[Feminist Press; 2023]
Tr. from the Spanish by Frances Riddle
In a 2021 interview with Adriana Pacheco on the Hablemos Escritoras podcast, María Fernanda Ampuero comments on the tendency critics have to express surprise at the violence portrayed in her stories. “Actually, what surprises them,” Ampuero says in Spanish, “is not that [the stories are] violent, but that the person who speaks about the violence is the one who has always been silent, the murdered woman.”
In other words, Ampuero knows the perspective best suited to shock: that of the victim.
Ten of the twelve stories in Ampuero’s 2021 collection Sacrificios humanos (translated as Human Sacrifices by Frances Riddle in 2023) are written in the first person. These characters are either “desperate women,” (a mother living without papers in the US; an immigrant manicurist married to an abusive husband; a poor woman working for a wealthy family) or young girls, made vulnerable by their need to be less lonely, to be loved. Their voices hum with a soft pain. “See me, see me,” the narrator of “Biography” repeats, a refrain that finally turns into a larger plea for all of her “sisters in migration”: “See them, see them,” the narrator implores the reader, “See her, see her.” In “Biography,” as in other stories in Human Sacrifices, the first-person voice is meant to connote a larger collective, to be one voice among many.
Sacrificios humanos is Ampuero’s fourth published book, and the second to be translated into English. Her first book, Lo que aprendí en la peluquería (2011), was a gathering of witty articles she had written for the magazine Fucsia about the social space of the beauty salon. The second, Permiso de residencia (2013), brought together forty-five crónicas (a genre that is a mélange of reportage and personal experience particular to Spanish-language literary culture) about the migration of Ecuadorians to Spain in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.
But it was with her third book, the profoundly unsettling collection of short stories titled Pelea de gallos (2018; also translated into English by Frances Riddle as Cockfight in 2020), that Ampuero first established her horror credentials, writing about women and children who suffer ineffable violence. The first short story in that collection, “Subasta” (Auction), for example, is about a woman who falls asleep in a taxi, and wakes up in an underground marketplace that traffics in human beings. Many of the themes brought up in Pelea de gallos return in Sacrificios humanos—violence against women and children, what it means to be a “freak,” monster, or marginalized person in society, the deceits of religion, and the conflicts of class.
Born in Guayaquil, Ecuador in 1976, Ampuero is part of a group of Latin American women writers (think Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Ariana Harwicz, or Selva Almada) who have addressed the many violences associated with being a woman in their fiction, oftentimes through the short story form. Ampuero has a theory, when asked in the Hablemos Escritoras interview, about this generational obsession with violence: They all grew up in the 1980s, the golden era of horror movies. It is this slasher film aesthetic—the bucket of pig’s blood in Carrie, the black eye holes of Jason’s mask, a teenage girl’s dream of a disfigured man wearing a blade-fixed glove in A Nightmare on Elm Street—that might be what informs the way that these women craft their own stories now.
Indeed, images and conventions of cinematic horror abound in Ampuero’s latest collection. When a teenage girl in “Sisters” falls into bulimia, she calls her bathroom throw-up sessions “exorcisms.” There is the Whistler, a “black shadow, muzzled by darkness” who lures girls out of their bedrooms at night with a sibilant whine, the two blond-haired blue-eyed proselytizers in “Believers” who are seen to be “biting” a little boy in their rented room, and the man in “Biography” who becomes possessed by the spirit of his evil brother, screaming about his desire to kill all foreigners for “Our Lord of the Night.” In “Sacrifices,” a bickering couple realizes that they are trapped in an exit-less parking lot, abandoned apart from the approaching figure of “a man in a costume,” a being “with horns and hooves” that heads straight for them in the darkening lot.
The characters of these stories live in fear of the moment that a villain will grab hold of them. But there is another side to this fear: desire. The terrible thing, in Ampuero’s stories, also holds a certain allure. In “Sister,” the narrator regularly swims in a swampy pool, and observes: “Sometimes I felt a hand gripping my ankle and I thought, Take me with you, thing of the water, take me to wherever it is you live.”
Throughout Human Sacrifices, violence tends to travel along lines of gender—men threaten, women hide. But class is another vector through which harm can move, and can compound the pains of being a woman, a girl. In “Biography,” the female narrator is made vulnerable to a xenophobic man’s rampage because of her precarious situation as an undocumented immigrant in the US, in need of funds to send back to her daughter and parents in Ecuador. Both “Believers” and “Pietà” feature a woman laboring for a wealthy family, distanced from her own children in caring for the offspring of others. The violence here is not enacted at knifepoint; it is simply there in the difference between the home neighborhoods of the nannies, where trash and dead dogs float down the streets when it rains, and the pristine, tea rose-encircled houses in which they work.
In “Invaders,” the children of a middle-class family look down on their less fortunate neighbors:
No one taught us this, but when we came face to face with those other kids, them and us, we immediately put our guard up. Maybe it was that our pets wore collars and theirs didn’t . . . Maybe it was in our eyes, the mutual stares.
This cold sense of an (wealthy) “us” and a (impoverished) “them” is later ruptured in the story, as the middle-class family becomes destitute, the new “pariahs” of the neighborhood. In Ampuero’s stories, the wealthy exude unease, aware of the contingent nature of their claim to power. “Believers” takes place against the backdrop of a nationwide strike, one that becomes increasingly gory as the story progresses. The working masses rise up, a landowner’s nightmare. At one point, the narrator’s rich grandmother pleads with her housekeeper, “María, you’re not going to betray us, are you? We’ve treated you like family, we’ve given you everything you needed . . . You love us, don’t you, María?”
María doesn’t respond.
At the apex of the strike, business owners are rounded up and thrown from skyscraper windows onto the pavement below, where “their bodies shattered like glass.”
The stories in Human Sacrifices show that one’s security in a capitalist, patriarchal society is never guaranteed; there must be sacrifices—human ones—to stay afloat.
Anna Learn is a PhD student at the University of Washington, where she studies Persian, South Asian, and Hispanic literature.
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