You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Some interviews are hard to do. Then there are interviews with the writer who made you decide to become a writer. I first read her in my early college years, when I was studying journalism and she was publishing (her chronicles, above all) in the most prestigious magazines of Ecuador and Latin America. These magazines found their way to me, by luck or by cunning—I recall they were a bit beyond my means or somewhat hard to get my hands on. My reading friends would lend them to me, and when the contents were good, I acted a ditz and never gave them back. Once I even tore out three pages of one of her chronicles from a copy of SoHo lying in a doctor’s waiting room. I would read María Fernanda Ampuero with an inexplicable feeling, with devotion, almost as if her words were contraband; the balanced beauty in the pain of her stories was what I dreamed of learning to write myself. But I didn’t learn, and I focused instead on writing poetry. In this conversation, I asked her questions I’ve always wanted to ask, and I told her things that will remain secret between her and I.
María Fernanda Ampuero Velásquez is a Guayaquileña, a writer, a journalist, a feminist, and a migrant. This pentagon of identities, each in equal measure, makes her writing make sense. After studying literature at the Universidad Católica de Santiago de Guayaquil, she taught at the German School of Guayaquil. While she was always interested in the written word, she formed part of a radio workshop that would later become Radio City, a collaborative effort between newspaper El Universo and the BBC. As this project was taking shape, María Fernanda worked on the paper’s economics section, where she “couldn’t hit the nail on the head” until her editor at the time, journalist Rubén Darío Buitrón, noticed her talent and suggested she work on other subjects. The paper’s winning forward line came together with her, Francisco Santana, Jorge Martillo, and Verónica Garcés, at a moment that could well be called the golden age of El Universo. She never studied journalism, but she practiced this craft even before the craft of literature, and she says she loves it like little else. She now has a weekly opinion column in the Ecuadorian digital outlet Primicias.
Acts of courage, be they small or large, are omnipresent in María Fernanda’s books: Lo que aprendí en la peluquería (2011), Permiso de residencia (2013), Pelea de gallos (2018, translated by Frances Riddle as Cockfight), and Sacrificios humanos (2021, translated by Frances Riddle as Human Sacrifices). After I ripped out those three pages from the magazine in the doctor’s office, Mafer contacted me via WhatsApp in August 2018 to invite me to present Pelea de gallos in Cuenca, Ecuador. “Nice to meet you,” she said, “we don’t know each other, but I’d love for you to be with me at my book launch.” And I, almost in tears, didn’t know how to tell her I had known her for longer than she could imagine.
With that very book, she attained recognition as one of the indispensable Latin American voices of contemporary literature. Then came the translations, the awards, the major lists, and all the other things that go unmentioned in her unassuming Twitter bio: “My imaginary dog is called Sucio. The rest is irrelevant.” Nonetheless, below this is a pinned post with the cover of that essential book of hers published by Páginas de Espuma, in which she writes, “My beloved daughter, my book.” Thus—in a woman’s key, in the key of women who have been victims of gender violence—is written Pelea de gallos, a book made up of thirteen stories. Brutal, terrifying, horrific stories, so well written that they burst from within, leaving their outer framework exposed.
Mafer says the saying “hay que llevar la fiesta en paz”—something like “don’t spoil the party” in English—was her mother’s favorite. But to her, ever since she was a little girl, this has always seemed contradictory. Her books pull no punches, laying bare broken childhoods, domestic violence, and families with evildoers within.
When I finished reading Sacrificios humanos, I wanted to ask her timely questions. I also wanted to hold back my tears, but I only achieved the former. María Fernanda Ampuero writes fiction knowing that each and every frame of her stories is, first and foremost, embodied in reality. I feel great fear when I read her, and great relief that a writer is naming gender violence in bestselling books, in these pages where there is not the slightest hint of glitz.
Issa Aguilar Jara: Your writing is profoundly marked by migration. Tell me how it has been for you living in Argentina, Mexico, and Spain. You haven’t lived in Ecuador for quite some time.
