The Existence of the Strangest Happiness: An Interview with María Fernanda Ampuero
Each time we reach the end of one of her short stories, we turn the page and we are transferred to another story. We move away from and at the same time return to certain familiar experiences situated in a time long past, linked to our childhood, or perhaps we will travel once again and reinsert ourselves into the stories of love and pain of adults. Rarely do we leave the space we share with our family bonds, our home. It is exactly in that space where we question our existence, since certain things tend to happen within those walls that are rarely later linked to public spaces. Although it could happen that way. In Pelea de Gallos [Cockfight] (Editorial Páginas de Espuma, 2018), María Fernanda Ampuero unravels the thread of daily life that is woven into homes to fashion a reality well beyond walls and familial darkness.
Claudia Cavallín: At the beginning of Pelea de Gallos, you mention a question that is based on the context of “he who has not ever asked himself:” Am I a monster, or is this being human? (Clarice Lispector). Later, in your short stories, the voices of the children who live, and on occasion survive, within the homes stand out and once again the questioning of the anomaly of existence arises. What could be the key to survival? Is monstrosity the aggregated value that certain protagonists in your short stories share in order to overcome their pain?
María Fernanda Ampuero: The truth is that I don’t know what the key to survival is. There is that which is called “the instinct of survival,” which is what keeps us here in the quest for peace. The book talks about the loss of innocence, and perhaps that loss of innocence is also the discovery that we are not going to be happy. The adults are already not happy and, at the same time they are, to a great extent, the ones that cause the harm. Happiness is impossible. Thus, I believe that embracing your monstrosity, that monstrosity that is within you and that others criticize, the monstrosity which causes you to not fit in, could be in part what allows my characters to survive. Yes, you have read it very well, overcoming pain is to a great extent continuing to move forward. All of this arises out of one of a personal learning experience, which says, if you tell this, or use this against me—I’m referring to the expression of “being a monster”—as a monster I’m going to survive. I’m going to survive your harm, I’m going to survive your words, I’m going to survive your prejudices, your violence, your bullying, and your desire to destroy me.
C.C.: You name your short stories using one single word and each one can be associated with a noun, an existence, a proper name, or a historic moment in which its own laws were established: “Auction,” “Monsters,” “Griselda,” “Nam (Vietnam),” “Blinds,” “Christ,” …Why do you start your short stories with the strength of the briefest writing? Can one single word ignite the desire for reading your short stories?
M.F.A.: I have always wanted to be a poet and that idea of dedicating myself to poetry was somewhat the first approximation that I had of being an author, but it came later at the university. As a child, as a very young child, I would write little short stories and I discovered poetry. Everything was fascinating: the musicality, the power, the words which, like other things that were not in everyday language, were rather a window of incredible beauty—for me, unheard of—a movement toward feelings as no one else does it; a magnifying glass, a refuge, a companion and an empathy with existence. So, I wanted to be a poet and I think that in some ways I am not one because poetry is a genre in which one must be touched by a certain magic, by some talent that obviously surpasses me. But I got the ideas to do what poetry does: construct and transform all that exists in the universe by means of a single word as “when in the letters of ‘rose’ is the rose.” I liked the idea that the whole story would be in there like in a game. I am not too experimental in my writing, but this was my great attempt and yes, here the use of a word is a sign. It is an inclination of mine to distill everything that happens to a brief term. I hope I succeeded! (laughter)
C.C.: You succeeded! Besides, your stories contain profound feelings and exalted situations that set off the emotions of those who read them well beyond the final period. In “Crías,” for example, the intense relation surrounded by elements that move in the spaces of the home with the multiplicity of cockroaches and thoughts (as if returning to The Passion According to G. H. by Lispector), there exists “little by little a difficult happiness; plus, happiness at the end.” Is the return to that strange happiness the most valuable aspect to the characters of the story? Can there be shared nostalgia that encourages one to go beyond this “impossible return?”
