This month’s La Española is back with some more extra content from The Spanish Riveter, and this time we’re heading over the pond to Latin America. First, we stop off in Ecuador, where Kathleen Meredith and Liam Bishop review two books from a pair of fantastic, fearless female writers; then we head down to Argentina to read an extract from The Queens of Sarmento Park, by Camila Sosa Villada, translated by Kit Maude…
Kathleen Meredith reviews Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero, tr. Frances Riddle (Influx Press, 2021)
María Fernanda Ampuero has firmly established herself as one of the most gripping voices writing in Spanish today. Though originally from Ecuador, Ampuero has worked as a journalist and writer in Spain since 2005, publishing a book of essays in 2013 detailing the experiences of Ecuadorian immigrants in Spain. She made her fiction debut five years later with Cockfight,a collection of short stories exploring the vicious nature of familial intimacy and everyday violence. Notably, Cockfight is one of many debut works by Latin American writers being published by smaller, independent presses in Spain; the Spanish edition of Cockfight (‘Pelea de gallos’) was first published by Páginas de espuma in 2018. Likewise, Editorial Tránsito published Lorena Salazar Masso’s novel, Esta herida llena de peces in 2021and La Navaja Suiza published Fiebre de Carnaval by Yuliana Ortiz Ruano in December of last year. It’s truly exciting to see the drive of indie publishers to diversify the voices present in the literary scene in Spain.
This slim volume packs a punch with its sharp, unwavering prose, refusing to flinch away from the pain suffered behind closed doors, no matter how grotesque and disturbing it may be. Throughout these thirteen stories, almost all of them narrated by women or young girls, Ampuero constructs a reality that is more akin to a nightmare, revealing the horrors that can exist between the four walls of a home. Like the losing gamecock in a cockfight, the characters in these stories are torn apart, viciously and suddenly, leaving their lives, dreams, and sanity dismembered and destroyed. Every instance of tragedy is inextricably linked to the power men maintain over women, used to humiliate, control, and terrify them. Additionally, the misogynistic cruelty inflicted upon the protagonists is often at the hands of those closest to them, fathers, husbands, brothers, all turned into brutal monsters. This decay of the domestic space distorts established ideas held around home, family, childhood, and class, creating a troubling atmosphere where ‘cruelty always triumphs over helplessness.’
Many of the stories are told from the perspective of a child forced to reconcile the violent and perplexing realities surrounding them and their family. The innocent voice of the child narrator contrasted with elements from the horror genre prompts a protective instinct in the reader, immediately amplifying the tension until the story reaches its inevitable climax. In an interview with BBC Mundo, Ampuero affirms the disillusionment she feels with respect to the traditional view of family stating, ‘to me, there is something monstrous in the relationship between parents and children.’ This seemingly unnatural relationship between children and those that care for them is explored in the story ‘Blinds’ in which the young narrator languishes in his summer home, isolated and lonely. He reminisces about his uncle’s side of the family, who no longer come to spend the summers, and how his mother would spoil and dote on her brother. However, when the protagonist goes into his mother’s darkened room it becomes clear he has taken his uncle’s place; all the boundaries between mother and son are broken, replaced by a twisted, traumatic love.
Ampuero also takes on the topic of class violence in some of her later stories, most notably in ‘Coro’ in which she dissects the resulting violence that occurs as a result of perceptions of status and race. In this story,a group of upper-class women openly abuse those they perceive to be below them, whether it be the household workers or the women in their group. The group is characterized almost like a pack of hunter-housewife crossbreeds, flaunting their newly decorated houses while picking over the life of their most recent catch until the bones are sucked clean:
‘An afternoon with friends, consists of carving up and dismembering other people, impaling them to examine their faults, and about how this same search for the next victim is being repeated behind dozens of gigantic double doors made of walnut or plated steel.’
The title of the story comes from a nickname given to one of the maids, Nativity Corozo, Coro for short. In the original Spanish, coro also translates as choir, mirroring the mob mentality of the women as the story progresses, the madness and cruelty soaring higher and higher like a threatening aria, warning of what is to come. The hunter-housewives openly mock and ridicule Coro, making derogatory comments, entering her private room, playing dress up with her clothes, and then discarding them carelessly on the ground. The horror intensifies when the women direct their loathing toward one of their own. They set their sights on Verónica, a woman with notably darker features who is guilty of wearing the same dress to various gatherings. She is treated as a plaything, first in the women’s conversations and later in the pool, when the women take turns dunking her under the water, her urgent requests for them to stop are ignored in their drunken frenzy. They are finally pulled away by the discovery of another ‘exotic’ object from Coro’s room, oblivious to a motionless Verónica floating in the pool as they return to the sitting room to finish their cocktails.
