María Fernanda Ampuero’s writing is a glitch. Ampuero is extravagant. She describes and names the code. The aborted images behind wicked plastic smiles. She hands you bones before ash. Sweat. With the blink of an eye, she shatters all the mirrors of the world that has pierced her. When she writes, there is no noise—just an image that pricks your eyes. Her own eyelids blink within you.
Ampuero writes Pelea de gallos (2018, translated by Frances Riddle as Cockfight) in the house of destruction. She writes about what rots within any bond pierced by family. The thirteen stories that make up her first collection are a desperate attempt to reveal secrets, silences, neglect, lack of affection, and countless other situations that can be listed in the house of horrors where the corrupted dwell. In these stories, the emptiness of love immediately becomes fear, which is to say, the space of the impossibility of naming fear. But Ampuero tries. She insists, firing off stories like a weapon aimed from each text, titled with a single word that evokes these broken lives: “Subasta,” “Monstruos,” “Griselda,” “Nam,” “Crías,” “Persianas,” “Cristo,” “Pasión,” “Luto,” “Ali,” “Coro,” “Cloro,” and “Otra” (or, in English, “Auction,” “Monsters,” “Griselda,” “Nam,” “Pups,” “Blinds,” “Christ,” “Passion,” “Mourning,” “Ali,” “Coro,” “Bleach,” and “Other”) are stories woven of the golden thread of that which grows sick within a society; a thread that steals the air from her her protagonists’ lungs, leaving them breathless. This is how the Ecuadorian writer formulates a structure, in sets of three, to create underworlds of horror in which home, neighborhood, migration, religion, work precarity, and suicide are dusty, austere floors on which larvae writhe among the rotten, dead bodies of her tales. In not one single blink is she unaware that nobody will get out unscathed after she has cast her eyes over this place. Ampuero, where do you write horror? Locked in this mirrorless bathroom?
She looks at herself in the screen. Ampuero is a migrant woman. A woman who wonders what a house is. She has no tile or mirror on which to write, just a slow drip of words. A liquid that filters down to the bottom, until it hurts your head and pounds in your temples.
“We present for you this evening / A movie of death: observe / These scenes chipped celluloid / Reveals unsponsored and tax-free,” writes U.S. poet Weldon Kees. Ampuero continues. She writes and is reflected in the screen. The whiteness of the bathroom thoroughly invades the space. She continues. She looks at herself and blinks. Where is she looking? Where does she look at her hands and the little veins visible through her skin? Where she blinks, where she writes, nobody gets out unscathed.
Ampuero doesn’t write sitting down. She writes and the idea of not having a mirror distracts her. What mirror? A mirror that doesn’t exist. There was a mirror hanging in the powder room off her bedroom. Now she writes and she rents this mirrorless place, which leaves her a meager, unstable wage. A writer’s wages. She looks at herself and realizes that, above the sink, on that empty wall, there is indeed a blessed mirror in which she can look at herself. She daydreams of a blessed mirror. A wooden frame, three heads tall so she can see her torso and her ass. She thinks about a mirror in which she could look at herself. And she looks at herself. Her inflamed reflection is clear in the bags under her eyes. She needs a spark. Something to light up her face and a mirror. She decides to put on some red lipstick and write. She looks at herself in a mirror, wooden frame, with room for three mouths at minimum. Three mouths with red lipstick. She writes.
She daydreams about a simple breakfast, a coffee and a piece of bread.
Now, in this place where she goes for writing, she becomes other creatures: bitch creatures, women creatures, rat creatures, fleas, spiders, worms, roosters, swine, filly creatures with women’s legs and petticoats, creatures with brown skin and high heels on. Ampuero transforms into other lives, and thus—deformed, unusual, and monstrous—she looks at herself head-on before the wall. She passes through it and sees the faces of others, the faces of the world and her own face. The faces of others are stuck onto Ampuero’s body and she ceases to be a single body. Now she is the other bodies. A definition of life nobody dares to say out loud.
To keep on living—this is, for her, a blessing. To write and remember is also a blessing. She recalls Lispector’s words: “To write is also to bless a life which has not been blessed.” And so, she looks at all the faces stuck to her person’s skin. There is something more than howls, women raped, lonely little girls, and exiled bodies in Ampuero’s stories. There is something unsaid that no longer screams. There is no thunderclap. What exists and is not looked at head-on is silence. It exists in a space of what she writes and is therefore possible in horror. When it is named, it materially becomes a body offered in sacrifice. A piece of skin that has been executed and pierced, rendered cruel action in the flesh. A verb pronounced tends toward laceration, a scarless wound. Slash.
Ampuero tries writing again for the sake of horror, but this is no longer about the scream itself. It is, rather, a catalog of twelve Sacrificios humanos (translated by Frances Riddle as Human Sacrifices); thus, she invokes lives. The author is locked in as she writes, a foreigner in her own country. The plague of our generation condemns her, as it does us all, to spend our lives alone, peeking out just to see the corpses rotting in the streets of the city where she was born. Ampuero writes these stories to stay alive and leaves them hanging from this thread so nobody will forgive them. In their titles, she invokes the horrors that show themselves on the page as single words. “Biografía,” “Creyentes,” “Silba,” “Elegidas,” “Hermanita,” “Sanguijuelas,” “Invasiones,” “Pietá,” “Sacrificios,” “Edith,” “Lorena,” and “Freaks” (or, in English, “Biography,” “Believers,” “Whistle,” “Chosen,” “Sister,” “Lorena,” “Leeches,” “Invaders,” “Pietà,” “Sacrifices,” “Edith,” and “Freaks”) are the twelve stories published by Páginas de Espuma on a date stuck like a dagger into human memory, as the book’s colophon reminds us: “This first Argentine edition of Sacrificios humanos by María Fernanda Ampuero completed its print run on February 1, 2021, the second year of the plague, coinciding with the anniversary of the death of the great Mary Shelley, creator of monsters.”
