Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Fernanda Melchor InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, Fernanda Melchor.
Fernanda Melchor: Hello, David. Hello, everyone.
DN: One of your books prior to Hurricane Season is a nonfiction book called Aquí no es Miami which will be called This Is Not Miami in its eventual English translation. That book is a series of true stories that are set in and around the city of Veracruz where you grew up. While Hurricane Season is fiction, the people in it feel similar to the real people in these more journalistic literary pieces that you wrote. The idea for Hurricane Season began itself with a real-life event. At first, you wanted to write something in the spirit of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. I was hoping maybe we could start with your encounter with the real-life incident, what about that incident captured your imagination and then ultimately, why you decided to write this as fiction rather than as another piece of nonfiction.
FM: One of the things I found more interesting about this case, I don’t know if I should call it a case, I read once in the newspaper around the year 2012, I think, I was working back then in Veracruz—I studied journalism, but back then, I did social communication for a university—I was in my office reading the newspaper and I found this story about a witch who was murdered in a small village in the outskirts of the port of Veracruz where I was working and living. One of the things that most impressed me was the fact that the policemen, the journalists, everyone in that small news story seemed to believe that witchcraft could be a motive for a murder. I thought that was really particular about a city. I thought that was something very particular about Veracruz; the spiritual beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery. I was just trying to figure out what was actually behind that crime. If the killer said to the police, “I murdered her because she was doing witchcraft on me,” I wanted to understand what actually had happened, the story behind that story. That was like a seed like something was planted in my mind like a curiosity to find out what really happened. I guess I was just trying to build a story from that kind of information. It is always strange how fiction works. You go around living, working, and doing your stuff and sometimes, you read something, somebody said something to you or you hear a piece of a song and something explodes in your head and you find a story there. What happened was, as you told at first, I wanted to write a nonfiction novel like In Cold Blood from Truman Capote. He is an author that I really, really respect, and one of the first authors that I read in my youth that made me realize it was possible to write about reality and write about fiction with equal quality, with a great level. Truman Capote is a total genius but I was not. While I was tempted to go to this small village, start doing research, find the names, and find everybody who told me something about this crime, I thought that it was not only dangerous at that time because 2012 was a very difficult year for Veracruz—in that time, we have like the presence of two cartels, sometimes, three fighting their position, fighting the drug dealing business, and it was a very difficult time to be in Veracruz. Also, I didn’t think that just by being there and asking questions to the murderers and getting permission to interview them in jail, talking to the police, and talking to the neighbors of the victim, I didn’t think that I could get to the heart of the crime. I wasn’t sure I could do it. It is something weird when you think of the heart of a crime, what lies in there, and why would anybody want to share that with another person and a stranger woman like me; so I thought it was a bad idea from the beginning. Maybe I tried to console myself that I could do that research through fiction to explore these awkward dark feelings and emotions inside myself thinking that in the end, we’re all human beings, and what happens to one of us is practically what could happen to anybody else. It was very different. For example, when I wrote Aquí no es Miami / This Is Not Miami, lots of those stories were also stories I heard even when I was a little child and that I was so curious that I grew up and was my way of finding the truth, doing journalistic research, [0:15:03] graphic research, and these dark stories about Veracruz, but at the same time, I always thought that this story with the Witch was going to be something different, not nonfiction. I like to play with the idea of being like a crime reporter and I toyed with the idea of going there, but in the end, I thought it was too dangerous.
DN: What’s interesting about reading your nonfiction in Aquí no es Miami is that it often feels like you’re reading fiction—and I don’t mean that it feels unbelievable—but it feels like you draw us into a spell or into a scene that I often associate with reading novels. You even have pieces that are written in the second person even though you’re telling it a true tale. There’s this interesting meditation you have on this in your author’s note to the nonfiction book where you suggest that all language, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, doesn’t really represent reality but disturbs it. You quote Sartre who said, “It is not reality that tells stories but human speech and memory.” Similarly, in one of the epigraphs to Hurricane Season from the novel The Dead Girls, it says, “Some of the events described here are real. All of the characters are invented.” I guess I wanted to hear a little bit about your thoughts on language and its relationship to “reality.”
FM: To be a journalist, I think I have an extreme position to consider language totally far away from reality. This is really hard sometimes to explain to colleagues, journalists, and they ask me, “Why is that story real but you’re telling me a tale?” I’m always interested in finding the best way to tell a story, to find a way that’s not only fun but touching. I really believe that journalism, in its search from total objectivity, has lost its grasp on language. I think this happens in Mexican journalism. We have a genre called crónica, it’s like literary reporting, long-form, it’s really hard to explain because it has become a genre of itself. It is about telling a story using high literature. Normally, that would collide with the idea that words are simple and words are only dimensional objects that can be used like utensils, like tools. But at the same time, I think words are difficult also and they turn against you when you try to use them. What I wanted to do was to not take for granted this complex nature of words and I wanted to use words in a way that could produce feelings in the reader or the listener. What happened in that time in Mexico was that either the press was not talking about narco-violence or they were talking about it but it was all about the great capos, like the great kingpins, or the Marine, the La Marina, or the police, or the government, they were like two big sides of one struggle and the stories I wanted to tell were the stories of the ordinary people who had to suffer that violence, that had to suffer the shooting machine guns in the streets, and innocent people getting kidnapped and disappear, hundreds of thousands of people disappearing in Mexico during that time. I wanted to talk about the experience of regular people.
DN: Is that a way you would distinguish Hurricane Season from the popular narco literature genre of Mexico? One way I see it as really different is that you mentioned that it’s not glorifying like the mythologies of these drug cartel leaders but also none of these drug cartels are even in the book, we’re really seeing the effect without seeing them present.
FM: Yes, the thing is in that time in Veracruz, there was a split in society. There were lots of people who justified the violence of what was happening, the war between government and organized crime. They were trying to justify that by saying everyone who’s a victim is because he did something bad. Every victim is because he was with the bad guys. I was trying to write these stories talking about how every one of us as a society had a responsibility in the violence even a small one. But I also wanted to distance myself from the official narrative and I wanted basically to write down stories that I was listening to around me. The thing in Veracruz is people, they have a really strong oral-speech culture. In Veracruz, to be popular, you have to tell jokes, you have to improvise poetry, it’s called décimas. Everything has to be with verbal expression and rhythm. I think this has to be because of our multilingual and multicultural origins. Veracruz was a city that didn’t exist before these Spaniards came to Mexico. It was founded by Spaniards and populated by indigenous people from Mexico. Also, we have the presence of people all over the world in an important presence of an African root in Veracruz. This kind of mix makes a culture that gives really, really great importance to speech, and that means that people are great storytellers but nobody cares for writing those stories. Legends, stories, folk tales are very important in our culture, but at the same time, it is like an art that you practice by talking. I wanted to write some stuff because memory is treacherous for us in Veracruz. In the case of lots of anecdotes that I wrote down, they were present in my life since childhood but nobody could tell me when actually that happened so I had to go to the archives, the library, and the Hemeroteca, and search for the actual information. In a way, it was discovering where I was from and the stories where I was from, and at the other side, it was like training myself to be a writer because at that time, I wanted to be a writer, a novel writer. The novels are like the literary genre that I prefer over everything I guess. I was a novel reader from a very early age. It is just a literary form that I feel really passionate about. I wanted to be a novel writer but the way for me to create literary muscle, writing skills was studying journalism and beginning by writing these nonfiction stories because it was easier for me to find the best way to tell a story if the story wasn’t mine, if it was something that I could trace, search, and investigate.
DN: Because of this emphasis on the spoken versus the written, is there an absence of Veracruz in the Mexican imagination? Do we see Veracruz underrepresented in the literary imaginary in Mexico?
FM: I think the disappearance of Veracruz imaginary is more recent because Veracruz was a port founded by Spaniards so it was a very important place at the beginning of Mexico’s history and as a colony. We always joke and say that everything that’s good and bad entered through Veracruz because it was the only port that existed in Mexico for a long time and the most important. Through Mexico entered these Spaniards that ended up conquering Ciudad de México, the old Tenochtitlán. Through Mexico came all the diseases of the old world, for example, that took the lives of millions and of indigenous people. Through Veracruz, we got what we now, in Mexico, call our culture or mix of beliefs, ideas, and this complex mix of different elements that now make us Mexicans. At the same time, there were lots of presence of Veracruz in the first historical chronicles or chronicles of traveling people, travelers who came to Mexico, Humboldt, for example, had to come to Veracruz so he knew Veracruz very well. There were lots of times that Veracruz was the center of historical events also. But what I think is now in contemporary literature, and I’m thinking from the beginning of the 20th century, just now, I think there’s been a prevalence of the life of Mexico City in Mexican literature. Now you see it, for example, with authors like Carlos Fuentes or Roberto Bolaño—who’s not Mexican, of course, but he did a part of his career in Mexico so I’m going to consider him a little bit Mexican—They always talk about Ciudad de México (Mexico City). Mexico City is this huge monster of a city and it’s super interesting on its own and totally worth writing about. But I think between Mexico City and the north of Mexico, the border who’s given lots of stories about not only narco-violence but migrations and about the perks of the lives of the people who work and cross the border every day, I guess Mexican literature has forgotten a little bit about the south. I thought it was necessary to talk about Veracruz; and what else could I also talk about? One has to write about what is familiar to oneself.
DN: In case you just tuned in, we’re talking today to Fernanda Melchor about her first book in English, Hurricane Season. I think in the American imaginary around Mexico, like you said, we mostly associate the violence of the drug cartels and the epidemic of femicides in Mexico as occurring along the northern border, or perhaps, secondarily in Michoacán. But in reading about and doing preparation for my conversation with you, it was interesting to discover not only that 2018 and 2019 were the worst years in Mexican history for the disappearance and murder of women but also Cristina Rivera Garza, at World Literature Today, was saying that 10 women are killed and 4,320 women are raped in Mexico every day but that Veracruz, not the northern border, is the worst region right now for femicides. Hurricane Season opens in a fictional town called La Matosa with five boys playing down by the river and discovering the corpse of a girl that they called the Witch, and then the rest of the book follows the lives of four different people in the town, and through their day-to-day lives, were able the piece together bit-by-bit what may or may not have happened that led to the murder. I was hoping maybe we could have you talk to us about the Witch as a figure and about the Witch’s mother, the legend and the lore that surrounds this character because while the Witch feels like a real person in the story, she’s imbued with a lot of contradictory fictions that are projected on her from the people in the town so her identity feels like it moves between fiction and nonfiction in the minds of the town people as we read the book.
FM: One of the things that we were talking about the nonfiction inspiration for this novel and one of the things that I found really interesting was witchcraft, because actually, in real life in Veracruz, there are lots of people who believe in witchcraft. I think it’s also become a way to find traditional healing in a country where the health system is very much damaged and not very well built in the first place. At the same time, I thought that witch was a great symbol, of course, that I could use this story to tell the story of a strong woman, feared and loved by her community. I don’t really think in terms of symbols or subjects when I start writing. I normally let myself be carried away by characters. I had this murder, this triangle, I had the victim, the [0:32:44], and I had the victim and the killers, and I had this scenery, this social environment that surrounded this triangle. I start by building and, of course, I must have a character that did witchcraft but at the same time, it’s really difficult to write about this supernatural. For example, I love Stephen King’s books, I love Clive Barker’s work, and I love horror stories. I love the supernatural but as fiction. I’m not really a believer in supernatural phenomena. For me, it was difficult to put myself into the mind and the body of a person who did witchcraft for a living. I started building this victim and her killers through what other people around in the town said about them. When I start to work really on the novel, I would sit in front of the computer and I will start hearing the stories that a lot of women from the small village of La Matosa will tell me about who was the witch and who were her killers. I will start writing a lot like pages and pages about these contradictory versions of who was who and who did who. It was the funniest part of the writing process because, in fact, this was a really difficult novel to write full of difficult-to-digest emotions for me. Actually, the gossip part was very funny. I started building the characters like that. After a while, I realized I didn’t want to write a novel filled with testimonies, just testimonies like voices and voices and voices, I wanted a narrative voice that could take all these voices and make it into one that could do all the stuff the narrator in Hurricane Season does; that could be talking about the character from the outside in a very objective, even cruel way, and then being inside of the character. For me, it was the only way possible to talk about the Witch because of my history and the history of the region. To be able to construct a mystery and the mystery of a personality and not ruin it, for me, I had to do that to build from the outside to the center of the inner of the story.
