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Fernanda Melchor: “I wanted intensity”

Following her star turn at this year's ILB Fest, we caught up with Mexican novelist Fernanda Melchor to discuss witchcraft, gender violence and finding her dark self.

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Mexican author Fernanda Melchor read from her Booker Prize-nominated novel Hurricane Season at this year’s Berlin International Literature Festival. Photo: Hartwig Klappert

It all began with a news article. As part of a PR job for her local university in Veracruz, Fernanda Melchor had to scan the Mexican newspapers for mentions of her employer. There she stumbled upon a remarkable crime story: a village “Witch” was found dead in a canal, and the culprit justified it by saying he was protecting himself against witchcraft. Melchor – who, by then, had written one novel – became fascinated, and decided to pen an extended nonfiction work on the topic – something akin to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But she was unable to travel through the crime-ridden area, so she turned instead to fiction.

The resulting novel – Hurricane Season (2017), an innovative work that uses multiple perspectives to probe at small-town violence, homophobia and misogyny – catapulted her to international stardom. The German translation won the Anna-Seghers-Preis and the HKW’s International Literature Award in 2019, while the 2020 English version was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Melchor is currently spending a year in Berlin as part of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program. We talked to her in the final days of the ILB, where she read from both Hurricane Season and her new novel Paradais, set to be released in English translation next spring.

Fernanda Melchor, welcome to Berlin! How do you like it so far?

I’ve very happy to be here. I just arrived at the end of July, but I was here before in 2019 to receive the award from the HKW, and I thought it was amazing. We stayed for ten days, and I actually wrote a little bit of Paradais here in the tropical humid heat of Berlin [laughs]. I think Berlin’s a really exciting city. It’s so green. And I love how much art is made from the streets, and what people are doing in music, design, even tattoos. It’s also super safe, especially for women. I’m amazed to see so many young women in parks just doing their thing – reading, having a beer, with nobody bothering them. In Mexico, the machismo and bigotry is so ingrained that it’s hard for women to be in the public space like this.

The only thing I could do was to write – to try to understand the roots of violence

Let’s talk about Hurricane Season. It has a very distinctive style – at times the narration feels documentary, but then suddenly it surges with energy, paranoia or violence. Is this something you designed for the novel, or just how you write?

It’s a style I was preparing myself to arrive at. In my first novel, the dialogue was really colloquial and slangy, but the narration was much more journalistic and distant. In Hurricane Season, I found a way to blend those high and low registers, to mix the inside and the outside of the characters. The narrator of Paradais has a lot more critical distance. But my goal with Hurricane Season was complete empathy. It developed very organically – the long paragraphs, the weaving in and out of characters’ minds, it was all something I felt I had to do for the story in order to get the right tone. I wanted intensity. I wanted my novel to feel like a storm.

Sometimes, roving between perspectives can feel lively and sociable. But in your novel, it felt much more claustrophobic, unsettling even. The reader never quite knows what’s true, and there’s this constant urge to speculate…

Yes, that was part of my idea. I first read the story in the crime section of the newspaper, which is traditionally very cliché-heavy, misogynistic and classist. But I find it fascinating. What lies behind a headline like: “He killed his girlfriend of ten years”? I’ve always been interested in violence that just explodes, so I went looking for the roots of it. When I couldn’t do journalistic research in that part of Veracruz myself, I resorted to writing a novel – my own kind of research, one involving fiction and the power of imagination. And first I needed to create the landscape. I began to imagine a group of women who were talking about the murder, the Witch, the killers, the place where they all live. I heard the voices of women gossiping, telling and retelling stories, contradicting each other, saying No no no you’re wrong, it happened like this. That’s how the novel starts. And I think that is exactly how you can explore deeper into the real motives of crimes of passion: you have to delve into the layers of justifications, the mythologies and so on. I don’t think Hurricane Season would have been very interesting if it had been written in a straightforward style, without this centrifugal force of perspectives that pulls you in.

Many of these mythologies – especially those concerning the town’s Witch, the murder victim – seem deeply tied up with machismo, with the desire to create nasty superstitions about anything you can’t control…

Yes. The Witch begins as this mythical fairytale figure, but then turns out to be this very lonely person, who’s different from the rest of the town. And she becomes a scapegoat for all the town’s anxieties and fears against women – or against the otherness she represents. She’s a woman, she’s powerful, she has money. And she doesn’t need a man, but she uses men, so she becomes something too strong for them to deal with. I wanted her to have a certain opacity, which is what her veil represents: you can see her, but you can’t quite see her. I wanted her to be this blank space where characters – and we, as readers – could project all sorts of fears, all sorts of images about otherness. I was also inspired by the spiritual beliefs in Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where Catholicism is mixed with pre-colonial indigenous religions and beliefs introduced from Africa. So it’s perfectly normal to go to Mass on Sunday then go to the witch on Friday for a spiritual cleansing.

In your novel, the superstition leads to gendered violence. Do you think these beliefs should be done away with, or just rewritten and reimagined in a constructive way?

It’s a matter of reimagining them. I think the figure of the Witch also represents the possibility for nonbinary forms of existing, which there has been more space for in Veracruz than elsewhere in Mexico. But I don’t quite know how all this reads in cultures that aren’t Mexican. To be honest, I never expected this book would be translated into so many languages. When I was writing it, I was just thinking about my hometown, the areas around Veracruz, southeastern Mexico. I’m still surprised that so many people from other parts of the world are interested in getting to know this world and its realities.

Isn’t that just what happens when a book is bloody good?

Yes, I guess so [laughs]. And I think I always try to write with a universal aspiration in mind. It doesn’t look like it, because the language is very Mexican and very local to Veracruz. But at the same time there is always a part of me that tries to create a new language – one that is open to the possibility of being translated and transformed.

When I finished writing the novel, I had to see a therapist

Was it hard for you to take on the voice of these characters, some of whom are suffering a great deal and some of whom – like the violent, closeted Brando – are themselves being brutally cruel?

Writing the book was very difficult. This was my second novel, and for some reason I thought it’d be a piece of cake because I’d already written one [laughs]. But it was a hard time for me personally, back when I was writing it, and it was a very hard time for Mexico: the violence was over the top, especially femicide, the killing of women. They were discovering new mass graves every week. It was a terrible situation, and I didn’t see the way out. The only thing I could do was to write – to try to understand and explain the roots of violence. It was so hard to be in Brando’s head, because he hates himself in such a tragic way. Being a writer is like building a house in your own mind. You go there for hours every day, and you suffer, because you have to feel all the feelings your characters feel. But, at the same time, it’s addictive. It’s like talking to your dark self, like talking to your shadow. So it was a rollercoaster for me. When I finished writing the novel, I had to go and see a therapist.

Is there more hope in your next book Paradais?

Well, Hurricane Season was an extreme metaphor. In that town of La Matosa, there are people who aren’t suffering all that much – the novel just focuses on the characters who are the most miserable. And the material poverty of the town is also a metaphor for talking about moral and spiritual poverty. But I think I went too far in that parallel. I try to fix that with Paradais, which is about violence in the upper classes. In Hurricane Season, I think you can tell that, even in underprivileged circumstances, there’s space for other kinds of life – although the novel had to focus on people who couldn’t be happy, people who were longing desperately for love.

What are you working on now?

I don’t know! [laughs] Everyone asks me that, and I take it as a compliment. But I’m not the most productive writer right now. I’ve been working a lot on television – I co-wrote a show that’s out now on Netflix called Somos. It tells the story of a Mexican town that was totally annihilated by a narco massacre, but it approaches it from the community’s point of view. As for my own writing, we’ll see.