At times this collection is a tense and uncomfortable read, not only for the intense pain and abuse suffered by the characters but also for its startling portrayals of the body and gore. Grotesque and bizarre descriptions are utilized to blur the lines of what is being described: an animal, a monster, a man, or something in between. Ampuero holds out until each story’s conclusion to fully open the door to the horror that has been behind it all along. This narrative strategy comes to life in the final scene of ‘Mourning’,one of the most horrifying stories of the collection. The story reimagines the biblical tale of Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus. The two sisters toast to the death of their brother after years of enduring his vicious torture. However, their dinner is interrupted by a knock at the door; their brother, back from the dead, joins them again, now reeking of rot, maggots wriggling from his mouth. In the world of Cockfight, even the miracle of resurrection is instead a terrifying turn of events and a guarantee of further suffering for those still alive.
Reviewed by Kathleen Meredith
Liam Bishop reviews Jawbone by Monica Ojeda, tr. Sarah Booker (Coffee House Press, 2022)
Monica Ojeda’s Jawbone is the Ecuadorian writer’s third novel (her first to be translated into English by Sarah Booker), and it revolves around a group of students and a teacher at the prestigious Delta Bilingual Academy. Here, students study classics of western literature. Fernanda, Annelise and her friends, however, prefer telling their own stories; when they find an abandoned building, it becomes host to horror stories of their own invention. ‘You shall not scream, even if it’s scary’, states one of the demanding rules they concoct for the ‘White Room’.
We’re primed for the novel’s startling trajectory. In the opening pages, we see Fernanda tied to a chair. The captor is a teacher, Miss Clara. ‘You and I are going to talk about what you did,’ she tells Fernanda, and while it’s unclear at this point why she’s doing this, it frames Jawbone as ultimately about how we try and find a language for the strange and sometimes inexplicable things we do.
Words in Jawbone, to paraphrase Mikhail Bakhtin and pun on the title, exist in other people’s mouths, and the characters are struggling to make them their own. We’re given insight into Fernanda’s therapy sessions, as she tries to understand her relationship with Annelise and the ‘White God’ (a fictional deity the group invent). The sessions are littered with Fernanda saying things like, ‘I’ll try to explain it’, and ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ Fernanda’s therapist, not unusual for a therapist, leaves her questions unanswered, but it seems that the tools that would allow Fernanda to tell her own story are not being provided or disclosed.
The book is also full of ‘rules’, or people trying to create them; look at the rules the group of friends invent for their stories:
‘The first was that the stories had to be told on the second floor, in a windowless room that Fernanda had painted white; the second, that the recitations would take place once a week; the third, that in each meeting, only one story would be told; the fourth, that the order would be determined at random; and the fifth – perhaps the most important – that whoever told a story that didn’t scare the others had to complete a challenge set by the group.’
The rules are self-fulfilling. If the story isn’t scary enough, you’re threatened with a forfeit. Surely, with so many rules, there’s only so much freedom one has to create a story? It’s no surprise, therefore, that it’s not long before the girls are exposing themselves or making a group of boys jump from bone-breaking heights. And this rule-making gives the novel a pervasive sense of scepticism about narratives, particularly self-narratives. Through Ojeda’s liberal use of free indirect discourse, we know that Miss Clara is, for instance, dogged by ‘maternal maxims’. She is blatantly and knowingly trapped in her mother’s narrative about herself.
This also gives the novel a problem. Instilling the narrative with this knowingness gives some of the game away, and allows the reader to assume causality between events at an early stage. Everything seems a touch apparent and obvious. Despite this being a novel built around set pieces – stories, dares, therapy sessions, kidnappings – there doesn’t seem to be a sense of spectacle. Wouldn’t the reader be better off watching Miss Clara discover the reach of mother’s shadow? This would be in service to both narrative and psychological exploration. But the novel is a testament to how knowing and having knowledge of our complexes, or other people’s narratives about ourselves, doesn’t necessarily mean we feel empowered to live outside of those narratives.
Reviewed by Liam Bishop
Extract from The Queens of Sarmento Park, by Camila Sosa Villada, tr. Kit Maude (Virago, 2022)
Right from the first moment I stepped inside Auntie Encarna’s house, I thought it was paradise. I was used to hiding my true identity in the boardinghouses where I’d lived before, suffering like a bitch with my thing choking inside panties one size too small. But in the pink house travestis wandered naked through a patio overflowing with plants, talking openly about the effects of silicon gel, giggling as they shared their shameful hopes and dreams, comparing their bruises from nights when they’d been in the wars, maté straws stained with lipstick, the smell of armpit and perfume, the television constantly blaring Brazilian soap operas, airing awful childhood memories that left you as exposed as a newborn lying in the snow. It wasn’t uncommon for one of us to suddenly choke up and withdraw only to return later fully clothed and ready to sin.
One afternoon, when I was still a new arrival, we were drinking maté and giggling while they taught me how to cover my beard with white soap, told me about the hormones I should be taking, and the safest places to inject yourself with aircraft oil, when suddenly the door to the street opened with a bang and a group of well-built travesti Amazons came in carrying a bloody comrade. I suggested that we call the po- lice, but the girls knew better and decided to deal with her themselves, out of sheer love. The victim’s boyfriend had found out that he was HIV positive and that she’d given it to him, so he’d taken his anger out on her until she’d passed out.
Under the blood, bruising, and broken teeth, there was a beautiful girl. I knew her. She came from the same valley as me. But she was in a bad way, the boyfriend had given her a real beating. Her face was a mess, her ears were bleeding, and she could barely breathe through her broken ribs. She was racked with terrifying shudders and convulsions. We travestis cried as we cared for her, this shitty world was too full of evil and brutality, too full of senseless injustice, our paths were too strewn with misery. The pain of one of our number was shared by us all. We cried like poorly paid mourners and tried to clean what could be cleaned with iodine and alcohol. While we were at it La Machi arrived, a medicine woman who was rumored to be able to bring the dying back to life with black magic she’d learned in Brazil.
She was a sparse-haired travesti, apparently incapable of making herself look presentable, but she was so tough that we could have used her as a ram to batter down the walls of the cathedral. La Machi shooed us to one side while our friend writhed in pain. Although she was clearly drunk, her teeth were stained with lipstick, and the little hair she had left stank of smoke, we stood aside for La Machi and dutifully bit our tongues. We’d put the patient in Auntie Encarna’s bed, she’d taken the baby into the kitchen and was now sitting with him there to shield him from the nasty side of life.
La Machi began to talk to someone we couldn’t see. “I’m praying to the Virgin because she’s a woman and understands us,” she said, rearranging the patient’s hands while she let out a screech that ran right through our bodies and tightened our sphincters. La Machi prayed, running her hands over the body like she was trying to read it. Every time one of us made the slightest noise, she stared at us furiously and went on praying in her language. When the first gag reflex came, she called for cloths and cold water. Then she took out a foul-smelling cigar from the bag that hung at her waist and started to smoke, looking down at the patient, as though she were taking her time to size up the demon inside of her, deciding how best to vanquish it.
From the same bag at her waist, she took out a piece of dried meat, nibbled it with the few teeth she had left, and started to recite something in a very quiet, intense voice as she inhaled and blew the smoke and ashes over the patient, who coughed and moaned weakly, like a sheep with its throat slit. La Machi was absorbed in her ritual and we didn’t know what to do beyond passing a bottle of wine from hand to hand. Even though it was a warm afternoon, we were shivering. Cold had lodged itself in our minds. Someone offered to put the kettle on and someone else said “Oh yes!” as though just waking up from a nightmare. La Machi told us angrily to shut up and went on praying and praying until she let out a powerful burp. The prayers grew more and more intense along with the burping and gagging, it was hard to tell whether this was an act or she really believed in all this exorcism business, the patient could barely breathe from the pain. Then La Machi took a deep breath, her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she spit out the piece of meat she’d been chewing, which was now a black, viscous substance, and started to scream: “There it is! There’s the one that has caused so much pain! The evil creature, the snake!” I thought to myself that the only snake that hurt us was our yearning for a dick inside of us, a dick to fill and satisfy us, that demanded our money and hit us because that was just how sordid we were.
La Machi stamped the piece of meat into the ground. Then suddenly, she stopped and said that now only the most exhausting part remained: the work of taking care of the patient. She went into the kitchen, found a dustpan and brush and cleaned up the mess before leaving us alone with the victim. Her work was done. What was left was the magic of travestis: cleaning the wounds with a cloth and warm water, swaddling her in blankets, doing her hair, and singing quietly. A very mundane kind of magic. The kind anyone might work, but seldom does.
by Camila Sosa Villada
translated by Kit Maude
You can read more extracts from, and reviews of Latin American literature in The Spanish Riveter magazine.
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