Ampuero’s stories drown you. They cast you into an abyss without asking for your permission, and she goes with you to the dawn of civilizations. She tells you: see how, from here, how evil was born. Her stories are often short. This measure represents how long it takes a bullet to puncture leather. This time is the synthesis of one who sacrifices oneself, who sacrifices another, or who is sacrificed. And so, the titles of her second story collection are altars to ritual, celebration, or indifference.
In this attempt at writing, Ampuero returns to that place of the shattered image and you, dear reader, see yourself reflected. You are inserted into the emptiness that watches her, even without a mirror. She knows you look and are being looked at because every possibility will be shown to be true and truths are the breath of evil.
And so, she blinks (we blink) and she fears (we fear) that slight motion of opening and closing the eyelids might becloud words, all that she wishes to tell of her face and the other heads that dwell in writing. But that doesn’t happen. Words happen. They pierce. Words appear each time one eyelid brushes against the other. And she doesn’t realize it. Nobody does. And, all of a sudden, arms and shoulders tremble, as do her red lips when she speaks out of turn, as if trying to grasp the uncontainability of water, of language, of the river, of that which is written.
Ampuero thinks writing is water and blood. And blood will be the last liquid she will be able to drink. She writes this.
In time, when she no longer realizes where she has gone, Ampuero utters something nobody else can hear. She is lost when she foresees in “Biography,” “what a fool, she’s insane,” and then goes on to invent a life anew. She blesses it with her definitions. She blesses it with a name. She gives shape to horrors. This is life, we might suppose Ampuero says. She asks herself, where does a world begin? And “it was the start of everything, the start of our lives and the start of that city, maybe of the entire world.” In this fragment of the story “Invaders,” as in the rest of Human Sacrifices (2021), Ampuero reveals the hidden strings of life. For her, this is a blessing. Horror and the impossibility of naming fear, death, jealousy, hatreds, poverty, slavery, psychopathy. Whose is this overflowing, we might suppose she says to herself.
Ampuero needs definitions so her own burnout won’t consume her. Lacking a definition of her own existence, she dares to define the existences of the world, other existences. She tries to speak of a life that’s also incapable of paying the bill, not even for a coffee, not even for a piece of bread. She writes about enslaved mothers who sacrifice their sick, fragile children in exchange for the life—capable of cruelty, power, and resistance—of the degenerate. She tells the story of a little girl who cannot tell her own story because the trauma of her own milk-burned skin stole her innocence, her very dignity. She writes the lives of monstrous victims and the monstrous beasts they have engendered, forgetting that “the measure of the distance between a family is the measure of a family’s pain.”
Ampuero imagines in animals a motion inimitable by sacrificed humans, creating characters incapable of being dogs, prevented from attaining the untamed tenderness of beasts’ unreason.
Ampuero leaves the room. She moves. She goes. She travels. I mean to say, her legs walk towards the outside, but she remains in the mirror’s fantasy and the faces that pierce her. “What a fool, she’s insane.” Ampuero keeps looking at herself in this mirror. Nobody looks at themself in the same mirror twice. Ampuero thinks about water. She is obsessed with water, with life, and with disappearance. She looks at her hands. Here I am, she says, but where did all the others go. Her legs keep moving, but she looks at her hands and thinks about something nobody would believe. She thinks she is dancing with those who disappear. She writes sweat and omen. Ampuero names evil, because good cannot exist if fear kills that which breathes. Ampuero thinks the trembling is not due to burnout. She thinks about blood and how long it will be until it is the only liquid we can drink. She thinks in the plural, about humanity, about animals, about her head. About the pills she has left in the bottle. And she shifts into the horror of her stories. She writes about the layers of the films she has seen. She hears a sound, for the first time, in this place where she writes.
A drop of water filters through and is now white lead. What comes to rust this drop will be white, she says. She thinks about the plumber who installed these pipes, she thinks again about Goya and hunger, about some mother washing vegetables with that insignificant drop of water. “[…] we have seen fit / To synchronize this play with / Squealings of pigs, slow sound of guns, / The sharp dead click / Of empty chocolatebar machines”—we recall, again, what Kees wrote. Of course her thoughts are horrifying. But the landscape feeds off the horror we learned to engender. That’s why she keeps writing.
Her legs keep moving, but she is no longer dancing and the others are no longer there. And her eyelashes get tangled up in themselves because now the words are appearing uttered, screamed, howled, wailed. “Look at me!” she screams like a woman running who will stop who knows where. Will she save herself? She wonders if to give is to break, if to give is to abuse, if what is given, if what they give us serves only to violate (us). If to give is to give. She wonders if the first prison of bodies is the home, when someone lives under a roof. She asks herself, where is the prison of those who have no roof? And then she thinks: what’s more sickly than faith itself?
Ampuero sits down in a café. She orders a madeleine cookie and a latte. When they bring her order, she thinks again about what she said aloud before. She thinks it’s extravagant, and thus are her mornings, and nobody knows if the whiteness of the milk in her coffee is not really milk but poison and that’s why she orders it. Because whiteness is poison and because not having a mirror in which to look at yourself is poison. Because poison is what runs through the pipe that brings water to her sink. And the water with which she just washed all her faces is polluted. And that’s why she’s thinking about poison, about words, about faces… about the mirror.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon