BY BEENISH AHMED
Forty-three teaching students went missing in the state of Guerrero, Mexico last October. News of their disappearance sent shockwaves through a country ravaged by an ongoing war against powerful drug traffickers. On the anniversary of their abduction, thousands took to the streets to demand justice for the disappeared students. But justice is illusive in Mexico.
Independent experts have proved government claims about the students false. The country's former attorney general resigned after claiming the students were killed when they were mistaken by the Guerreros Unidos gang for rivals. Rights groups have since alleged that the government was involved in a cover-up of the disappearances.
The truth may never out. That's something Jennifer Clement knows all too well.
As the former head of PEN Mexico she investigated what happens to those who dig too deep. As a writer, she's provided a glimpse into the dark world of drug traffickers -- and that of the women they have brought into it.
Clement's latest novel, Prayers for the Stolen, maps the landscape of violence wrought on the people of Guerrero by the drug wars and traces the story of some who have "stolen" -- perhaps not unlike the missing 43.
THE ALIGNIST spoke with Clement about her response to the disappearances, how her work came to be one of social protest, and much more. Our conversation took place at a cozy Indian restaurant in Washington, DC one week before Clement was named the first woman President of PEN International. It's been edited for length and clarity below. The conversation will be featured in an upcoming podcast.
1. What prompted you to look into “the stolen” [who have been taken from their homes by drug traffickers] in Guerrero, [Mexico]?
Actually, it was quite a long process. I guess my initial interest was not necessarily Guerrero. My initial interest was how was the violence of drug trafficking affecting women. To start, I was just very interested in [the question] who were the women of drug traffickers: who were the wives, who were the girlfriends, who were the sisters? And so, initially, my research was interviewing the women of drug traffickers. This was when [Vicente] Fox was still president, and this is important [to note] because it was before [Felipe] Calderon declared a war on drugs which is when everything became absolute anarchy and chaos. We have had at least 80,000 killed from that and the killing of journalists escalated. It was just this little moment before Calderon came in and I was able to travel all over the country interviewing women in hiding. That became very important for Prayers for the Stolen. When I knew which women I was going to write about, I didn’t know then, but in my novel there is a girl that comes back from being stolen. If I hadn’t have done all that research and spoken to all the women of drug traffickers, I wouldn’t have known where they were taken and what the ranches were like. So in fact, Proceso, which could be the equivalent in the United States of a magazine like Time, published that part of my novel in the news section of the magazine, so that was a real moment where literature became news. For me, that was quite shocking because I expected that part of the book to remain in the cultural pages or in the book review section of the magazine. To have the editorial choice to take a piece of a novel and publish it in the news section is very interesting.
Of course the USA-to-Mexico rumor road was the most powerful rumor route in the whole world. If you did not know the truth, you knew the rumor and the rumor was always a lot, lot more than the truth.
I'll take a rumor over the truth, my mother said.
The rumor that came from a Mexican restaurant in New York to a slaughterhouse in Nebraska, to a Wendy's restaurant in Ohio, to an orange field in Florida, to a hotel in San Diego, then crossed the river, an act of resurrection, to a bar in Tijuana, to a marijuana field outside Morelia, to a glass-bottom boat in Acapulco, to a canteen in Chilpancingo and up our dirt road to the shade of our orange tree was that my father had another family "over there."
"Over here" was out story, but it was also everyone's story.
-- from Prayers for the Stolen
2. I can’t get over the “truth is stranger than fiction” or that the “fiction is truer than the truth” component of all of this...Your characters are so vivid. It seems that they must be real -- from the tough-love mother to the classical music-obsessed teacher who is so out of place [at a little school in a state dominated by drug lords]. It seemed like you really knew them. Did you have specific people in mind when you wrote them or did your research transform?
They’re all invented. The only person who’s based on a real person is the collage teacher in the jail. Everyone else is invented…[Novelists] talk about this mysterious thing where you can create people. For me as a novelist – I’m not sure if every novelist feels this way – there’s a real moment when I’m writing when I fall completely, completely in love with my characters. For me, Ladydi and Paula and Maria and Rita, for me they’re so real and I have this tremendous desire to take them home and give them cookies and warm milk and tuck them into bed. I have that kind of love for them but they are invented by me. It’s very interesting for me because I didn’t know that I was writing a book of social protest when I wrote it. That wasn’t my intention. I’m always writing about stories that won’t let go of me. So the story that’s a true story is that [people in Guerrero] dig these holes in the ground and hide their daughters in these holes. That’s true and I couldn’t sleep for days just thinking of these girls because it was, for me in my mind, like rabbits in a rabbit warren but also like people buried alive in a living grave. It was sort of like both images [at once]. What’s happened with this novel is that it’s been sold all over the world and it’s won humanitarian prizes and I speak about this at human rights conferences but also at literary conferences – so it’s living this double life and it’s interesting for me to be defending the lives of people that I invented. They are the symbol of people that I invented.
As soon as someone heard the sound of an SUV approaching, or saw a black dot in the distance or three black dots, all girls ran to the holes.
This was in the state of Guerrero. A hot land of rubber plants, snakes, iguanas, and scorpions, the blond, transparent scorpions which were hard to see and that kill. Guerrero had more spiders han any place in the world we were sure, and ants. Red ants that made our arms swell up and look like a leg.
This is where we are proud to be the angriest and meanest people in the world, Mother said.
-- from Prayers for the Stolen
3. Given [your] experiences [researching and writing this book], how did you respond to news of the 43 who were disappeared in Guerrero?
I felt that I immediately knew what had happened, even before they started saying just now, a year later what [might] have happened. I already had a feeling like I knew but then in December...[To backtrack,] in 1968 there was the massacre of students in Mexico. Every September young students from all over the country, not just Guerrero, go to Mexico City to remember this massacre -- it’s a very important commemorative occasion. They always steal busses and the bus companies know that the students are going to come and steal busses, [that] it happens every year. They’ll give them kind of not a great bus and they know it’s going to come back dirty and that they’re going to have to clean it but it’s sort of like an understanding. What happened here is that they took the wrong bus. I already knew from the time I’d spent in Guerrero that passenger busses were being used to transport heroin to the border. I knew what was going on there, in the growing of poppies and the making of heroin paste which in the United States is called ‘Mexican black tar’ on the market. So I immediately knew that they took the wrong bus. It was the only thing that would explain the violent reaction and the terrified reaction, which must have been, I think a chain reaction, all the way to the top. So for me, the crime, I always felt like I understood what had happened there. I don’t have any way that I can prove this but I do know that on the 10th of December last year in Chicago, a Guerreros Unidos branch was dismantled and they found that they were using passenger buses to transport heroin all over the Midwest and warehouses were busted and all of that kind of thing. That, to me, confirmed exactly what I had imagined that had happened.
My mother said that every person was a drug dealer including the police, of course the mayor, guaranteed, and even the damn president was a narco.
My mother did not need to be asked questions. She asked them herself.
How do I know that the president is a drug trafficker? she asked. He lets all the guns come in from the United States. Why doesn't he put the army on the border and stop the guns, huh? And anyway, what is a worse thing to hold in your hand: a plant, a marijuana plant, a poppy, or a gun? God made the plants but man made the guns.
-- from Prayers for the Stolen
4. Aside from the issue of scale -- 43 going missing at once is a huge deal -- is there something else about this story that you think captivated so many people around the world that made it a moment to look deeper and say what is going on here?
I think it was a story that had a lot of resonance and did make waves all over, but because of the work that I do, what I say to myself is yes, obviously I feel tremendous sadness about that and grave worry. At the same time, it just reiterates the fact that we’ve had much more than 43 girls killed and missing and they aren’t making news. Mexico is...[one of the] worst countries for the trafficking of young girls and there’s no news about that so I wonder what would have happened if it had been 43 girls [who had] gone missing.
5. That makes me think of Boko Haram and the abduction of the schoolgirls [in Chibok, Nigeria last year] which drew so much attention.
And that case has also not been solved. That whole [Bring Back Our Girls campaign] has lost momentum. You know, one of the things that has been so clear to me since the publication of Prayers for the Stolen is that it’s a totally universal book. When I wrote it, I thought it was such a local book, but now, with everything that’s happened, wherever I go, even if I go to a place like Finland or Sweden, [where] illegal immigrant women are not protected by the laws that Finnish women and Swedish women are protected under so they are trafficked and abused and sold into labor or debt bondage or all these kinds of ways that women are mistreated. And obviously, some countries in Africa are terrible [in this regard]. India is terrible. Pakistan is terrible. Mexico is terrible. Everywhere you look, women have no value, women have no status. And the truth is that in Mexico, as in many other places, if you went to the police station and said, ‘Someone stole my car’ it would be a big deal, like, 'Oh my God, your car?' But if you went and said someone stole my daughter, they don’t care. So a car has more value than a 10 year old girl.
6. You said that you didn’t intend for this book to be a work of social protest. How did it take on that life and what was that transformation like from a work of art to one of advocacy?
Well, I’ve had to think about it a lot, because, as I say, I wrote it just because it hurt and I couldn’t let it go. Then, it started to sell all over the world and I thought, ‘Well, what is this all about?’ And then I won the Sara Curry Humanitarian Award, which, it’s quite unusual for a novel to win a humanitarian award. It made me really think about the novel. I sort of knew this, but I didn’t know it like I know it now, and that is: The novel has been a place for social protest. The novel is a fairly new literary form and if you think about it, the antecedents of novels changing the world are huge. Perhaps more than journalism. [T]hink of Oliver Twist. Oliver Twist changed child labor laws. What was being written in the newspapers? We don’t remember but we remember Oliver Twist. And you can say the same for Jane Austen’s novels or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Those novels helped to give women property rights. French novels -- Emile Zola’s novels on the miners, those changed the working conditions for miners in France. The same with Victor Hugo’s novels. Les Miserables changed the way that people looked at poor people who were living in the street. So I do think that a novel can be a place of great change. Here we are...in Washington and not only am I speaking about this novel at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, but I’ve been invited up to speak to a group of people that work in the Congress so that’s wonderful that a novel can end up there.
7. What is is about the form of the novel that you think allows for it to take on this power?
I think that it might have to do with empathy. If you read a report, or you read statistics, maybe your emotions are not involved. If you read that Mexico is the country after Thailand that is trafficking women the most, what does that mean? But then you read a novel and you get involved in people’s lives, then it becomes a reality. Even back to the 43, people who read my book will understand where the 43 were living, and what their mothers were like, and what the communities were like and how many of the fathers are gone, and all of these things -- the novel would have given an insight into all of that.