DN: It creates a hurricane-like structure where the Witch is at the center of the story but never given a voice so the Witch is almost constructed through the storm of all this gossip about her but not really granted personhood herself. She’s laughed at for how she dresses, speaks, or behaves but at the same time, everyone seems to need her, the women go to her for herbal treatments for abortion and the men go there for sex parties even though they’re proclaiming publicly that she disgusts them. But the part of the story that leaps out to me is that the Witch’s mother who was originally called the Witch is not only accused of killing her husband but most notably of casting a curse that killed her two sons. I wondered if that was a nod to the mythology around La Llorona who drowns her own children and then roams the earth crying for them and stealing the souls of other children in the process. Are you making a connection with the Witch and La Llorona or perhaps other Mexican or Veracruz-specific ghosts or spirits that I might not be aware of?
FM: Yes, of course. With La Llorona, a traditional mythical figure, some historians trace her back before the colony, before chiliastic empire even, and I thought all of these stories of tragic women that renounced their sacred obligations as women, as mothers—and the story of La Llorona is a woman who betrays her children to please Oliver so she decided to kill her children because she wants to be with her lover and she’s condemned to spend the whole eternity haunting the city of Mexico, crying, “My children! My children!” (Mis hijos! Mis Hijos!) and they’re mostly stories of women getting punished. So yes, I wanted to play with the idea of all dramas, all these tragic women figures. There’s also another legend in Hurricane Season that’s about the girl in white. It’s a story about if you’re a boy, you wake up at night and you want to do mischief. You go out of the house and you hear a voice calling your name. When you turn around, it’s a girl totally dressed in white and her face is so horrific that you drop dead at that time. Those stories were haunting for me when I was a child. I was one of those little girls that couldn’t take horror stories but at the same time wouldn’t stop wanting to listen to them. I remember going to Paris at the end, we all end up sitting in a circle telling campfire stories but without the campfire. I remember being fascinated with those kinds of stories. I wanted to use them as scenery and symbols to talk about the fear of women. Finally, I think misogyny, femicide at the end, are based on a tremendous, horrible fear of women. The fear of women as authoritarian figures was also the fear of women as her capacity to give birth and to bring about the unknown. I think there’s a mythical instance where women are considered to have a particular strength not shared by any other sex. I thought it was fun to talk about that. I really wanted to write a story where I could understand myself. I’m always trying to write something because I want to understand what I’m writing and I wanted to understand how it could be so easy, in a country like Mexico, to be a woman and to be killed almost for nothing and nothing happens. I think that’s horrendous and one of the most devastating things that is going to take a huge toll, and it’s taking a huge toll already in Mexican culture, the way women are considered to be expendable, how easy it is to kill a woman and not be punished. But in fact, in Mexico, one of the most important problems of our society is not even poverty, I think it’s impunity, it’s the impossibility of finding justice. It is a huge problem that’s taking a terrible toll on the minds and the souls of Mexican citizens.
DN: I want to talk more about that but right before we do, I wanted to ask you one more question about mythologies that are more Veracruz specific than La Llorona because in the fictional story, Hurricane Season, the capacity of the Witch to create curses and poisons seems very much tied to the buried history of colonial violence because the herb she harvests for the poisons literally grows from the ruins of ancient pre-colonial tombs that got buried in a hurricane landslide, and the town itself is built on the ruins and bones of the previous town swallowed by a landslide. In the opening to your non-fiction essay, Reina esclava o mujer (Queen, slave or woman), you talk about how your father felt the center of Veracruz was full of ghosts, also how the very first painting of Veracruz shows ghosts drunk with dirty faces lying in alleyways. I was hoping you could talk about this real-life ghostliness of Veracruz but maybe more specifically about Evangelina Tejera because it feels like the way that, maybe in a larger Mexican sense, parents would use La Llorona to scare their children to not stray. In Veracruz, it seems like Evangelina Tejera, a real person, was used in the same way to get children to behave or to eat their vegetables.
FM: I think it has to do with Veracruz being a really old city and an antique city, for the new world, of course. This year, Veracruz was 500 years old. It has something to do with this verbal quality of speech in Veracruz, of communication. As the stories are transmitted from person-to-person from generation-to-generation, they became legends instead of actual facts. But I think that’s something that happens everywhere. But it is true that Veracruz shares something special that I found in very few series, most of them associated with the Caribbean. I’m thinking of San Juan, Puerto Rico, for example, they are very much alike, some parts of Veracruz and San Juan or I’m thinking also of New Orleans. I have to admit that I’ve never been to New Orleans, I’d love to but it is one of those cities that you’ve read so much about it in novels and seen so much about them in movies that you kind of get to know them. There was a time where there was a steamboat that went directly from Veracruz to New Orleans. That black magic or tropical, coastal, fluvial also because Veracruz has lots of rivers and there is a similarity in food, in flavors that are very much alike. As legends and folk tales are also important in some of these cities of the south of the United States, the same things happen in Veracruz. I think my dad was pretty much influenced because he was not from Veracruz. He came to Veracruz when he was 10-months old. He was born in Baja California, very near La Paz, and his whole family of eight brothers and sisters traveled to Veracruz at that time when it took a week to make that trip with my grandmother. He grew up in Veracruz. One of the first homes in which he lived was a really small one-bedroom house in the center of Veracruz port and he remembered the vibe and legends the women told him. He used to tell me that there was a beheaded monk that used to make his appearance very near the cathedral because lots of centuries ago during a pirate invasion, there were lots of people killed in that particular place. My dad always thought that some of the violent atmospheres, the massacre atmosphere pervaded in that place. I also remember a story he used to tell me when I was a child about a beheaded man, a ghost that walked from a street in Veracruz. The ghost will walk from downtown to the beach and then the ghost will enter into the water and disappear. Before entering the water, he will look for his head because he was a headless man. He told me that story came from, we had an invasion in 1914 in Mexico before the Great War, the United States invaded Mexico—one of the few times you guys invaded Mexico—and it’s supposedly an American soldier who lost his head because of a canyon, a cannonball, tore his head up. Every night, you will see this guy searching for his head in the water, from his heel up to his ankles. I grew up with hearing stories like that and, of course, I’ve never seen anything myself. I will be a paranormal researcher if I would [laughter] but instead, I’m a writer because I understood that there were lies in those stories, they were part of history. I understood that legends weren’t lies but were ways of telling history to the new generations but in a very theatrical and emotive feel with a pathos way.
DN: Yeah. I would like to return to what you were saying just before this around this climate of impunity, the way women can be murdered and disappeared with no consequence. Because even though the Hurricane Season opens with femicide, what I think the book does a really great job of portraying us is the millions of day-to-day everyday way women are diminished. It feels like it’s also portraying a certain extreme form of capitalism. Most of the women in the story are prostitutes that are serving the local oil workers and there are people with injuries who the trajectories of their lives have probably gone off the rails because of lack of access to proper medical care. But also the rumors around the Witch, the Witch’s father, and the Witch’s lineage, there are so many stories, “Is the Witch born of her mother and Satan?” for instance but the real answer seems to be that she’s the product of gang rape. I was hoping maybe we could talk a little bit about one of the main characters in the book, Norma, the 13-year-old girl who is escaping her town who’s been impregnated by her stepfather, is fleeing, and ends up in La Matosa. Can you talk about Norma in relation to some of the real-life scenarios for women in Mexico, the Mexican justice system, and some of what you’re trying or aspiring to capture in Hurricane Season with her?
FM: One of the most difficult things to understand about Mexico is the variety of experiences that one person can live through a life depending on the social class one was born to or moved up to or from. I remember when I was a child, 12-years old, and going on a school field trip, we went to a Red Cross Hospital in the center of Veracruz. There was a maternity wing in that hospital. I remembered the doctor who was giving us a tour of the premises and we were like sixth-grade students, most of the boys and girls there, and he told us that in the maternity, there were two girls who were our age and already having a child. For me, it was shocking, it was impossible. I couldn’t picture myself having a child at 12-years old. But surrounding my life as a middle-class student, I knew there was a society that allowed that kind of a phenomenon. For me, growing up was to realize the different ways a society could be violent toward women. I remember when I was also like 10-years old and reading the newspaper—a lot of things that I write came from the newspaper, in Mexico, we have a special gender of journalistic, sensationalistic journalism, it’s called nota roja, it’s not a section per se, it’s like the criminal and justice information but it always tells in a very sensationalistic and dramatic way like a fairy tale of horror. I remember reading about the raping of an eight-year-old, without saying her name, but that there was the story who talks about a man who raped an eight-year-old and I was like, “Mom, what’s rape?” and my mom was like, “Okay, it’s when somebody does something to you that you don’t like,” and I was like, “Okay.” But it was everywhere. Growing up in that society, you realize it’s everywhere, it’s really everywhere. It’s, at the same time, horrifying and at the same time, you familiarize yourself with it and it becomes totally normalized after a while. If your parents, if your teachers aren’t there telling you that’s not okay, you take it as normal. I think that’s the most horrible thing about the normalization of femicide and violence against women. I think that’s the biggest problem in Mexico. It’s so normalized, something of every day. I think what I wanted to present with Norma, in Mexico, is the rights of women. Once a person asked me about the fourth wave of feminism in Mexico and I was like, “My God, we haven’t even granted the second wave.” The reproductive rights, contraception in Mexico is still a matter of controversy. It’s ridiculous, in the 21st century, it’s still ridiculous that the idea of giving contraception to girls is still—but I know that happens in other countries and I know that even in the United States, there are lots of controversies about it. The only way I have to worry and think about these matters for me is to write a story so I wrote Norma’s story. I wanted to make the reader totally helpless before Norma’s misery, and besides, she’s the most innocent of the characters. Everyone is like, yeah, they’re victims in a way but also they’re responsible for a lot of things that has happened to them, but Norma, she’s so young, so sweet, so clueless about life, and so desperate and hungry for affection. I wanted the reader to be helpless in front of her, listen to her story, and empathize. In Mexico, still, there are lots of people who really, really have a big problem thinking of women as human beings. It’s unbelievable. I grew up in a machist culture, I grew up in a society that was like that. For me, it was very difficult to breakthrough. For a long time, one way for me to deal with misogyny was to masculinize my thinking, my thought was to make myself be like a man intellectually so I could be part of an intellectual elite or a circle. Things are beginning to change and that’s important to say it. I think there’s, of course, the success of feminism in the 60s and 70s. But I think from 10 years ago to now, the activism about, for example, the legal interruption of the abortion has been a really important struggle for women in Mexico. But still, I think they are conquerors that could disappear at any moment. I think our societies, in general, not only Mexican society but everywhere, we’re regressing to conserve otherism to authoritarianism, I think that the world is a scary place and the people’s reaction is always to go inside and go back and gather yourself but we have to fight against these impulses because it is not only about our family, it’s about the human race.
DN: You made a reference to some of the recent helpful things in terms of the recent strikes by women and the Me Too testimonials by women in Mexico. Does that seem promising to you at this point?