M.F.A.: I like this question a lot. “Crías” is, to me, the romantic story in the book that goes beyond the romantic since it is simply, “the love story.” This is true love, despite all and against all predictions. There exists, as you say, a link to cockroaches, to animals that devour one another, which are all symbols of the difficulty of life, of the horror, of the unease of being abandoned and disliked, of being an outsider, of being an anomaly. It is the nightmare of being a beast to society. I liked the idea of this pair of characters, an abandoned man and the other, a woman who returns, two winners against the reality of a perverse story combined with a premature sexuality, where they find one another. I believe that the great and only miracle is finding another person in this world filled with cockroaches, pests, and vermin. Finding that other with whom you can feel at ease, though you are a monster to the rest of the world, converts that “other” person into someone who does not see your monstrosity, or if he sees you as a monster, he also sees you as an “equal” because he also feels monstrous because he is someone who simply exists that way. And here, I believe there is a strange happiness filtered by lights from a lot of putrefaction that is very toxic, but at any rate, as you mentioned, is happiness. In addition, I believe she returns to him and it is the only return possible. The essence of both did not change with immigration. Her masks did transform, but the essence of the true self, which had to both repress and hide, was what made them untethered, rejected, freaks, but their essence in itself remained intact. Both were able to recognize each other despite the passage of time. I believe it is so. You have made me think of something very nice and I believe that is the way it is.
C.C: One of the stories that would seem to have the religious context of a little angel is “Cristo.” Here is childhood pain in Ecuadorian, the weeping child, the little monster that men do not want to take on, who is a small fortress before the ear of the mother, who simply hears his weeping and entrusts him to the Savior. Do you think that a child who resembles “a small deformed doll” could be a valuable symbol of kindness and submission in the face of death?
M.F.A.: The story “Cristo” is a mixture of many of my obsessions such as the example of the loss of faith as the loss of innocence. Religion has many allusions to children because they are the ones who maintain that faith in magic. Children preserve the purest magical thinking and to believe in God, miracles, the Bible, and Divine Conception, and the Holy Spirit, you need this type of thought. Really, what I am going to say is a little sacrilegious, but the same thing happens in the way we believe in the tooth fairy, in Santa Claus or Father Christmas, or whatever we call him. In this childish moment, there is a lot of insistence on the Bible stories because staying pure is like being a child possessing that completely raptured and delusional faith that we have in childhood. And for me, to mature is also to stop believing. This story is about this, a moment where the difficulty of maternity as a single mother is added to the way in which her children become little adults, who now have a gigantic responsibility that crushes them. It goes beyond what their heads and small bodies can manage. On the other hand, this story explores faith in Latin America, which is full of syncretism, folklore, and exaggerations, and replete with hyperboles linked to all and with the parts, “to give Christ small greetings from humans,” those diminutive metaphors and metonymy that come from Santeria, the afro-culture. I liked the idea that the little girl would all of a sudden get a sense of guilt, which is so brutal and which makes us grow up so quickly, as she feels guilty for having killed her little brother. There are many things in this story and I like that you mention it because it goes by unnoticed since for many people it is not well-developed, but that does not matter to me. What is important to me is to explore the monstrosity of the mother and violence.
C.C: Following each step of your stories, I would like to venture to “Pasión.” There, it is announced that the first prophecy achieved by the little girl is the one which says, “you are just like your mother.” In this story, the little girl is beaten to keep the maternal legacy from being realized, while the child can only curl up to withstand the pain. The existence of a “snotty, skinny, naked” woman is like the return to the body of a new-born. Here, we read that this is like being born daily. In your words, there “is one more lost little girl in a world of lost little girls.” The deterioration of the body, the infinite road toward the void…What inspired you to write a story about this wounded child that ends up being a sad daughter of human brutality?
M.F.A.: “Pasión” was born from a call for a story contest in Spain titled “Mary Shelley’s Daughter,” whose instruction was to create a monster as the author of Frankenstein had historically done. For a long time, I have enjoyed looking at and revisiting the Bible, above all the New Testament, with a critical eye on the one hand, and with a feminist view on the other, being conscious of how the biblical narrative discourse marked our sexist societies. Religions, and in this case, I cannot talk about any other than the Catholic, which is the one that I know very well, allow me to think about Christ and one of his sentences was the original title of this story: And who do you say that I am? It is a moment of egomania where the megalomania of this young man, who has been sold to us as so simple and stripped of everything, so human, suddenly asks the question. He wants to hear the answer, “You are God.” Here is the key to human beings, wanting to confirm who you are because everyone knows, and there is the incongruency with the idea of God. This is the humanity of Christ—even perverse and petulant. I loved the presence of Mary Magdalene as the new savior. She has been silenced, and it has been claimed that she was something like a prostitute when, in reality, the latest research says that she was not, but rather that she was a brilliant, powerful, erudite, cultured, and wealthy woman from Magdala who, because of faith—that infantile emotion we are talking about—allows herself to be overshadowed, made invisible by the stories told by men. She was a witch and I like to reclaim the figure of the witch. I am a witch. We, independent women with our own thoughts, do not allow ourselves to be defeated, we are not silent or invisible, we are the heiresses of the witches.
C.C.: You tell us numerous stories and I only want to directly address one more. “Otra” takes us to the place linked to purchasing in the market, the symbology of food and to the cart that takes us to that environment of the protagonist’s experience and her final decision before the cashier. Here, there is a confrontation between the desire of what the protagonist submissively should take and what she decides to leave. Also, between what the other, someone who mistreats her, demands compared to what she needs and longs for: freedom. Do you think that the true triumph is to rebel beyond any other symbology of taste? Is food such as the damn sardines also an element of the system in which “All that rots forms a family?” (Fabián Casas).
M.F.A.: Yes, totally. I think that you are a brilliant reader because this is another story about which generally no one asks me. I think that many readers have stopped at the truly savage stories such as “Nam,” “Subasta,” “Ali,” “Coro,” in which there is death, violence, and blood; but I like my “Otra.” It is one of the writings that I love the best. It is a final story, that is, a closing, it is the song for closing. I end my book singing liberty and rebellion. And the protagonist thinks, “No, I am not a robot, I am not a mannequin, I am not a slave, I am not an object, I am a woman who thinks, who loves, who yearns, who decides, who is broken and hurt, that woman who realizes that she is riddled. In Ecuador, we have a Virgin Mary that is called Our Lady of Sorrow, and her heart is pierced by daggers. Her image is impressive and that woman is like that, lives like that, like Our Lady of Sorrows, and this makes me think about all the Ladies of Sorrow of the homes, of daily life, of marriages, those women who are being pierced by daggers all the time, in their hearts since it seems that there is no other place to stab with a dagger, and they stab them time after time. I like the idea that it be a daily space that is not grandiose—the supermarket, banal, stripped of every type of heroism, trivial, letting it be the place where this heroine grows until she can say: Enough! To me, that is my epic, it is my ethical song and the whole daily, repetitive, domestic, and mistreatment system has to be visited. A light has to be shone on it.
C.C.: Thank you for your compliment. I see that in all of your stories there are valuable symbols of spaces, one of them being the home. Materially, links are established between the house and its internal, hidden, or closed places, or with windows and doors that could connect to other places. Symbolically, the home is the place where one learns directly from one’s family, where one develops the first emotional contacts, a first love, the beginning of fear. Do you think that the home is like a sort of cave, a cavern where those who are suffering can only see what is permitted and not what truly exists?
M.F.A.: Yes, I think that there is a sort of kidnapping in the home and in many cases, it is the place where one suffers from a very brutal Stockholm syndrome since you want your kidnappers to love you and you love them. Everyone says that it is a sin not to love your kidnappers, whatever they do or whatever they say, even if they exert upon you all powers of destruction that parents can exert. The stories take place within the house spaces, within the four walls precisely because it seems to me that it is a stronghold that has become sacred. I detest sacralizing things. I think that the sacred can easily, in one or two steps, become totalitarianism and devolve into “you cannot question me,” “questioning is a sin, it is sacrilege, ungratefulness,” and you become a pariah if you judge your parents, or your grandparents, siblings, or uncles.
All harm comes from the homes, the people who go out to destroy outside, I don’t know, like Donald Trump or the politicians who steal from us, the rapists, the assassins, they all come out of a house. Not enough attention has been given to this. Under the mandate of a tacit law that says that “in this house the man rules,” or “the dirty laundry is washed at home,” “it is a family rule,” etc., everything becomes a secret in order to avoid public shame. That’s how they cover up incest, mistreatments, violence, fatphobia, homophobia. The most fatphobic, homophobic, racist, classist, xenophobic institution is the family. Where does that discourse come from? Nothing penetrates deeper into the mind, that is like white sand, than all that the adults in our families write in our little heads. Of course, these destructive and destroyed adults who dedicate themselves to raising us have to be discussed. We have to talk about the institution of maternity as something that can easily become perverse. The practice of saying “it’s for your own good,” or “I know what is best for you” is perversity because it can easily contain what is violent, what is harmful, what is savage, and what is cruel. It is saying “you don’t know” and “I know,” which is something they implant like a chip in our DNA because not only do we inherit the color of our eyes and hair, but we also inherit all that shit that is in our parents: their classism, their homophobia, their fatphobia, their hatred of themselves that they later project on their children. Of course, the doors and windows must be blown away in order to learn what is going on inside. It is the only way that will be able to manage to change something, right? Once, I heard that the Anglo-Saxons say that you need a village to raise a child, but I believe it also takes a village to destroy that child. There is complicity in many houses and we all know it. We hear and see, but we don’t say anything because we believe that “it’s just their way of raising a child” and maybe that is where a violent man is being raised, or a mute woman.
C.C.: Let’s move to the deeper values, those that are not constructed in the spaces where one lives, but rather in the feelings that live within us. Through your stories we can connect to incestuous love relationships, violent family ties, censure in the face of certain unnamable desires, the persistence of religious values in the midst of sordid contexts, the exploration of the abject, the use of the grim as desire in the hidden spaces of the home… Does unmasking the familial situations form part of a valuable way of confronting reality by means of fiction?
Do you think that this path can be more helpful in leading to more openness before the ideas and feelings of those readers who have also suffered and who have managed to share their experiences directly?
M.F.A.: I do not think that there is anything more profound than the harm your family can cause you. You can leave your family, I did it many, many years ago, but your family does not leave you, it is what you are. So, to look over that with a critical eye, to know who are the ones who make you up as a person, with a depersonalized gaze, a bit afar, it allows you to also see that they did what they could and you realize that they were parents who had other parents and the harm can come from generation to generation. You are the heir of a harm that was gestated many years ago, or decades ago, hundreds of years. Also, you should do something with your inheritance, just as you do something with what you inherit that is positive, just as when you get a house, money or jewels, you have to look after other inheritances that will come to you and that are much weightier than all the gold in the world. In literature there is something profound that moves inward, downward, toward the center of the earth, that sinks down to the most original and primitive being we are. So, then the emotion generators that we have, and since we react with others, come from that hole where the family harm is located. It is a miracle that we can enter this type of purity despite everything. It is a miracle that we want to continue having children without having to dedicate ourselves to stopping that monstrous flow of putrid waters, boiling, filled with cadavers, secrets, silences that make up the family inheritance.
I have enjoyed hyperbolizing everything—infamy, incest—so that the family harm would have a giant magnifying glass over it. I do not know if people feel less alone because of my stories—what a marvelous thing that would be. Surely there are families that are not like that. I don’t know them, I have never in my life known a family unaffected by this putrefaction and even so, we forgive each other, we sit down to eat together at Christmas, we laugh, and give each other gifts. If there are any miracles in the world, that is it. I am happy to open the gate.
Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis
Claudia Cavallin is a writer, journalist, and university professor, and she serves as Media Manager of Latin American Literature Today. She is the author of the books Ciudades de película: Ficciones urbanas del cine, la literatura y la música (Editorial Académica Española, 2012) and Espectros de la palabra. La metáfora en Borges: los juegos del lenguage que hacen posible la configuración de un universo de imágenes recursivas (Editorial Académica Española, 2012).
María Fernanda Ampuero was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1976 and studied literature. She collaborates with various international media outlets and to date has published two books of chronicles, Lo que aprendí en la peluquería [What I learned in the hair salon] and Permiso de residencia [Residency permit]. In 2016 she won the Cosecha Eñe short story prize. Pelea de Gallos [Cockfight] is her first collection of stories.
Rosario Drucker Davis was born in Mexico to an American father and Mexican mother. At the age of eleven, she moved with her family to Lexington, Kentucky where her father took a position as professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Rosario earned a B.A. in linguistics at the University of Kentucky, an M.A. in English as a Second Language at the University of Arizona, and an M.A. in French literature at the University of Cincinnati. During the 2007-08 academic year, she was a visiting teaching assistant at the English Department at the University of Angers, France. She currently teaches Spanish at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College.
In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.