Born in 1982 in Veracruz, Mexico, Fernanda Melchor is an author who encapsulates, in powerful synthesis, a shared humanity and a brutal realism that permeates her varied works. Through her experiences, she constructs intense literary works with a nuanced rawness. Her novel Temporada de huracanes (translated to English as Hurricane Season by Sophie Hughes) addresses violence against non-normative bodies within a rural, tropical space. Appealing to the traditions of brujería (witchcraft) and the singular history of Veracruz, she creates a novel of crimes of passion, hidden desires, and the undeniable humanity of all people. I spoke with the internationally recognized author about her impact and her intention in creating and entering into the dark world of “La Matosa.”
Jake Neuberger: Something you’ve mentioned in other interviews, and that strikes me as very important, is the role the novel or any literary work plays in provoking reflection; that is, giving rise to a conversation among us in order to create a discursive space that influences the book’s meaning; in other words, a process of interaction, interjection, re-signification, which is profoundly important. How would you describe the reception of this book?
Fernanda Melchor: It’s a very complex question; I’ll do my best to try to answer it. For starters, I don’t have much belief in committed literature, inasmuch as I don’t believe literature is a good space in which to deliver messages that have a deliberate bearing on political change within people. I think there are other, better ways: activism, for example. Literature is not as effective because it acts from person to person; only one person can read the book at a time, and maybe they’ll mention it to another person, and maybe that other person will read it. The influence of a literary work will always be greatly reduced in comparison to other types of media.
That’s one side to it. But it’s true that, personally, I like to talk about the present, about this moment we’re living through in Mexico. I like to talk about the things I know. It was very important for me to talk about violence in all my books, and that’s a hard thing to do because violence is a huge subject that takes on many different meanings. You might start out wanting to talk about violence and end up saying pure clichés, but it is still a concern of mine because I grew up in a city that later, in the 2000s, became a place full of violence. It wasn’t like that before; it didn’t used to be like that. Or that’s how it seems, because in reality a great deal of violence came from before. In everything I write, I try to interrogate the social conditions that give rise to this violence, in families as much as in people, communities, and neighborhoods. From big violence—for example, the violence of the drug war (with armed confrontations between the police and the army and the cartels)—to less visible, less high-profile violence, having to do with child abuse or the mistreatment of women or misogyny or homophobia. The novel is a space in which I ask myself questions, not to answer them but to pose these same questions to other readers.
JN: The novel is rich in its representation of non-normative bodies, minds, and behaviors. In presenting certain of your main characters with some type of disability, what were the goals you sought to achieve with this representation of disability in the novel?
FM: I must admit that I usually don’t think in those sorts of terms; they don’t do me much good when it comes down to writing. I’m more or less familiar, but I don’t have a great deal of theoretical grounding in those concepts. If I say a load of nonsense you’ll have to forgive me, but I see it as creative. I’ll give my perspective from the point of view of literature, and of writing in particular. When I was writing Temporada de huracanes, I had to create that community, and its main characters above all. When I read the news of this crime, I knew only that one person had been murdered by one killer and two accomplices. The report said one of the accomplices used a wheelchair. If the news report had said one of the people had red hair, for example, I would have created a character with red hair, because that was what little information I had, and I had to start somewhere. That was how I started putting together the novel.
My father had an accident when I was nineteen, a terrible car accident. He spent around a year in bed with multiple broken bones. He almost died. It left him with a minor limp and scars all over his body—something I grew up with since my childhood. My father should have undergone various operations, but he was so traumatized by spending so long in bed that he didn’t want to do any more. He never did anything about his slight disability, and he acted as if it were something totally normal. It was something that didn’t exist for him, he ignored it completely. It was a very subconscious thing. A long while later, I discovered that the character of Munra has the same limp as my dad. You lend your characters things you carry inside yourself, things you’ve seen, the perceptions of the people you grew up with, the books you’ve read, the films you’ve seen, the music you’ve listened to. You’re constantly drawing on those things, and in truth it’s sometimes quite subconscious; it often is in my case, at least. I let myself get carried along because the process of building characters always has something about it that is—and I’m going to sound quite mystical here—very dark. Mikhail Bakhtin said “characters are doubles emerging from the night of our souls.” They’re like our B-side, and the B-sides of the people we know.
JN: Could you talk a little about the importance of the Bruja—the Witch—as a transgender character, and about the intersectionality of gender-based violence and violence against transgender people?
FM: I always say “the person who did witchcraft,” because in reality the news report I read referred to a man; he was a brujo, a warlock. And in my first novel, Falsa liebre, I had already talked about the relationship between an older man and a youth. I didn’t want to repeat that story again; I felt like I had already told it, and I said, “I’m going to make the person who’s murdered a woman.” I thought that would be very interesting because we can use the witch as the symbol of the powerful woman who terrifies men and therefore deserves to be punished. There is a great deal of literature on the subject, and it strikes me as a very powerful symbol, and one I like a lot. So I said, “the Witch will be a woman.” I started creating the mother Witch first, then the daughter Witch, but while I was creating these characters I realized I wasn’t happy with something. Because what’s more, for me, it was an excuse to talk about femicide. That was something I wanted to talk about: how a woman can be murdered in a small town in Veracruz and it’s as if nothing happened. There are no consequences; it’s natural for them, the authorities do nothing about it.
But there was something else. The relationship between her and Luismi and the men just didn’t fit, it wouldn’t come together. When I’m writing, building the first versions of characters, I write a lot. Before I get around to the novel and its final voice, I write pages and pages and pages and take notes and rework many things. I was in that stage when I’m writing a lot and taking walks. Walking helps me a lot: I go to a park and I get to thinking, always in motion. I think it helps me a great deal to mobilize ideas. So I was walking one day and I figured out how to do it; I had been reading about the practice of witchcraft in some indigenous cultures in Mexico. For example, there is a Nahua belief about nahuales, which are witches or warlocks who can turn into animals; they have the power to take on animal forms. It’s a little like among the Navajo, who also have sorcerers who turn into animals, called “Skinwalkers.” I was reading that the sorcerers can not only turn into animals but also change their sex. So I said, “it would be a good idea to create a character who’s ambiguous, so we don’t quite know what they are.” Then, right away, I thought, “of course, the Witch has to be a different character.”
JN: A painful aspect of the violence in this novel is the fact that some of the worst forms of anti-queer (anti-trans) violence are committed by a figure who shows themself to be queer in a sense; while, nonetheless, this figure is part of other, larger structures (like religion). What challenges did you confront in thinking of how to represent homophobic or transphobic violence? Did you get some sort of catharsis from writing this book?
FM: Of course. I’ve mentioned several times that it sometimes strikes me as a little funny that there’s so much talk about the reality of the novel, because this little town of La Matosa, which is totally fictitious, is based on small towns in Veracruz that I know, on places I’ve seen by the highway when I drive past. But, above all, it’s a metaphor for family life when you’re growing up in a dysfunctional family. I grew up in a dysfunctional family. My father was an alcoholic; he was a sober alcoholic for a long time, and then he relapsed. My mother, from a very young age, has had mental health problems. At first they weren’t sure if she suffered from depression, then it was bipolar disorder, then borderline personality disorder; that is to say, the diagnosis changed as different illnesses came in and out of style. She has always been a very loving person, but also very mentally unstable. I, on the other hand, am thankful for all they have done for me because they made me a writer; they made me a person who is always trying to figure out what’s going on in other people’s minds; for me, that’s what it means to be a writer.
But it’s true that during my adolescence I went through bad times in my family life, and that’s why I like to talk about young characters trapped in places that seem to have no future, where nobody cares about them, where their parents are abusive or where their parents are themselves like children who need to be looked after. That is, for me, a metaphor for growing up in a dysfunctional family, so of course there is catharsis. In fact, it works in an odd way when you write, because I use so much of myself when I make fiction. Of course I have to use things of my own, but sometimes you talk about things about which you’re not entirely aware. When I finished Temporada de huracanes I had to go to therapy. I’m still going to therapy, in fact. It has helped me a lot, but it put me up against many emotions I wasn’t ready to process. It was really a hard time. When I wrote Temporada de huracanes I was also going through a crisis in my relationship; a romantic relationship that lasted many years. I was stepmother to a little girl; I raised my stepdaughter for six years. I was also experiencing many difficult emotions brought about by motherhood. She’s not my biological daughter, but the work of caring for her—mothering her—affected me a great deal, for the better and for the worse. I came up against many things from my own upbringing that I had never processed. It was as if everything was in a frozen sea inside me. To use Kafka’s metaphor, it’s as if this novel were an axe that broke the ice on this sea, and everything started to come out, and that was terrifying. It was not just the violence that surrounded me in Mexico, but also that violence that lived within me; that pain and anguish that was inside me and that came out only through Temporada de huracanes.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.