FM: It is because women slowly start to realize their role in society, what that role could be, not an impulse role but something with more freedom and with more joy. Women are starting to realize that they don’t have to be mothers if they really don’t want to be, that they don’t have to get married if they don’t want to, that they can enjoy their bodies and their sexuality as they please without having to be obedient to a particular religion. I think the most important change is in the newer generations. I think that the girls who are growing up in a most free atmosphere are happier. But also, I realized that’s sometimes only possible in certain layers of the society because, at the same time as you say it, in Veracruz, rural Veracruz is number one in femicides in Mexico and Mexico, still as a country, I think we’re number one in teen pregnancy which is horrible. Still, there are lots of Mexican inside Mexico, you go to Mexico City and stay in a nice hotel in La Condesa and you’ll never see, for example, the rural part of Veracruz, Guerrero, or Michoacán, as you said.
DN: I want to take this question of Norma as a character and bring it together with something we’ve been talking about which is this question of the way that stories that we tell are sort of an overlay on top of reality or disturbance of reality or maybe simply part of reality. We see that in a lot of your essays like the one about the UFO sightings near Veracruz that end up being planes full of cocaine or your essay about a prison that is emptied out so that a film or a movie financed by Mel Gibson could be filmed in the prison but then he hires people to be prisoners in the prison or actors as prisoners in the prison. But at the heart of the story, Hurricane Season, is another story that is told to us that we see Norma encountering, specifically, it’s a story that pregnant 13-year-old Norma reads from a book called Fairy Tales for Children of All Ages which she seems to be reading to make sense of both menstruation and why her period has stopped. We’re going to have Sophie Hughes, your translator, read that fairy tale for us in English but I was hoping maybe first, you could introduce us to it, anything that you’d want to say about the fairy tale, and how you see it functioning at the heart of the book, and then maybe we can hear a little bit of the music and syntax of that story in Spanish.
FM: It is a story that Norma finds in a little book and she reads. By reading it, she realized something about what’s happening with her body. It’s a story that I really loved as a child, it actually exists. At the end of the book, I thank Carmen Lyra, who’s a Costa Rican writer who wrote that story. I always loved it because of a song. There’s a song which was sung constantly and the two hunchbacks tried to complete a song. It’s weird because every child I know that listens to that fairy tale sings the song the same way. I’m going to read a little bit in Spanish the beginning of the story.
[Fernanda Melchor reads an excerpt from her book Hurricane Season in Spanish]
[An excerpt from Hurricane Season audiobook plays. Narrated by Sophie Hughes in English translation]
DN: We’ve been listening to Fernanda Melchor and Sophie Hughes read in Spanish and English respectively from Hurricane Season. I wanted to ask you about the portrayal of violence in Hurricane Season in any deliberations you had about how to do it. Because you said that there’s something carnivalesque about the violence in Mexico and in your piece, Veracruz se escribe con Zeta, you touch on some examples of this of dismemberments and beheadings. In my own readings, I learned about the warlord on hell, a member of the Gulf Coast cartel Los Zetas who would barbecue his victims or scalp them alive and he would make these phone videos of human spit roasts and hacksaw dismemberments that were called Mexigore and that were used as propaganda films. Your book doesn’t portray any of these things but we are inside the minds of people who are doing and thinking horrible things. It made me think of the review in The New York Times, a very glowing review in The New York Times by Julian Lucas where he compares Hurricane Season both to the Gothic grotesque of Flannery O’Connor and also to Marlon James and his gunmen in “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” Lucas brings up a philosophy that Marlon James has that, I also spoke to him about when he was on the show and that is his belief that sometimes, one needs to risk pornography in the portrayal of violence. It’s something that Lucas thinks that you do risk. Lucas says in the review,
“At times, she enters so deeply into the psyche of sexual violence that she skirts the voyeurism risked by any representation of cruelty.
In his posthumously published novel ‘2666,’ Roberto Bolaño deployed a device of alienating repetition to narrate the murders of women in Mexico, clinically detailing so many cases that they begin to lose their tabloid charge. By contrast, ‘Hurricane Season’ is saturated with the language of abuse: men ecstatically molesting their daughters; boys boasting about how exactly they’ll rape a friend who they’ve heard is ‘the engineer’s twink’; an irate grandmother who threatens her disobedient girls with the specter of ‘lesbians with brooms’ assaulting them in juvie.
By design, Melchor offers little vantage beyond this world of predators and violently prejudiced prudes. Neither type seems able to decouple desire from extraction and domination. The crime is not an act but an entire atmosphere, which Melchor captures in language as though distilling venom.”
I was hoping maybe you could talk about this because it feels like the impulse to write the book is one of critique, it’s to critique this gendered violence that has become an atmosphere. But the voice of critique is not overtly obvious in the book except through the enactment of these voices of people who are carrying it out. I was curious if you could talk about your own philosophy whether it’s similar to Marlon James and what were some of your deliberations around how to do a portrayal of violence, how to show within the minds of perpetrators violence without perpetrating violence yourself.
FM: I agree with Marlon James, he is an author that I admire. I think it was in one interview for El País in Spain that he said that you need a lot of self-control when you write about violence. He gave the example of Picasso’s Guernica, this huge painting, beautiful and horrible at the same time. I think out of control, I care with pace and I don’t know if I have a philosophy as such but I do think that violence is one of those topics that you cannot just write and see what happens. I am always afraid of questions about violence because when you talk in abstract about violence, you kind of sound ridiculous and pompous. It’s so difficult to get carried away with philosophical stuff in which you don’t even believe. I think what’s important for me is that I write from a wound inside myself, inside my own ego. We all have wounds. I write from that gap inside myself and I try to liberate and name the most awkward feelings that I can find there. I don’t really know. My worst fear with this novel was that finally, it came out and sometimes, it happened, sometimes, it happened that it was published and some people read it and said that what I did was pornography, violent depiction of sex and crime, and mindlessly violent just like that, grotesque, that was my worst fear when I wrote this novel. I fear that all the homophobic content, people will think that I was the one thinking. What I wanted to do was to show. For me, the defining was to find a narrative voice that allowed me to be inside and outside my characters so I could be inside them and see what they thought and be outside them and have this objective, sometimes even satirical voice who’s telling what’s the character doing. But it is always a topic I feel insecure about because even though violence as a phenomena worries me as a social phenomenon worries me, it’s not that I wrote about it because of a political agenda on my part, it was something that really deeply disturbed me to understand it in myself. I think it had to do a lot with, by the time I wrote the novel, I was living with my ex, with the partner I had for six years and in those 6 years, I raised his daughter from 6-years old to 12-years old, so I became a mommy, a stay-at-home mom for 6 years. A lot of the experience of motherhood, a lot of my worries of being a woman and being a girl in this society, and raising a girl and raising a woman in the society are depicted in Hurricane Season characters. I really would love to show you philosophy and show you guys how intelligent I am and how well I can use words–
FM: But I am a writer who writes from the gut a lot, and for me, violence is present in all the human interactions and it’s something unavoidable. We cannot escape from violence. As humans, we have the work and we have the obligation to repress this violence, to turn it into something useful for society, but at the same time, we’re just animals at the core and we have to fight that. For me, that’s the devil, the animal-like part in ourselves.
DN: I wanted to take that comment you made about homophobia and unpack that a little bit because there are some really interesting things that have been written about Hurricane Season. I’m thinking of both something that Sophie Hughes references and also Trahearne Falvey at 3:AM Magazine who wrote this, I don’t know if you read this piece, but this incredible analysis of Hurricane Season called The fucker and the fucked.
FM: Oh, yeah, sure.
DN: They both cite the writings of Octavio Paz on the word “la chingada” in relationship to your writing. Falvey says, “An attempt to define the national character of Mexico, Octavio Paz writes at length about the verb chingar, which can be translated as ‘to fuck’. He calls it a ‘magical word’ with various meanings, but which always ‘contains the idea of aggression…an emergence from oneself to penetrate another.’” Then Falvey goes on to talk about how this town of yours (La Matosa) is described by you as ‘the ass end of nowhere’ and that the characters in your book explore the many ways in which people fuck each other over or fuck each other up or simply fuck each other. But I also wondered about this question of the fucked and the fucker in relationship specifically to homophobia and transphobia because as the novel progresses, the gender of the Witch seems less clear and perhaps the men are going there to have sex with a man and they’re going pretending that the man is a woman or that perhaps that this witch isn’t a man but non-binary, or perhaps, trans but also because characters like Brando would only seem to consider themselves homosexual if they’re being fucked by a man, if they’re being penetrated, but not if they fuck them. He is very homophobic but he also is engaging in homosexual activity. In a way, it feels like the war that’s taking place in La Matosa isn’t just a war against women but against the feminine and the feminized regardless of the gender of the person.
FM: It’s a phallocentric society. Now that I think of it, I think this carnivalization, it’s really present in masculine sexuality overall in the novel because there’s a subversion all the time of what’s desire and what people must do with desire. There’s a confusion, for example, with this character, Brando. Brando’s main trouble is that he can’t have what he really desires because what he desires is totally forbidden for society. He has to find ways to express his desire without losing face, without being ostracized, and overall, not being rejected by himself, not hating himself. That leads him to hating himself precisely. But that’s the problem with the phallocentric society as it happens in Mexico. Phallocentric, as centered in the phallus, in the genitalia, of the men genitalia, masculine genitalia, everywhere in Mexico, sometimes you can think that Mexican men are little boys always worried about their [didies 1:30:37] and drawing them everywhere. For example, in Mexico, saying stuff or a thing, you say ‘a verga,’ that is the dick like a bad way of saying penis. They’re always hanging around with the dick in their [1:31:00], [laughs] saying that word all the time. I don’t know much of the psychosocial aspects of this kind of sexuality but I wanted to draw, in the big picture, of course, I wanted to include some characters extremely worried about the genital aspects of sexuality and in the case of Brando, I think it’s clear, it is true. For many men I know, if they are the active part of a homosexual relationship, they are not being homosexual, they are just so manly that they can’t fuck a guy.
FM: I think in a position, feminine sexuality is not as clearly depicted as this immature man’s relationships. I think with women, what happens is I was concentrating on another kind of phenomenon. In the case of the women characters, I was overall worried about the reproduction of misogyny between women and the reproduction of machismo between generations of women. I was worried also of talking about the mother-and-daughter relationship, especially when the mother doesn’t get to fulfill her role as a mother and you have these children who have to parentify their fathers and mothers. I wanted to talk about that too. Besides desire, one of the constant themes of the novel is also love. In Spanish, it’s [curious] because I decided to take out the word amore, that’s love in Spanish, I decided to take that word out of the novel because I thought the characters lived in a world where love was impossible, where love didn’t exist. If you see, most of the characters are looking for love, are desiring to be loved but they can’t be loved because they don’t really know what love is. They’re also searching desperately for the meaning of true love and that’s the education I received growing up and listening to pop Mexican music of the 80s and the 70s. I grew up in a dysfunctional home and my dad was an alcoholic and my mom was a codependent. What I learned when I was a child was that love hurts like a Roy Orbison song. Love has to hurt. Love is sacrifice. The way you have to love is love the other person more than you love yourself. That mixes also with that Catholic feel. That’s the lesson I received when I was a child. For me, growing up, finding love, finding a true relationship of trust was a very difficult task. I have to go through, certainly, a deconstruction of that idea of love as a sacrifice but that is really present in the novel. I think in Mexico, it has received a lot of attention from readers because a lot of people from my generation have the same trouble. It is not only a novel about the dark realities of the Mexico of today, La Matosa is also a metaphor of my own childhood, of what it is like to grow up in a home that sometimes can feel like a concentration camp.
DN: I also, just to speak to your fears around the pornography or the homophobia, at least for me as a reader, and that’s one of the marvelous mysteries of this book for me is that we’re so steeped in misogyny, violence, and homophobia in the book but it never once crossed my mind that you, or the book itself, were homophobic, misogynistic, or pro-glorification of violence. I don’t know how you do it, I know you don’t have a philosophy to share [laughter] but it’s fascinating to me to feel so close to the voices of these people who don’t necessarily share your worldview and yet feel like the novel still maintains some distinct identity from those people successfully.
