How to Face the Horror of Gender Violence: An Interview with Raquel Castro

Raquel Castro is an author, screenwriter, professor and cultural promoter. In 2012, she won the Premiio de Literatura Juvenil Gran Angular and twice the Premio National de Periodismo for her work on the Diálogos de confianza team for OnceTV. She is the author of Ojos llenos de sombra (2012), Lejos de casa (2013), Exiliados (2014), and Dark Doll (2014). She was interviewed by Amanda Petersen for TBI’s Freedom of Expression Blog.

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AP: I know that you identify yourself as an activist as well as an author and I cannot start this conversation about ghosts of gendered violence in México without asking you about your perspective on gender violence and the recent protests and mass campaigns, such as #NiUnaMenos and #VivasNosQueremos, which have taken place in Mexico and all of Latin America. How do you see the impact of the rising consciousness and the campaigns against gender violence?

raquel-castro

Translation: They kill us. For saying yes, for saying no, for staying silent. Laborers, sex workers, professionals, housewives, shopkeepers, unemployed, students. Girls, adolescents, adults, the elderly. Because someone decides that our bodies do not belong to us, but to them, and that they can touch, hit, destroy. Is it uncomfortable that we are talking about this? Is it bad taste that we are asking that you do not kill us? Sorry, but for us this is not a passing Facebook meme: it is a question of life or death. #VivasNosQueremos #NiUnaMenos

RC: We’re living in complicated times. It seems to me that the way in which the violence has become more visible has produced much unease: for some men, recognizing the privileged position from which they have lived their lives causes feelings of guilt and anguish, while for others it causes rage. Women have also had a range of reactions: there are those who have come out as rabidly antifeminist, those who call for reconciliation, or those who think that all men are the enemy. I believe that for everyone—men and women—this situation is new and requires us to raze realities that we took for granted in order to construct new ones. And this is stressful, of course. And a lot of people will prefer to turn their back on the situation because change means leaving the known, even if the known is bad.

However (and maybe I’m too optimistic), I’m convinced that it’s a phase. That the perspective of gender will continue gaining ground and that, little by little, change will take over the social consciousness. I’m afraid that things will get worse before getting better, but I’m sure that the fact that we’re discussing the topic, making it visible, and showing it as something unnatural, is great progress.

AP: The Twitter campaign #MiPrimeroAcoso has had a strong impact on me this year for several reasons but I think it was mostly because women were using Twitter to narrate their personal stories, to let their voices be heard and break the silence and shame that have typically surrounded sexual harassment in Mexico (and in the world). It made me think a lot about the power (and sometimes the danger) of narrating and bearing witness. What was your take on this campaign and have you experienced something similar in your life as a writer and activist?

 RC: I’m going to share something with you: When the #MiPrimerAcoso campaign started, I thought about it for a long time before I wrote my own story. It was challenging. I remembered various uncomfortable moments that I’ve lived and, even with all of that, I felt very privileged because none of them left me any lifelong scars (neither physical nor emotional). But, at the same time, I felt—somehow—less alone. I realized that I wasn’t crazy. That it wasn’t just me who thought that the streets can be hostile places. That I’m not the only one who chooses her clothing according to which mode of transport she is going to use. And that was very comforting. I think that it was an unusual and very intense campaign, that uncovered many things, both good and bad. However, I definitely believe that, no matter how terrible the things that have happened, silence and avoidance are always worse.

AP: These Twitter stories lead me to reflect on the literary representation of sexual violence and its ethics. Do you think that writing about gender violence can be something productive ? Can it help to impact change? Or does it run the risk of being a reproduction of the same pattern that it tries to denounce?

RC: I think it is necessary to write about this type of violence but, yes, one must take care about the way we do it. I frequently run across cultural expressions of sexual violence that justifies the violence and perpetuates the idea that it is natural (and not just in literature: recently, there was a banda music video in which the lead singer “kills” his partner for being unfaithful). And, at the other extreme, I run across texts are pretty much propaganda because the zealousness of their denunciations have little or no literary value. It seems to me that, whatever the case may be, it’s a shared responsibility: yes, we, as male and female authors, can address the topic and it’s important that we address it; but readers must also be attentive and critical. Little by little this is happening, I believe.

AP: I’d like to discuss the recent anthology about femicide in which you participated, El silencio de los cuerpos: Relatos sobre feminicidios [The Silence of Bodies: Short Stories on Femicide] (2015). En “El cuerpo impropio” [“The Improper Body”], Cristina Rivera Garza observes that there are ethical and aesthetic consequences of allowing silence and denial to dominate around topics like femicide (and gender violence, in my opinion) and asks that male and female writers break this silence. With this anthology, you and other women authors break this silence in a forceful way. What was it like to participate in this project? Did you have doubts about participating?

