Jennifer Clement in conversation with PEN International, Hay-on-Wye festival
On 28 May 2014, the Mexican-American writer and PEN Mexico former president (2009-2012) Jennifer Clement took part in a PEN International Free the Word! event at the Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. In conversation with the Panamanian- American writer Cristina Henríquez and the British journalist Gaby Wood (Head of Books for The Daily Telegraph), Jennifer spoke about her new novel Prayers for the Stolen (Hogarth, 2014). The story is told by Ladydi Garcia Martínez, a young girl whose remote mountainside community in Guerrero state has been decimated by mass male emigration to the USA and the violence of drug traffickers, whose kidnapping of girls forces them to dress as boys and hide in holes in the ground. Central to Ladydi’s narrative is the abduction of one of her close school friends, who later returns to her community, and the discovery of what happened to her while she was gone.
What made you want to write about girls and women stolen by drug traffickers in Mexico?
The subject took hold of my heart and wouldn’t let go – I couldn’t not write about it. During the discussion yesterday I mentioned how when I was visiting prisons the queues of people waiting to visit the men inmates were so much longer than those waiting to see the women – the image of that was so painful to see. I asked myself: what value do women have? If you want to know, just go and look at those queues.
I was struck by a phrase in your afterword to your novel: ‘Mexico is a warren of hidden women’. I think you’re referring to more than girls hiding away in holes in corn fields?
The image of those holes was what gave me the novel: the idea of girls hiding in them like rabbits, their hearts beating ferociously. It was an indigenous woman who barely spoke any English who told me about the holes in her far-off community in Guerrero state. She told me that her own mother had been sold for two goats; this woman was around 40 so her mother must have been around 60 or 70. So women having no value is a historical phenomenon, it’s not new; but then there wasn’t so much money involved. Now we’re not talking about two goats. There aren’t very good statistics on this subject in Mexico but in Atlanta, the number one city in the USA for trafficking, the average pimp makes US$33,000 per week.
There are women in hiding all over the country in all kinds of situations: government protection programmes, NGO protection programmes, hiding in their neighbours’ houses.
There are bits and pieces of things that are real in my fiction writing. I once took in a girl in this situation who then went back to her abusive husband; he killed her by putting rat poison in her Coca Cola but was never prosecuted.
I was especially interested in the drug trafficking side of this [phenomenon] but in women’s shelters there are victims of everyday domestic violence. When I was a student at New York University I lived above a centre for rape victims. There were no cell phones in those days so they asked me if I could answer their phone at night – they literally passed it through the window and upstairs to my apartment. When I talked to policemen as part of that work, it turned out that all police stations in the US know that the one big night for domestic violence is Super Bowl night.
Why did you choose to tell the story from the point of view of the girl whose friend was stolen rather than the stolen girl herself, Paula?
I didn’t choose her, she chose me. I’ve always found it oxymoronic that rural communities [in Mexico] are full of little girls called Ladydi who don’t know what carrying that name means. That produced tenderness in me. And it provided a platform for me to play with contrasts. Most writers know the importance of the names of their characters, for example Gabriel García Márquez. There’s no accident in what you name a character.
I never considered writing as Paula. Ladydi’s voice was so strong – a girl who never expects anything better, who accepts her lot completely – unlike in the West, where we expect a better education, a better job. Ladydi doesn’t have that; instead there is acceptance. What she has are small acts of revenge. We’ve all heard about waiters spitting in the soup. There’s a scene in my book in a taxi where the driver comes on to Ladydi in a slimy way and so she urinates over his back seat. All women have experienced these moments and revenge matters. I think at the moment when my character Aurora puts rat poison in the coffee of the men [who have been abusing her], the reader is happy. These small acts of revenge are retribution against the oppressor: oppressed people seek out little acts of revenge in order to preserve their dignity.
Rendering a foreign language in English – in this case Spanish – is difficult to do well and I think you manage it. You’ve spoken about your decision not to include Spanish words or concepts at all in your rendition of Spanish – why was this and how did you arrive at this way of working?
I’m not a Chicana [Mexican-American woman raised in the USA] writer, I’m a Mexican writer who works in English. I don’t relate to Chicana literature as a tradition. My tradition comes from the Spanish classics and Mexican literature of the Twentieth century and as far back as Sor Juana [Inés de la Cruz]. I studied at a British school run by a Welshman – rather than an American school – and I have a degree in English literature. My maternal language is English, although I’ve also written in Spanish.
With a book that takes place in Mexico it really jars to include a word in Spanish because it’s supposed to be in Spanish already. I wanted to create a language that wasn’t spattered with italics, a mood or a sensibility. In his introduction to my last book of poetry [The Next Stranger’], W.S. Merwin wrote: “She writes in English but she dreams in Spanish.”
Do you consider yourself to be Mexican or North American?
I consider myself to be both Mexican and North American. My mother is a North American painter who lives in Mexico; my father was also North American. But we didn’t live the lives of Americans in Mexico. I went to a British school where artists and intellectuals sent their children, including the children of Gabriel García Márquez and DBC Pierre. It was very international and cosmopolitan – like the Mexican intellectual world itself. Mexican poets really know what’s going on in the world, they read poetry from other countries, they’re very well informed; whereas North American poets don’t know anything else.
The problems that your protagonists face mainly seem to be due to the drug trade and migration to the USA, as well as machismo and misogyny. What are the solutions to these problems?
There have to be local and global solutions. What can we do in the world to give young girls and women status, and how can we make them valuable? Two months ago Republican senators in the US Senate voted against equal pay for women. I couldn’t believe it. How can that be? How is it even be under discussion? If we have a woman president, are we going to pay her 30 per cent less than a male president? What happened in Nigeria [the kidnapping of more than 240 schoolgirls by the armed militant group Boko Haram] is just an example of what’s happening all over. For example child brides in Afghanistan: young girls being forced to marry 70 year-old men. In China few women own property. Everywhere you look it’s happening.
In terms of drug trafficking, in Mexico people quickly realised that they didn’t need to be the middle men for Colombia, so they took charge of the trafficking. They have infiltrated local state governments and can move around the world in ways you can’t imagine, via the banking system for example, and they have riches you can’t imagine. Surface to air missiles have been found in Mexico. These have to be transported on huge trucks – how do traffickers get them? It’s hard to imagine the power and wealth that cartels have. Legalisation of drugs would be a great thing – although in fact the cartels make a lot more money by trafficking people, extortion and kidnappings.
How have things changed under President Enrique Peña Nieto, if at all?
Peña Nieto’s position is that he wants the media not to cover these problems, he wants Mexico’s image to be changed and to appear less corrupt. It’s a huge campaign.
So his interest is that things should appear to have changed rather than changing them?
As a former president of PEN Mexico, you’re well aware of PEN’s monitoring and reporting on the violence against journalists in the country and the rampant impunity.
If the statistics for the killing of journalists have gone down it’s because journalists are scared. What I call ‘censorship by bullet’ has worsened. Journalists are intimidated and practice self-censorship in areas such as Veracruz, Guerrero and Tamaulipas (who knows what’s going on in Tamaulipas?). Newspapers have even stated in their editorial pages that they’ll only cover baptisms and international events, not crime. So the intimidation has worked. Journalists either don’t work in these areas or they self censor. With no free press there can be no democracy.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing non journalist writers in Mexico today?
So far, writers and artists in Mexico are not victim of the same type of aggression. Writers such as Lydia Cacho receive threats because of their investigative journalism. No novelists or poets are under threat. The murder of Javier Sicilia’s son was not connected to his writing. So I’d say the problems facing Mexican writers are not specific to Mexico.
What do you see as PEN’s role in Mexico?
I told a group of Welsh writers that I met here yesterday that I’ve witnessed the power and wonder of PEN, and how quickly a country can become so fragile. PEN Mexico was one of the first groups to join PEN International, it supported all PEN’s campaigning, it published a tiny magazine and organised poetry readings – it was all very civilised. But suddenly, in my lifetime, I watched how Mexico became a very fragile place, and so PEN Mexico had to change too. So I told the Welsh group that there may be the structures in place to support the Welsh language now, but these can disappear in an instant.
A great catalyst for change is shame. PEN is an important body to create a sense of shame in governments. In PEN Mexico we were able, with the support of PEN International and local groups, to help change a law – the killing of a journalist is now a federal crime. That was my hope as president of PEN Mexico and my strategy was to create international pressure that would create shame in the Senate, the Congress and the Presidency. PEN Protesta! was also the first time that the whole executive of PEN International was brought together in Mexico in 90 years. We published a letter addressed to the writers and journalists of Mexico, rather than to the authorities – it was very powerful. The letter was signed by Nobel laureates and writers from all over the world. No NGO could do that except PEN.
What should be the next steps for PEN?
The conversation of our time – and I’m very happy to see that PEN International is taking it seriously and leading on this issue because we’re making history right now – is Snowden, Assange and the question of privacy. How does this new technology affect our freedom? This is the conversation of the present and the future, it’s crucial. This is the really big question for PEN now.
Does this question resonate in Mexico as it has in, for example, Brazil, where we learned that the President’s personal phone had been tapped by the National Security Agency?
It doesn’t resonate as much as it should. Telephones have always been tapped [by the state] in Mexico so there’s an acceptance that that’s how things work. There have been some scandals over the years, for example when Lydia Cacho was able to prove that there was a taping of the governor [of Puebla] discussing her case – who taped it? But there’s no real discussion or outrage in the country about someone being able to enter your private life. The thing is that so frequently what you’ve done in your private life can be used against you, even though what you might read or look at is not necessarily what you might endorse. For example I have a book about women mass murderers because I needed to do research in that area – it doesn’t mean I’m a murderer.