FM: I was really impressed a few years ago when I found out, a little bit late, I guess, that JT LeRoy, the writer, was in fact a woman, Laura Albert. For me, it was a lesson because I’m a great fan of JT LeRoy’s books, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. I love his characters and the atmosphere. For me, reading interviews of Laura Albert trying to explain why she did that, she deliberately lied—well, you know the whole story better than me—but for me, it was like a lesson about how you can totally detach yourself when you write and you get to be someone else totally. I always wanted the writing process to be about becoming someone else, about trying to understand myself through the invention of someone else of these experimental egos we call characters and not only an act of ventriloquism. I really wanted to believe in the possibility of being the other. One of the things that amazed me the most when I started reading novels, I remember the first novel I read was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and I really loved it, I was seven-years-old and suddenly, I wasn’t just a small girl lying in bed in her bedroom in a small middle-class home in a coastal city in Mexico but I was a boy sailing through the Mississippi now having amazing adventures. That’s the power of literature. I wanted to be able to do that. I promised after I read that novel that I will become a writer. That’s the only thing that ever interested me since that age. I always wanted to be a writer and for me, there was never a plan B not to be a writer. I even studied journalism because I wanted to have [1:39:29], a profession to be able to write. In Mexico, it’s strange because we don’t have so much of these creative writing schools, it’s more like just study literature, just study that to be a critic, or a literature teacher but I wanted to have a profession to have a salary and have a paycheck every month and dedicate myself to write whenever I could. I thought journalism was a good choice because it meant working with words also. It doesn’t really look like but I’m really shy, in fact, and I wanted to study journalism because that will push me towards people, push me towards reality, push me to do stuff and not just lay around in bed reading novels. I think it was a great decision and one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in writing, I’ve learned from the practice of journalism.
DN: It’s interesting because, to return back to your book of nonfiction essays, one of the first things you talk about in your author’s note to your book of nonfiction is the origins of the word fiction that in Latin means “to shape” and that all stories are “fictitious” in the sense that they are shaped and cannot be mistaken for real life. Maybe that would be an interesting place to talk just a little bit about the shape of the book. One of the things that jumps out to me as a reader other than the hurricane structure that you have this silence of the witch being at the center is that your sentences are super long and propulsive and sometimes, these sentences can go on for many pages. Each chapter itself is one long uninterrupted paragraph. I wondered if you could speak about that. Is that coming from a specific lineage of writers or is that something you discovered yourself doing without much thought? Talk to us about what’s going on there.
FM: Yes. The form of the novel came out of necessity. I needed a voice that could hold together lots of heterogeneous material, like voices but also a narrator, but also dialogues and a voice that could go back to the past decades and then move forward almost to the present to the actual instant. It was very difficult to find a voice like that considering the novel started like a chorus of voices of women talking about a murder, talking about the Witch. I always thought that I should preserve the mystery of the Witch as much as I could. I always had this intuition because she’s such a strange character. It is one of the most loved characters of mine. She’s so contradictory. She seems to be so many things at the same time. Like a real witch, it’s like her shape is always changing. Her shape is like she’s made of crows, like dark birds that [transform] and I wanted to give that impression. What we know about her is always what the women are telling or what other people are telling. As we go deep into the novel with each character’s testimony, we discover another truth. I like that a lot about the novels that they have surprises, that they have these turns and these constant surprises and moments of discovery that the writer allows the reader to have and that the writer constructs with the reader because a book without the reader is nothing, it’s just paper and printed letters, and a book only exists in the mind of the reader. In trying to construct this mystery of the Witch, I always thought that if I went inside her thoughts and reveal too much about her, I was going to be disappointed and the reader was going to be disappointed because it was better to build the fear of the Witch in mystery than to reveal too much. There’s also a void inside the Witch, in her personality, in the way she was used by her own mother to be a witch without having a choice, there’s also this hurting gap inside her also looking for love like everyone else in the book but I didn’t want to say it like that, I wanted to be more subtle about it. I wanted to construct this character differently the same with Luismi, the character of Luismi also is very much silent, we never get to see him from the inside, we never get to see what he really thinks about lots of things, we never get to understand why he did what he thought he had to do. I think it’s a mystery.
DN: I want to ask you a little bit more about silence in your work because not only do we have the calm in the eye of the hurricane being that the central characters themselves don’t have a point of view that they’re silent and also perhaps the eye of the hurricane is also the absence of love or maybe it’s love and the search for that love that’s absent. But I was also reading your acceptance speech when you won the Anna Seghers prize in Germany and you talked about how your mother’s side of the family were Jewish refugees who found safe harbor in Mexico but that members in your family had very different ways to approach what had happened to them, that your great aunt, Lucie, a doctor who was sent to Auschwitz, after the war, wrote a memoir called Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Story where she bore witness to the atrocities she encountered; but your grandfather, Lucie’s brother, he didn’t find a creative outlet to deal with what happened, in fact, he prohibited your grandmother and great aunts from learning German, hid your family’s Jewish past as a secret, and insisted that his descendants be considered only Mexican and not Jewish. I thought about these two different pasts when you said to Sofie Hughes in Granta Magazine, “Even if literature deals with violence, it actually fights our worst human tendencies because it favours language over silence, and empathy over hate. For me, this means I must try to tell a story in a way that prompts the reader to wonder, what are the true differences between her and this ruthless character she’s reading about?” I wondered if you see this belief in language over silence. Is it somehow connected to this inherited trauma of your own ancestors that, in some way, you’re choosing Lucie’s path rather than Manfredo’s path?
FM: Yeah. Definitely. I think it’s hard to be the person in a family who decides to break the silence. In this fight between good and evil and light and dark, there’s also the [worth] and there’s silence. It doesn’t necessarily mean that dark is bad or evil is not necessary or that silence is also not necessary. I’m trying to understand, because each interview, each time I have to try to explain what I did in Hurricane Season, each time I have the opportunity to express myself, even in another language, I had to lean in French also and with German translators, it’s always a challenge to try to express the real nature of what I wanted to do. I guess that we also need silence the same as we also need dark and the same we also need evil to exist in the world. I was trying to honor silence in the character of the Witch and in the moment of the crime. For me, it was a matter of respect. I was trying to shed light into a phenomenon, into a crime, into a society, a small society, rural society in Mexico, into a very much particular family or families. At the center of this crime, in the end, there were two people, and I just couldn’t go inside without thinking I was going too far so I had to leave a little mystery behind because as humans, we also need that kind of mystery. I don’t know how, it’s like mystery and silence is that little piece missing in those small puzzles, this quadrangular puzzle where you have to shift the little pieces and there’s always a blank space that allows the other pieces to move, silence works that way and secret works that way. One of the things that is the most beautiful about literature is trying to resolve that enigma, we now have to resolve it at the same time, just being able to sense it is already a beautiful experience. I thought that novel needed that. I think there are always things of which it is better not to speak about at that precise moment to not break an effect.
DN: I will be speaking to your translator Sophie and one of the things that I want to talk to her about for the bonus audio is the difficulty or challenges of translating your language which is very colloquial and Veracruz-specific, a lot of profane vocabulary that I imagine would be really difficult to translate into English. But you’ve described that you wanted a language to be coastal and torrid and that you looked to Juan Rulfo who, the way you described it, managed to paradoxically create a new Mexican language with the same old words. But what’s interesting to me is that while your project is very deeply particular and very regionally specific, you often are mentioning influences that are American also, like you’ve mentioned, JT LeRoy and Stephen King, but you’ve also mentioned in other places just in general, not specific to Hurricane Season, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Dennis Cooper, William Faulkner, and you do some translation from English to Spanish. I guess I was just curious how, if at all, you see these interests or influences from the anglophone world finding themselves in Hurricane Season. Is there any of that cross-cultural pollination happening?
FM: I definitely think it is happening. One of the novels that changed forever what I thought was a novel was Blood Meridian from Cormac McCarthy. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of A. M. Homes, I really love her short stories and she’s amazing.
DN: I love her short stories too.
FM: She’s like a straight arrow that goes just into the mark. I think it’s pretty common for Mexicans to absorb and consume American culture. What is more common is mainstream culture, mainstream TV, and mainstream music, but literature has always been important for me. I think Spanish as a language and Latin American as a culture, we have a language that’s really welcoming, open to other languages. There are lots of books that are translated to Spanish so we Mexicans can read a lot of books. We tend to read lots of books that are written by many people from all over the world and, of course, Americans are an important part. For me, it has a lot to do with cinema because I remember when I was 14 or 15-years old and I got a bootleg copy of Blue Velvet on a VHS tape, I saw David Cronenberg Videodrome also, for me, that kind of cinema was like an entrance to a whole different way of telling things and a whole different aesthetics. I remember for me were also turning points, this movie Gummo directed by Harmony Korine or Kids by Larry Clark and I don’t know why, I think there was, long time ago, maybe a taboo of consuming American products, cultural products, thinking it was a bad thing but I don’t really think nobody else thinks that. The states have few of the most impressive artists in all fields of the human arts so why not profit from that? Why not learn from that? I learned a lot from David Lynch, I loved his work, I loved his sceneries, and his images. For me, he’s such an inspiring artist. He’s really, really inspiring.
DN: Before we finish, I want to return to the beginning of the book. We talked about one of the epigraphs from the novel The Dead Girls, but there is a second epigraph that’s an English-language epigraph from Yeats, a Yeats poem called Easter, 1916 that goes,
“He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.”
And I wondered about your choice to have one of the epigraphs be a poem that describes an Irish rebel being executed by a British firing squad, but also with the Easter imagery of something being born or resurrected out of something terrible.
FM: I think I meant it more in an ironic way when I decided to use that epigraph. The intention was ironic but I don’t think I managed to explain that a lot. But I think deep down in some cases of femicide of men killing women in the [trolls] of hate, passion, and passionate crime, as we call it, femicide, sometimes, I think for some men—some junk men—killing women is rebelling, killing women is, I don’t want to say too much of the novel, but I think Brando, they do what they do because they cannot kill their mothers, they feel aggravated by their mothers so they turn their violence to other women. I was trying to actually say that there is no beauty in that, there is no heroism, there is no act of liberation or freedom, there is just a horrible murder. I was trying to be ironic but maybe after talking with a friend, we got to the conclusion that an epigraph is not just the perfect place to be ironic.
DN: What are you working on now and what can we expect from you next?
FM: I’m working on a new novel and I’m polishing the final draft. It’s been a very interesting work. I cannot reveal much because that will make me feel really bad afterwards. [laughter] I already know how that goes.
DN: Let me ask you this because I saw you on Twitter, you tweeted in Spanish “finished.”
FM: Ter mi ne.
DN: Yes, which suggests you finished a draft, I’m guessing, which perhaps you’ve unlocked the secret of how to write while we’re under quarantine in a pandemic.
FM: I think it was a matter of mental health for me. I was working in this draft from forever, from a year ago and I really wanted to have it done. What happened was that I was so focused on the draft that I totally lived out the Covid and quarantine and coronavirus and people dying. I know it sounds terrible but for me, it was a matter of survival, of surmounting anxiety. Now that I finished, it’s like everything fell over me like a building. I barely begin to manage all the losses that I’m facing this year, for example, due to coronavirus. Yeah, you can lock yourself up and write your asses off [laughter] but in the end, reality will come to get you.
DN: It sounds like a great strategy though to stave off reality by continuing to produce more art.
FM: As I told you, I didn’t have any choice, it was my way of dealing with the situation. It was nice because I didn’t have so many distractors, I wasn’t tempted to go to Paris, for example, so I think it worked.
DN: Yeah. Well, thank you so much for being on Between the Covers today, Fernanda.
FM: Oh, thank you, David. Thank you for the invitation. This has been a wonderful experience.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Fernanda Melchor, the author of Hurricane Season. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.