RC: I started working on gender issues when I was a scriptwriter for a television program, “Diálogos de Confianza” and since then it has been one of my greatest concerns. Even in what I write about for children I try to avoid traditional gender roles and attempt to question some chauvinist tendencies. Prior to that project, though, I had never written anything that treated the topic so directly, much less anything about the most extreme manifestation of gender violence: the annihilation of a human being because she was a woman. From the moment I was invited to participate, I felt like it was an intimidating challenge but one that I could not refuse. And, from the beginning I knew that I wanted to write thinking about adolescents, in the quotidian life of those who lose a loved one. The large number of unresolved cases have been disconcerting for me since my days as a screenwriter, and I used to think about how someone could possibly process their grief surrounding a situation like this. As I turned that over in my mind, and thought about the many cases where the aggressor is someone the woman knows, I started to construct the plot with the hopes of being able to produce something at the level of Cristina Rivera Garza and Iris García Cuevas, both authors I greatly admire.

 AP: In your short story in the anthology, I note a ghostly persistence of silence that tends to reign around topics such as sexual abuse by family members. I would like to think that this ghost is starting to be scared away by breaking the silence and raising collective consciousness, like we see in your text. That said, in your short story, there is a notable intergenerational effect of ghostly haunting [asedio espectral] of gender violence.

RC: I like that you talk about ghostly hauntings [asedio fantasmal]. I was actually thinking about this and I had a hard time finding a translation in Spanish that would convince me (and so I was using “haunting”), but I think this is a good one. For me, an important part of this short story is about when life is built around absence and silence: it is about people who gravitate around a black hole that threatens to swallow them up because the center of their existence is not knowing what happened, not being able to talk about something. Without a doubt, I think that breaking the silence helps to combat this black hole. It’s a little like horror movies: I always wonder why the characters don’t go and tell someone else what they are seeing. Maybe the ghost or the monster will still be there, but at least the character wouldn’t confront it alone. The same thing happens with the violence: having to suppress it, pretend that it’s not happening, and wanting to live a normal life even though it’s there makes it more painful and draining. And, yes, I want to think that the new generations are starting to approach these assaults in another way: at least they are questioning if the violence is really unavoidable and if the censorship of discussing it is really unassailable. But we must be careful: we’re talking about urban, middle-class “new generations.” The most vulnerable groups, where the heteropatriarchy still rules with an iron fist, are still very far [socially and geographically -ed.] from this resistance movement. I mention this because sometimes we forget that, outside of our bubble, there are other ways of thinking and living.

AP: Finally, I read your introduction and many of the short stories from Festín de muertos and I very much liked what you and your co-editor say about the difficulty of finding the meaning behind the horror of today’s world and how zombies can help to “redefine in order to see ourselves again in another reflection, a summary or a questioning of the most intolerable and painful things in our realities” (Loc. 105-6). There are many parallels with ghosts in these notions.

RC: Let me tell you a funny story that really happened: we were doing promotions for both the anthology on zombies and the anthology on femicide at the same time, and I had been called for an interview. I thought it was about “El silencio de los cuerpos” [the femicide collection] and started to talk about that. It wasn’t until they asked me about the humor that I realized they were talking about the other book. I think they can be two sides of the same coin, meaning that sometimes horror stories, fantasy, or science fiction can allow us to play with themes that otherwise are very difficult to address, themes that are very painful. Every now and then I encounter one of those unenlightened people who says things like “science fiction is what six-year-olds write,” or “zombies are only for people who want to escape from reality.” This bothers me: I think that by excluding these types of stories, you lose a valuable experience because they can be metaphors for other things, and can sometimes be more powerful critiques that affect readers more directly. For example, when you read a newspaper, you sometimes reach a point when you just want to escape, when the weight of the information is overpoweringly painful. It is like looking over the edge of a pit that threatens to swallow you whole. And the result is that many people prefer simply not to know.

On the other hand, when you read fiction, in particular the sort that you know could not possibly happen in the real world, you know you have control of the situation, you can stop reading whenever you want, and the suffering will stop. So in that world, we can look into the pit (in this case, gender violence) without the fear of falling in. And that is when, because our defenses are lowered, the author can present situations that, if they were in the newspaper, the reader would immediately turn away from.

 

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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