the reader to decide “what is possible and what is not.” Calling these novels magical realism is “a big, big mistake,” she says. “They may contain elements of magic, but that isn’t the foundation.”
For the most part, evil is possible in the narrative of the unusual. And what is more evil than femicide, the killing of women because they are women? Half of all femicides happen in Latin American countries; homicide is the leading cause of death for Mexican women aged 15-25. In absolute numbers for 2020, Mexico ranked second with 948; Brazil was nearly double, with 1,738. (The Eye has regularly covered domestic violence and femicide in Mexico.)
Among the female Mexican authors of novels of the “unusual” are two who have directly addressed femicide, violence against women, and systematic abuse and discrimination. Their themes are remarkably similar, the integration of what is fantasy and what is reality is seamless, and they both have a talent for depicting their settings and characters in extraordinary language redolent of place and time. For your reading pleasure, each has been rendered in English by remarkably skilled translators.
Brenda Lozana: Witches (2022)
Brenda Lozana, born in Mexico City in 1981, was recognized in 2015 by Mexico’s National Council on Culture and the Arts (Conaculta), the annual Hay Festival of Literature & Arts (held at Hay-on-Wye in Wales), and the cultural promotion organization the British Council as one of Mexico’s most important authors under the age of 40. By 2017, she made the Hay Festival’s list Bogotá 39, the most important new authors from Latin America.
Her novel Witches, translated by Heather Cleary, is really two intersecting stories – that of Feliciana, a curandera (healer) modeled on María Sabina, the Mazatec traditional healer and shaman from Huatla de Jiménez in the Sierra Occidental in northern Oaxaca, and Zoe, a Mexico City journalist who has come calling to report on the death of Feliciana’s mentor and cousin, Paloma. Paloma is a muxe, a man who takes on the appearance and obligations of a woman; referred to as the third gender, they are widely accepted in Zapotec culture, especially in the Isthmus. Paloma, originally a curandero named Gaspar, has transferred to Feliciana the family’s healing abilities, in particular healing through the use of language. The healing power, however, is usually handed from male to male, leaving Feliciana – like Paloma – in an ambiguously gendered position.
Since neither Feliciana nor Zoe speaks the other’s language, the story proceeds in two different voices. Here is what Feliciana sounds like:
It was six at night when Guadalupe came to tell me they had killed Paloma. I don’t remember times or dates, I don’t know when I was born because I was born like mountain was, go ask the mountain when it was born, but I know it was six at night when Guadalupe came to say they killed Paloma as she was getting ready to go out, I saw her there in her room, I saw her body on the floor and the shine for her eyes on her fingers and I saw her hands they were two in the mirror and the shine was on both like she had just put it on her eyes, like she could get up and put some on mine.
Zoe, of course, sounds completely different:
I agreed to write the article about Paloma’s murder because gender-based violence sends me into a rage. I couldn’t take the unending stream of news stores about femicide, rape, and abuse anymore—or the sexist jokes I’d hear around the office, for that matter. Any situation or remark that targeted a woman or someone who identified as one would set me off, and I wanted to do whatever I could from the trench I’d dug at the newsroom. Plus, I wanted to meet Feliciana. I was fascinated by her. When I took the assignment, I didn’t know any more about her than anyone else did: I new she was the legendary curandera of the Language and the most famous shaman alive. I knew that the words she used in her veladas, the ceremonies she performed, had miraculous healing powers, and I knew the stories about the artists, writers, directors, and musicians who’d traveled halfway around the world to meet her. The professors and linguists from other countries who’d gone to see her in the mountains of San Felipe. I knew that books, films, songs and paintings had come out of these visits—I didn’t know exactly which ones, but I knew they existed. I received a photo of Paloma lying on the ground in a pool of blood next to a bed draped with a peacock throw.
Together, Feliciana and Zoe tell each other their stories, their worries and fears, their traumas with violence against women, their desires for independence.
Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season (2020)
Fernanda Melchor, born in Veracruz city in 1982, was, like Lozano, named one of the most important Mexican authors under 40 in 2015. Hurricane Season won the Anna Seghers literary prize and the International Literature Award of the Haus de Culturen (both given by Germany), and was short-listed for the International Booker Prize in 2020.
Hurricane Season tells of the murder of the Witch of a tiny, cinder-block town called La Matosa, outside the city of Villagarbosa (Melchor’s stand-in for the city of Veracruz). The story is told by four people who know Luismi, an ex-lover of the Witch who also happens to be a trans woman who does traditional healing. Luismi’s cousin Yesenia thinks of him as a sexual deviant; Brando is a porn addict who can’t decide whether he wants to have sex with Luismi; Norma is a pregnant (by her stepfather) 13-year-old; Luismi’s mother takes Norma to the Witch for an abortion, which turns out poorly. These four voices surround the murder with clues to the crime, the identity of the Witch, and the abysmal context of life in La Matosa. Melchor’s language ranges from the brutal to the languid, it piles up in ever-lengthening sentences, and is never less than precise and deeply evocative. Here is the opening of Hurricane Season:
They reached the canal along the track leading up from the river, their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare. There were five of them, their ringleader the only one in swimming trunks: red shorts that blazed behind the parched crops of the cane fields, still low in early May. The rest of the troop trailed behind him in their underwear, all four caked in mud up to their shins, all four taking turns to carry the pail of small rocks they’d taken from the river that morning; all four scowling and fierce and so ready to give themselves up for the cause that not even the youngest, bringing up the rear, would have dared admit he was scared, the elastic of his slingshot pulled taut in his hands, the rock snug in the leather pad, primed to strike anything that got in his way at the very first sign of an ambush, be that the caw of the bienteveo, perched unseen like a guard in the trees behind them, the rustle of leaves being thrashed aside, or the whoosh of a rock cleaving the air just beyond their noses, the breeze warm and the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts, that made them want to stop and turn around. But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blowflies, finally recognized what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.