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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fernanda Melchor explores the human capacity for violence, and grace

Writer Fernanda Melchor in Berlin, May 7, 2022. Melchor has quickly become one of the most celebrated new voices in Latin American literature. Two of her four books have been translated into English.

By Benjamin P. Russell

Fernanda Melchor’s Mexico is no place for fairy tales: Young girls are raped and cast aside, adolescent boys are turned into assassins and made grist for the mill of narcoviolence. The underworld of her fiction offers few comforts and fewer opportunities, an imagined landscape — for some a reality — that might be easier to wall off and ignore.

But for Melchor, to follow any voice other than the one inside her head — the one telling her to delve still deeper into the dark side of human nature — would be “a suicide.”

“Am I afraid that people will think that Trump is right reading my novels? Sometimes,” Melchor said on a video call from Berlin, where she’s on a yearlong fellowship, referring to the former U.S. president’s negative comments about Mexicans. “But I can’t change the way I write just because I’m afraid of what people are going to say.”

Melchor, 39, has quickly become one of the most celebrated new voices in Latin American literature. Two of her four books have been translated into English, and both were noted by the International Booker Prize: In 2020, she was shortlisted for “Hurricane Season,” and in 2022, she made the long list with her latest novel, “Paradais,” which will be released in the United States this week.

But while her writing turns an unsparing eye on the dysfunction and violence of her native Veracruz, Melchor makes clear that it is neither her job nor her intention to explain her homeland. Her novels are less portraits of Mexico than they are literary MRIs, probing unseen corners of the human heart and finding that many of its darker shades are universal.

“Violence has always been a mystery to me,” she said. “Why it happens, how it happens, how it seems like we are all capable of it … I’ve always been fascinated by it all.”

The descent of two young men into senseless violence is central to “Paradais.” The story follows Franco and Polo, two teenagers who meet up in the evenings in the gated community where Franco lives to drink and smoke themselves to oblivion.

Polo works as a gardener in the neighborhood, and largely puts up with Franco’s ravings about “screwing” the neighbor and “making her his.” He’s content to sponge liquor and cigarettes, paid for by the richer boy, while escaping the traumas of his life at home. Melchor’s narrator gives voice to Polo’s thoughts, but is detached enough to mock his choices as Franco’s reluctant accomplice.

As with her previous work, societal and personal mysteries unfold in long, rhythmic compositions. In “Hurricane Season,” these are centered on the enigmatic life and death of a local healer known as “the Witch.” In “Paradais,” they come first in the shape of an inevitable crime, and then as Polo’s self-deceptions are slowly revealed for what they are.

“Her books are about murders and rapes and porn addicts and the systemic abuse of women by men. And in the same breath they are about neglected little boys, emotional privation, and lives bereft of love,” said Sophie Hughes, who translated both “Paradais” and “Hurricane Season” into English. “She writes about horror with humanity, with grace.”

The origin of Melchor’s need to see what’s hiding in the shadows is unclear even to her, though it’s been part of her psyche since she can remember, she said. Among the first books she bought with her own money, at around 13 years old, were stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Patrick Süskind’s “Perfume” and Thomas Harris’ “Silence of the Lambs.” The tales, she said, were “not about the victims, but about the killers, so I think I’ve always been attracted or intrigued by what makes people do stuff like that.”

Later, as a student and journalist, Melchor remained drawn to stories from Mexico’s vibrant underbelly. In “Aquí no es Miami” (This Is Not Miami), a compilation of her narrative nonfiction first published in Spanish in 2013 and due out in English in 2023, Melchor includes her account of the lynching of a suspected murderer on the Oaxaca-Veracruz border. She recalled first learning about the case as a child, “seeing a man burning on TV and needing to know what happened.”

Melchor wrote her first draft of “Paradais” while part of the writers’ room on “Somos,” a fictionalized Netflix account of a 2011 massacre in northern Mexico perpetrated by the Zetas cartel. For six weeks, she would work on the series during the day, “making sure that everything was believable in Mexican terms.” Her nights were spent in a hotel room, working on the book while dealing with “a rough spot” in her personal life: the end of a long relationship that left her feeling “cast out” of home and family.

“My books are a portrait of my soul,” she said. “That doesn’t speak well of me, of course. It is what it is.”

“Paradais” may not be intended as a public statement about Mexican society, but a more incisive commentary on its often haunting facts of life would be hard to find. Men in Melchor’s novels view women as tricksters and deceivers, in possession of potions and powers that make them lose control and turn to extremes. Polo’s grandfather warns him that it’s “bad for a man’s health — pernicious he would say — to sleep so close to a woman,” and Polo himself looks down on Franco for not having “the balls to approach any member of the opposite sex and do what it took to tame her, control her, spread her legs.”

Melchor’s cleareyed depictions of “the full, brutal force of male vice,” as she writes in “Hurricane Season,” are especially poignant in today’s Mexico. Femicides and the disappearances of young women make the morning news on a near-daily basis, even as a large and energetic women’s protest movement is forcing a messy and uneven reckoning with gender violence.

“When I wrote ‘Hurricane Season,’ I was very interested in making sense of the horrible violence that we experience in Mexico,” she said, “and also of the violence that I’ve been subjected to as a woman, and as a woman in Veracruz.”

But while Melchor doesn’t shy away from the broader conversation about the risks inherent to being a woman in the country of her birth, she also finds it intriguing that readers assume she is inspired by that reality and never, for example, by American writers like Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy or Lee Stringer.

“Poverty and homelessness and drug addiction are not specific to one country,” she said.

As for what’s next, Melchor is superstitious about giving away too much. “Hurricane Season” is set to be made into a film, produced by Netflix and directed by Elisa Miller, and two ideas for potential books are in the works.

“I am still very interested in writing books that get people to awkward places,” Melchor said. “I believe that art must leave a wound, always, but I am shifting toward other ways of wounding the reader, not exactly with violence but with some other colors from the palette of human emotions.”

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