María Fernanda Ampuero: I’ve lived outside of Ecuador for twenty years. The experience of emigrating is difficult, sometimes devastating and sometimes balsamic, with hints of tenderness you weren’t expecting, but also tinges of a nightmare. You kind of get used to living in that state, not that it’s monstrous, but rather unknown and oneiric. Plus I travel a lot for work. Sometimes I don’t know where I’m waking up, it’s an altered state of consciousness. Only the human brain’s incredible capacity to adapt to the most preposterous things keeps you from losing your mind.
I live in Madrid now. It’s very strange to live in a place where you weren’t born; there’s an alarm, like a smoke detector, that’s always going off to tell you you’re in the sights of danger, xenophobia, disdain, or mockery. When I’m in Guayaquil I know exactly how to talk, I mean, how to make myself understood, how to say whatever I want to order at a restaurant, I know how to read people’s faces. When you don’t live in your own country, even if you have all your papers sorted out, you’re constantly thinking, “I’m a foreigner.”
I.A.J.: There are certain points anyone could Google or glean about your writing, but I’d like you to give us your own brief take on what you write and the interests surrounding your work.
M.F.A.: Well, I write fiction and nonfiction. I’ve worked a lot my whole life, I’ve done almost everything, but I think the hardest part has been migrating. People who migrate are the people I admire the most in the world, the people who have to leave their family, their kids, their parents… That’s a central part of my perspective, my thoughts, my suffering, and, of course, my writing. I speak on that distance, that solitude, on living in a world where you’re constantly being told you don’t belong.
I.A.J.: When we were first setting up this interview, in August 2023, you were busy in Buenos Aires and you asked if we could save it for when you were back in Madrid. Only two days had passed since the murder of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio and you told me that had really affected you. To this day, I don’t know who has it worse with the terribly violent context we’re seeing in Ecuador: those of us who are here or those of us who are far from our families, getting all the news from a distance, in a place of impotence. What happens in your writing when you think about your country?
M.F.A.: Since that murder, the pitch has continued to rise. It doesn’t look like the violence in Ecuador is going to stop. My mom lives south of Guayaquil, and now it’s like Sinaloa. We’ve never lived through something like this. It has always been a dangerous city, we Guayaquileños know the danger, but this is something else. In this context, there was nothing I could say in my weekly column, because everything seems irrelevant to me and I’m no expert in politics, so maybe I would’ve complained about the violence like any other citizen, and I don’t know if that does any good. I’ve fallen silent, afraid. I feel unsafe due to the horrendous ease with which they can put a target on your back, and I couldn’t forgive myself if I wrote something that put myself or my family in danger. You’ve read my work—I never shy away from anger, but it’s not my duty to take the risk of writing as an irresponsible act of bravery.
I.A.J.: Besides the interviews, the recognition, and the great reviews, how did Pelea de gallos change your life?
M.F.A.: That’s a great question, since I was just talking about the altered state of being an immigrant, and that oneiric state is also there when you’re a writer who gives interviews or who, all of a sudden, has fans who want you to sign their copies of your book. I always tell the people who invite me to events that no one can imagine what our real lives are like. At book festivals, we have a breakfast buffet and people make our food for us, but then we have to go home and eat lentils. One day we’re in a five-star hotel only to then go tear at the walls, barely able to pay the rent for our apartment. I never want to deceive myself, and in that sense I was lucky to publish my first “successful” book when I was 42 years old. That was after having lived a lot of real life: I left Ecuador at a young age, I got married and divorced, I lost my father… It’s like Joan Didion said, “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
That’s why I don’t feel like a successful writer, I know it’s all glitz. What’s really nice are the readers, because I don’t write for critics or academics. The academy often makes us feel superior to others; some writers attain a certain level of recognition and start thinking they’re better than everyone else… That’s bullshit. A friend of mine said something that’s really spot-on: he said I’m the most famous and also the most precarious person he knows. And, when you live in that precarity, nothing goes to your head.
I.A.J.: That made me remember what Gabriela Wiener says in Nueve lunas (translated as Nine Moons by Jessica Powell): “My child: Europe is the best place for a Latin American to starve to death and drink good wine. Welcome.” Which leads me to ask: what do you think of literary prizes?
M.F.A.: It depends. I think they’ve done a lot of good for a lot of people, when it comes to purely economic prizes. Sometimes they help sell more books, although we all know authors get only ten percent of sales. I think it’s important to mention that, because people are talking a lot about a so-called “boom of women writers” (which absolutely does not exist), about how well we’re doing and the distribution of our books throughout Latin America. But it’s also important to talk about the work precarity of women writers. I don’t know if men have already talked enough about it or if, since they got jobs as diplomats or anthologists or cultural representatives, they perhaps didn’t have the economic struggles that we have.
I.A.J.: How have you been supported (or saved) by your friends who have formed a Latin American community in Spain? I’m thinking, for example, of Gabriela Wiener herself, or Mónica Ojeda.
M.F.A.: It’s beautiful to know I have people close to me who love me and whom I love. They are, somehow, my homeland; they fight the struggles, they share them, and they live through them. Also they’re incredibly talented—they should be super proud of their books and their achievements. Although we all have very hard lives, because it’s very expensive to live here, it’s nice to know you’re not alone and, when you really need something, they’ll be there.
I.A.J.: If you had been born a millionaire and you lived, let’s say, in the Swiss Alps instead of Madrid, do you think you would still be a writer? What would you write about?
M.F.A.: I think we are all born with a certain sensitivity that is probably shared by people who were born in Paris or some luxurious loft. But how can I deny that everything that’s happened to me—my beginnings, my body, my weight, my hair, my success (or lack thereof) with the opposite sex, my friends, my girlfriends, my siblings, every single situation—has made me the person I am? I find it impossible to think of myself as anything different.
Sometimes I do imagine just one possibility: if I had been skinny, maybe I wouldn’t do this. Maybe I would never have left Ecuador. I say that because we fat girls who had no luck with boys, who listened to a lot of music, a lot of songs not dedicated to us, who read a ton, we’re alone most of the time—we wish and daydream about being other girls… So, surely, if that one thing had been different I would have become a different person. I can’t even imagine the Swiss Alps part—that really is brutal and unthinkable!
I.A.J.: Does literature allow us women writers to get some kind of payback? At the end of the day, might we see some light through the cracks?
M.F.A.: It’s really hard for me to answer that question because I truly don’t believe literature serves any purpose. The clearest example is how Primo Levi’s work didn’t stop the rise of fascism in Europe, or the Diary of Anne Frank or all the books about Chernobyl; none of them managed to put a halt to the far right or the destruction of natural resources. If all the dystopian literature ever written about the end of the world hasn’t managed to stop the horror, what can I do? It’s like screaming instead of running out into the street and setting myself on fire. I don’t know, I do what I can, but I don’t have many pretensions of changing things.
I.A.J.: Your writing talks about real families, with all the rawness and pain that implies. At this moment, how do you conceive of the family?
M.F.A.: I grew up with the saying “don’t spoil the party,” which is my mom’s favorite and the one she’s repeated the most all her life. That seemed contradictory to me because I grew up on a battlefield, with a group of people who shared blood but hurt one another; there was no party going on. I think the family is a dangerous institution inasmuch as it normalizes certain types of violence; some people will disagree with me, and that’s fine, congratulations and blessings to those people who have harmonious families, that build each other up and don’t criticize the bodies or the decisions of others.
I didn’t get this far, to the age of 47, after having made decisions I regret and others I don’t, just so as “not to spoil the party.” I haven’t faced down the whole world, writing what I write, saying what I say, doing what I do, just to put up with even more harm than has already been done to me. I don’t forget, and I think that’s part of my torture and my personality, because I don’t smile at the people who once destroyed me, nor do I want to maintain diplomatic relations with anyone (in that sense, I’m very un-Ecuadorian).
We must never forget that families also come from people who do harm, and they are not monsters, they are what we feminists constantly repeat: healthy sons of the patriarchy. I mean, I don’t write in “happy family” or “happy baby” magazine. If someone doesn’t like my position, they don’t have to read me. If they think the dirty laundry should be washed behind closed doors, go ahead. I wash mine in front of the whole world. I don’t want any dirty laundry in my house.
I.A.J.: What would you tell the 16-year-old María Fernanda?
M.F.A.: I’d tell her she’s very pretty and very smart, and she should show the world she’s worth much more than her empathy, her sensitivity, her creativity, and even her talent for writing. I’d tell her there are many things she should feel very, very proud of and whoever can’t see that isn’t worth having in her life. I would ask her to please be braver and more sure of herself.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon