Publicity shames the Mexican government and shame is a great force of change

Prayers for the Stolen

Jennifer Clement has studied literature in New York and Paris. She was awarded the NEA Fellowship for Literature for her third novel Prayers for the Stolen.

Every day in Mexico, young women are kidnapped by drug traffickers in order to be sold or prostitute themselves. Why did you choose to tackle this crucial issue through the filter of fiction rather than non-fiction?

First and foremost, I’m interested in literary intent. I am concerned with language and form as well as plot structure, character development and voice. I’m not a human rights expert or a lawyer. I’m a writer. For the past ten years I’ve been speaking to Mexican women who are victims of Mexico’s violence, but I don’t even call it interviewing. I call it listening because it’s coming from a different place, a more compassionate place perhaps- closer to friendship then journalism.

I also wanted to show how the divine and the profane co-exist through the use of language, a prose infused with poetry, and this cannot be done in journalism.
How did you proceed in your research for this novel?

I have spent over ten years listening to women affected by Mexico’s violence as I was interested in writing about women in Mexico’s drug culture. This was a logical step for me after having written the novel A True Story Based on Lies, which is about the mistreatment of servants in Mexico. I interviewed the girlfriends, wives and daughters of drug traffickers and quickly came to realize that Mexico is a warren of hidden women. They hide in places that look like supermarkets or grocery stores on the outside, but that are really hiding places with false façades; in the basements of convents, where women live with their children and have not seen daylight for years; and in privately-owned hotels that are rented by the government — a surreal, Third World concept of a Witness Protection Program.

In the novel many of the powerful images are real. The image at the beginning of the girls’ uglification and being hidden in holes came directly from someone I met in Mexico City. She told me about the stealing of the girls in her land, the State of Guerrero, and explained how they dug holes in the cornfields to hide their daughters when traffickers came looking for girls to steal. And that’s when the novel was born. I couldn’t sleep that night; it was all I could imagine. Ladydi’s voice came to me and held me tight. She’s feisty and fragile and not at all sentimental or judgemental.

One of the protagonist’s friend is stolen, others disappear for good, a body has to be buried… But we also follow her as she emancipates from her mother, goes to Acapulco to work, and falls in love. Is it, in spite of all, a coming of age story?

Yes, it is a coming of age story.
Why did you choose to intertwine all the different voices in the narration?

I am not sure that I do this exactly. However, in the book I write about the stolen women but also it’s everything that’s being taken from them, their husbands, their family life, their dignity, and their right to live without fear.

The police, the army and the legal system seem little concerned by protecting people from drug traffickers. If the government doesn’t even care about its own citizens, are Mexican women left to only rely on themselves?

Yes, they have to rely on themselves. However, publicity creates pressure and this is good. Publicity shames the Mexican government and shame is a great force of change.

The truth is I believed no one was going to care about these poor Mexican girls from a small community where the ugly and the divine stand together but, not only do people care, it seems like everyone has fallen head over heels in love- just as I am completely in love with them.

Editorial reviews (1 review)

The writing is electrifying not only because of its subject matter – anyone could report the facts – or because Clement is so strong on the insider viewpoint that gives new journalism its kick, but because she is a consummate stylist who makes sure nothing is wasted.