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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

For Latin American women, horror and fantasy capture everyday struggle

Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin, whose “Seven Empty Houses” is a National Book Award finalist for works in translation, in Seoul on Oct. 3, 2022. Aiming to unsettle readers and offer social critique, writers like Schweblin and Mónica Ojeda are in a new vanguard.

By Benjamin P. Russell

In a 1960 article in The New York Times, translator and critic José Vázquez Amaral reported “striking literary news from Mexico and Central America”: Women writers were “on the march.”

Among those at the vanguard, he wrote, were Amparo Dávila and Guadalupe Dueñas, Mexican authors whose eerie tales combined the fantastic with the everyday and challenged daily constraints placed on women at the time. Before proceeding to a “somewhat less enthusiastic report” on the literary doings of men, Vázquez noted that, thanks to women, in no other period in Latin American history had “so many fine writers appeared so suddenly and triumphantly.”

Six decades later, Dávila’s and Dueñas’ literary genealogy — not to mention that of Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and José Eustasio Rivera — is alive and well. In Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador and beyond, a conspicuous number of women writers are using fantasy, horror and the unfamiliar to unsettle readers and critique social ills. Prize committees, inside and outside Latin America, are taking note.

“It’s something we see across the region, a new sensibility,” said Carmen Alemany Bay, a literature professor at the University of Alicante in Spain who coined the term “narrativa de lo inusual” (narrative of the unusual) to describe the current wave of writing from the region.

“They present situations in which the reader is ultimately the one who decides what is possible and what is not. That’s where the richness of this literature lies,” Alemany Bay said.

These “unusual” authors include Mexican writers Cecilia Eudave and Daniela Tarazona, Peruvian Claudia Ulloa Donoso, Bolivian Giovanna Rivero, and many more. Their tales and techniques are diverse: Some are simply strange, as in Ulloa’s dreamlike 2021 short-story collection, “Little Bird” (Deep Vellum). Others push more fully into fantasy, mixing with traditional gothic horror modes: In Mariana Enríquez’s monumental “Our Share of Night,” coming in February from Hogarth, an ailing medium who can connect with the dead tries to protect his son from an insatiable darkness.

That women writers, in particular, would be the ones to traverse the more shadowy corners of current Latin American fiction is perhaps no surprise, as a groundswell of frustration against restrictions on women’s rights and rising gender violence gathers force. Across the region, protest movements driven by women have become fixtures of the political landscape in recent years.

But these stories have more in common than uncanny coincidence and bumps in the night, Alemany Bay said. The “narrative of the unusual” often is socially conscious, explores womanhood in intimate and unconventional ways, and challenges the nature of our closest personal relationships, she said. Depictions of normal life aren’t intended to heighten the effect of the fantastic or supernatural; instead, the unreal is used to sharpen readers’ view of what’s true.

“Many of these current works that leave the bounds of reality are called ‘magical realism,’ especially when they come from Latin America. But that’s a big, big mistake,” Alemany Bay said. “They may contain elements of magic, but that isn’t the foundation.”

Indeed, the recent success of these authors has already broadened what counts as great Latin American literature, where the “boom” of the ’60s and ’70s brought magical realists such as Gabriel García Márquez to the fore. This month, after earning prizes in Spain and Latin America, both Samanta Schweblin’s short-story collection “Seven Empty Houses,” out Oct. 18 from Riverhead, and Mónica Ojeda’s “Jawbone,” published in February by Coffee House Press, were named finalists for the National Book Award for translated literature.

“Seven Empty Houses” is less pure fantasy than Schweblin’s previous collection, “Mouthful of Birds.” But its stories are equally disquieting. Written while she was in the process of moving, first temporarily then long term, from Argentina to Berlin, the book is filled with a sense of displacement: An aging woman boxes up her life, a young girl walks away with a stranger, a mother and daughter sneak into the homes of the rich and rearrange furniture. Throughout, Schweblin appears intent on picking apart her readers’ sense of permanence.

While uncanny, Schweblin’s work is also imbued with social critique: In “Seven Empty Houses,” prejudice and class divides are front and center. Her 2017 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, “Fever Dream,” offered a literary perspective on crop fumigation using glyphosate, a pesticide linked to birth defects in soybean-growing areas across Argentina, such as Aviá Teraí, a town near the country’s border with Paraguay.

“Literature is extremely political, but it is a politics that works best when it comes in spaces where no other politics can go, a more delicate space that doesn’t require the precision of saying, ‘OK, we’re going to talk about glyphosate because someone has to,’” Schweblin said.

True to form, Schweblin’s social commentary in “Fever Dream” straddles the space between the fantastic and the everyday, written entirely as a dialogue between a dying woman and a young boy who could be real or imagined. In a similar vein, Ojeda’s “Jawbone,” which centers on the kidnapping of a young woman by an obsessive teacher, uses horror to explore the anxieties of adolescence and womanhood in modern Ecuador.

“We always link fear to ugliness, but I think above all it is linked to beauty,” Ojeda said via email. “The biggest fear we can experience is the loss of beauty. It seemed natural to think about adolescence from that perspective.”

Like Dueñas and Dávila before them, Ojeda and other contemporary writers in Latin America use different means to confront the often fraught realities for women in the region. But their form of feminism, such as it is, represents an “evolution” from the writing of the last century, Alemany Bay said.

In Argentina last year, there were 251 recorded femicides — the killing of women for being women — according to official figures. In Mexico, the number was 1,004. In “Witches,” published in August by Catapult, Mexican author Brenda Lozano used the space between the real and unreal to explore “different levels” of violence against women — from expectations about gender roles to abuse and femicide.

The “witch” in Lozano’s novel defies presumptions about what women are supposed to be, she said, using language (and wild mushrooms) to heal the sick in ways modern medicine cannot.

“My superhero would be a woman who is able to do anything just with her words — change any narrative, like an impossible poem that sees everything,” Lozano said. “Maybe that was only possible with fiction.”

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