Witches by Brenda Lozano, translated by Heather Cleary
At first glance they couldn’t seem more different, Feliciana and Zoe. Zoe, in her thirties, is a journalist from Mexico City who has carved out a niche for herself reporting on violent crimes against women, wearied by the unrelenting nature of her work yet not inured to its horrors. Feliciana is older and a curandera, a traditional healer, who lives in the village of San Felipe, high in the mountains of Oaxaca, where she prefers to pay little attention to the outside world, focusing instead on her community, clients and the mushrooms she uses in her healing ceremonies – she refers to them as ‘Children’. Under normal circumstances, Zoe’s and Feliciana’s paths may never have crossed, yet the brutal murder of Feliciana’s cousin Paloma, and Zoe’s decision to write about the death, bring the two women together in more ways than one.
Witches, the vivid third novel by acclaimed Mexican author Brenda Lozano and her second to appear in English, here in a masterful translation by Heather Cleary, is a work of fiction that pulses with life, barely contained anger, and something gentler yet somehow undefined – an awareness, perhaps, of the beauty of things, of how certain forces exist in the world just beyond the human grasp. It is there in the cinematic settings of the novel, in the ecstatic flow of Feliciana’s words, in the intertwined stories and many textual layers that underpin the novel like roots anchored in soil. Though rife with geographic, cultural and linguistic markers that mean this is a story that could only take place in Mexico, the themes Lozano is concerned with are universal, making Witches a novel that transcends boundaries of space or time.
Cutting between the very distinct voices of her two main characters, Lozano presents her novel almost as a conversation: the sections narrated by Feliciana are ostensibly the transcripts of an interview she agreed to give to Zoe, which has since been translated (into Spanish, which Feliciana does not speak) and, we can assume, given a slight bit of polishing. Zoe’s narrative, meanwhile, also presented in the first person, is a more measured account of her meeting Feliciana and the traumatic childhood which she eventually comes to explore with the help of the curandera, despite being initially sceptical about her powers.
Though not without its moments of beauty, there is something reserved, indeed slightly journalistic about Zoe’s tale, while Feliciana’s is its exact opposite: a torrent of unfettered words with few conventional markers (around dialogue, for example) and a tendency to run to long sentences in a style that vaguely echoes Fernanda Melchor, another Mexican writer with her eye on similar themes. It may take some getting used to at the beginning, but once the reader has slipped into Feliciana’s free-form style, these passages become a joy to read, brimming with the aforementioned life and riding a wave of emotion that gives the novel its true impact.
For Witches is a novel about women – about the varying degrees of violence meted out to them in patriarchal societies, from casual degradation and social exclusion to murder, rape and all kinds of physical abuse. Both Zoe and Feliciana have suffered at the hands of men, something of which Feliciana, in her wisdom, is well apprised, but which Zoe must confront throughout the course of the novel. It is an awareness that dawns slowly on the reader as well, as Lozano unpeels the layers of their stories and weaves the narratives closer together until we have these words, spoken by Feliciana towards the end of the novel: ‘Tell your story and tell mine because they are not two stories but one’. There is hope here, a sense of redemption and togetherness, but it is bittersweet: the one story Zoe will tell the world is not just hers and Feliciana’s, but that of all women.
A further strand of the narrative – the main one, indeed, around which the entire book is woven – is the story of Paloma, who not only struggled, like her cousin, to be a curandera in a traditionally male-dominated society (the folk healer’s job was usually reserved for men, the common term being curandero), but was also Muxe: a third gender recognised by the Zapotec communities living in Oaxaca. Born Gaspar and raised as a curandero, she gradually began to distance herself from the constraints of her biological gender, eventually becoming Paloma – and so, like Feliciana, ‘a woman on the path of men’. Feliciana’s admiration for Paloma’s skill and strength as a healer is tainted by the rage and sadness she feels that Paloma was murdered for being who she was, her death an act of futile revenge, the tragic culmination of a life lived forcibly on the fringes.
Throughout the looping, billowing sentences of Feliciana’s narrative, we are confronted again and again by something she calls ‘the Language’: a higher power that lives within all of us, the place we come from and to which we return. It is fitting, then, that Witches itself should be a novel so concerned with language – particularly in its English translation, as the illuminating note by Heather Cleary that concludes the text makes so abundantly clear. Offering insights into the translation process and explaining the significance of terms scattered throughout the text, such as bruja (approximately ‘witch’) and milpa, which she has chosen to leave in their original Spanish, it also provides a good deal of cultural context and is a perfect example of why all works in translation ought to include a translator’s note. Though not essential to our enjoyment of the novel, it deepens our understanding and makes the reading experience all the richer.
‘You can’t really know another woman until you know yourself,’ muses Zoe, but it is in coming to know other women better – Feliciana, Paloma (or at least her presence as conjured by Feliciana’s memories), her own sister and mother – that she eventually reaches a deeper understanding of her own person. There is something pleasingly circular here, much like the novel as a whole, much like Feliciana’s understanding of herself as just a small part of ‘the Language’, a place with no beginning and no end. Witches does end, of course, as all novels must, but the lessons it imparts – above all a sense of mutual understanding – will surely last well beyond the final page.
Witches by Brenda Lozano, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary, is available in hardback and digital from MacLehose Press. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.