Q&A With Author Jennifer Clement

Issue Date: 
February 9, 2015

The Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series welcomes author Jennifer Clement to campus on Thursday, Feb. 19. She will meet with Pitt students during the day and offer a free public reading at 8:30 p.m. in the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium. A resident of Mexico City, Clement was president of PEN Mexico from 2009 to 2012 and is a member of Mexico’s prestigious Sistema Nacional de Creadores. Her internationally acclaimed novel Prayers for the Stolen (2014) was awarded the National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship for Literature as well as the Sara Curry Humanitarian Award. The novel takes place within the backdrop of the ongoing Mexican “narco war” during which more than 80,000 people have died since 2006. Of the thousands of people who have gone missing during that time, many are “stolen” women.

Jennifer Clement“Prayers for the Stolen is an amazingly beautiful and timely book of resilient women in contemporary Mexico whose lives have been impacted by the violence there,” says Pitt Assistant English Professor Angie Cruz. “It’s an important story, and often the women she writes about are invisible in the narratives available to us in mainstream media. We believe her book is a great introduction to what is happening across the border. She is a magnificent storyteller.”

What inspired you to write Prayers for the Stolen? Do you know any individuals or families personally affected by sex trafficking?  

In the novel, many of the powerful images are real. The image at the beginning—of the girls being made ugly 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. That’s when the novel was born and when [the story narrator] Ladydi’s voice came to me. She’s feisty and fragile and not at all sentimental or judgmental. 

However, although subject matter is important to me, I am most interested in craft. I never cease to think about the language I am using, the form, plot structure, character development, and voice. Even in doing the research for Prayers for the Stolen, I was also always looking for the poetic experience and how the divine coexists with the profane or beauty with ugliness. I also wanted the novel to have enchantment. 

In your view, why is the story of disappearing women such a hidden one in the media?

I think it’s easier for the world to focus on one event—one like the 43 college students that were killed [in Mexico] last September, for example—than on a constant problem. In Mexico, the government is generally not interested in the plight of women. This is true in many parts of the world today—women are just not important. I know if cars were being stolen there would be greater outrage.

You’ve also written and published poetry and nonfiction. How did you decide that this story needed to be told in the form of a novel, and not in poetry or nonfiction? 

I believe that fiction has power in a way that journalism does not. Fiction, in some cases, gives voice to people who are silent or silenced and can produce compassion in a reader. Literature has made profound changes in the world. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist changed child labor laws. The works of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë changed property laws for women. The works of the French writers Émile Zola and Victor Hugo also changed laws and attitudes on poverty and the exploitation of mine workers. We do not, however, remember the newspaper articles that were written at the time that the aforementioned novels were penned.

In many cases, events in novels have modified me far more than my own lived experiences or events I have read about in newspapers. 

What has it been like rising in popularity as a writer and leading PEN Mexico at a time when it can be dangerous to be a writer in the country? You have stated that your main objective when leading PEN was to address the issue of the unpunished killing of journalists in Mexico. 

As president of PEN Mexico, I had to focus on the killing of journalists—what I came to call “censorship by bullet” and also the consequence of fear, which produces self-censorship. My primary focus was to try and create pressure on the Mexican government to make the killing of a journalist a federal crime. It was a state crime when I came into the office, and PEN, along with other human rights organizations, was able to create the pressure to change this law. This is very important due to the involvement of local state governments with the drug cartels and mafias. In Mexico, there’s not a single person in jail for having killed any of the more than 100 journalists killed and missing in the past 12 years. There are vast areas of the country where there’s no reporting at all, and we have no idea what is happening. If a country does not have a free press, it cannot have a democracy. 

I did not address the problems of women being stolen when I was president of PEN Mexico. There does seem to be a growing awareness regarding the number of women who are being trafficked or are in debt slavery. However, women still disappear all the time. They walk down the road, to the shops, or to school and just never come back. They never tell their story.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer—any early life anecdotes? 

In my home as a child, books were the most sacred objects in the house. We were always shocked to go to houses where there were no books. Those houses seemed so cold. It still shocks me to this day. Therefore, reading and owning books is essential to me—even an act of reverence. 

I remember the first time I read in silence to myself. I must have been five or six years old. The feeling of the quiet words inside of me was so mysterious, I can unequivocally say it was a moment of revelation. I felt my solitude and individuality.

Because I grew up in a house where books were read and poems were recited aloud, I began to write poems at the age of seven. My father would type them up and keep them in a little book.

What part of your education helped form you the most as a writer? We have a notable graduate writing program here at Pitt. How did your own graduate work influence your growth? 

I went to a British school in Mexico and was made to read Shakespeare when we were very young. I had to learn some of the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was seven. I think hearing Early Modern English—and even Old English in works such as Beowulf—at such an early age made me feel at home in the English language. In addition, I was raised in Mexico so I speak and read Spanish perfectly. These two events greatly shaped my writing. 

My experience with doing an MFA was decisive in my development as a writer because I was introduced to contemporary writers I may never have read otherwise. I did my thesis on how writers view creativity versus craft. This work was based on interviewing contemporary writers and 

reading through the old interviews published in The Paris Review. The interview has been a way of trying to decipher what, so often, the artist may not completely understand. I learned a great deal from this work, especially from Toni Morrison and her observations on race and how she found the way to write about race in her novels, “by trying to alter language, simply to free it up, not to repress it or confine it, but to open it up. Tease it. Blast its racist straitjacket,” Morrison said. “I wrote a story entitled “Recitatif,” in which there are two little girls in an orphanage, one white and one black. But the reader doesn’t know which is white and which is black. I use class codes, but no racial codes.”

What’s your take on the issue of humanities under threat in many academic climates?  

Some academic institutions and political agendas view the humanities as superficial or as if they were an adornment. Without history, literature, the fine arts, and philosophy, we cannot know who we were and who we are and who we want to become. Today, with the extraordinary leaps in all the sciences, we need the humanities more than ever in order to answer, or at least pose, the big ethical questions regarding these discoveries. I’d like to see more conferences (and I actually cannot think of a single one) where the sciences and humanities are brought together in communion.