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Jennifer Clement
Writer, President of PEN, International World-wide Association of Poets, Essayists and Novelists Read More ...
So Far from God
Joshua St. Clair, NYU Florence student Read More ...
La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
So Far from God
Joshua St. Clair, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
October 1, 2014

Many times. “You can only sell a bag of drugs once, but you can sell a human being many times, and you can traffic a woman many times—even many times in one day you can prostitute her.” The trafficking occurs again and again. It occurs in different forms. And it occurs all over the world. Many times.

It was the night of La Pietra’s weekly dialogue and writer Jennifer Clement helmed the discussion. Her words commanded the room, reciprocating a fierce, unwavering attention that seemed to be punctuated only by brief moments of stupefied silence. The words were not words often heard in tandem. They seemed to challenge each other, confronting the audience with strange juxtapositions—stories of young girls being “stolen” and “hidden in holes in the cornfields.” No, this was not going to be a black and white discussion. From the moment the dialogue began, every participant in the room found themselves lightly treading through surreal, nebulous dimensions of grey.

The discussion topic was Clement’s novel, Prayers for the Stolen, a fictional account of just one young girl’s life amidst the enveloping nightmare of the cartel-run Mexican border regions. The night’s conversation, however, would expand to target much larger ideas—not only that of guns, drugs, and human traffic (the border frequenters), but also poetry, violence, and female dignity.

“The United States and Mexico are in a terrible terrible marriage,” explained Clement. The seemingly free exchange of guns, drugs, and people across the US-Mexican border occurs on a regular basis, seemingly without any legal constraint and without adequate international concern. There’s a saying in Mexico usually attributed to former President Porfirio Díaz: "¡Pobre México ¡Tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos!" This bleak exclamation translates to “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!” It is a dark irony that would become more apparent as the night’s discussion wore on.


Hemingway would talk about the “‘iceberg of research’ beneath a novel,” began Clement. For her novel this iceberg entailed eleven years of investigation, taking her from interviews on drug culture with women in hiding, to the helm of the human rights organization PEN Mexico during a year that witnessed rampant journalist assassinations, to city penitentiaries for women caught in the cartels’ illegal activity, and finally to the topic of her novel—stolen girls hidden in holes to escape kidnapping. “Everyone wants to tell their story,” Clement sanguinely reflected when asked by a student if the women were reluctant to speak. “They were astonished,” she continued, “that somebody wanted to hear about their life.” Their life, however, was usually a story riddled with horribly bleak chapters.

Before turning to these deeper themes, however, the night’s discussion began with an analysis of style—how Clement approached such challenging issues. When it comes to these stories, “I’m always going in as a poet,” Clement clarified, “so I’m always looking for the poetic experience. I’m not going in as an investigative journalist.” This distinction became important. For Clement, it is the poetic dimensions of reality that best encapsulates truth. “I take something that has to do with knowledge and I transform it into poetry,” explained the author. This transformation also allows her to create a narrative that would otherwise be inaccessible. Clement recounted her investigative process, somberly acknowledging that she had never met a girl who had been “stolen” and then returned—who had found her way back through the nightmare. But in fiction, Clement declared, “I can bring her back.” What occurs in Prayers for the Stolen is not truth, but the “poetic experience of that truth.”

“I’m interested in how the divine and the profane coexist, and how beauty and ugliness coexist, and how there is God and [how] there is no God,” mused Clement when asked to elaborate on her stylistic preference to prose. Prose reveals “the side of contradictions” inherent in existence, contradictions that divulge the “the duality of experience.” Clement recounted one such experience. She had spent much time speaking with inmates of a Mexican penitentiary. Inside, the women were given the opportunity to create collages as a means to freely express themselves. One woman had been a “mule,” someone set up to traffic drugs across the border. Before finding herself trapped in this abysmal world, however, she had been just a girl selling cockles on a Mexican beach. Clement reflected on their moments together in the collage group: “Everything she looked for in magazines were sea images, so her collages were starfish and beaches and sand. In this cement building full of criminals, [her collages were starfish and beaches and sand]! To me, that’s a poetic experience.”

But is there perhaps a downside to using poetry? Two students expressed concern over the tendency for the gravity of experience to be diminished and even wrongfully embellished when thrown into a poetic styling. Her experience with the novel, Clement answered, was of a two-fold nature: literary and humanitarian. The “two lives” embodied the dual trajectory of the novel’s themes, explained Clement, where not only could it exist within the realms of literature for which it was intended, but could also adopt a role of social protest in the world of human rights activism. “If anything, [this] experience has underscored the need for the arts to be a part of this discussion,” Clement responded. “There’s a place for it. I think people are perhaps weary of the statistics, of the journalistic exposé or the lawyerly exposé, or figures and numbers. I think what the arts can do—not just literature, but all the arts—is bring a humanistic side to these issues, which are such pressing issues of our time.”


These human rights issues would become the focal point for the remainder of the dialogue. It was here during the discussion that Clement addressed the room’s proverbial elephant: female abuse. “The problem of the trafficking of women and young girls is all over the world,” exclaimed Clement, and this violence takes “different forms.” Beneath the explicit physical trafficking is the subjugation of rights and the affront to equality. The violence may manifest itself differently, but it’s target remains the same: women.

Clement looked around at the attentive students and smiled. “I’m really happy to see so many men in this audience,” she exclaimed. Sometimes it feels as though “I’m just preaching to the choir.” Men, Clement emphasized, play an integral role in the human rights conversation surrounding women. “Women need men to be defending them.” The world is not a place that can function with just one sex, Clement pointed out. The dismissal of men as merely the problem misses the point. “The book is actually a lot about the pain of living without men,” said Clement—the fathers, brothers, and husbands replaced by men of tall boots, black SUV’s, and shiny AK-47s. The problem is less about the presence of the latter and more about the absence of the former. In communities throughout the border regions, men have either gone to the United States seeking work, crossed the border and established new families, died in the process of crossing, or “have simply stopped protecting their women,” Clement explained. “I really wanted to portray the pain of that abandonment.”

One student asked perhaps the most philosophically consequential question of the night: Why? Why do these individuals in the cartels commit such horrible crimes? “Impunity,” answered Clement. There is a “culture of silence” surrounding the issues of kidnapping and trafficking in Mexico that is extremely disconcerting. “How can it be that in Mexico if I go to a police station and I say that my car was stolen, it’s a drama (‘Oh your car! What make? What color? What’s the license plate? Where did you park it? How long has it been gone?’), but if you go in and say, ‘they stole my daughter’ (‘Oh yeah she’s probably with her boyfriend. Come back in two days.’), it’s not important?”

There’s a question “I keep asking myself,” pondered Clement: “How can we make women more valuable? How can we give them more status?” In the eyes of cartels, women are perceived as merely the physical means to lucrative ends. In many areas of Mexico where “the rule of law doesn’t rule,” political and legal corruption are rampant and exacerbate the cartels’ profit-seeking agenda. Even “terrorist groups have an ideology,” noted Clement, “as horrible as it may be. But [with] the drug cartels in Mexico, there’s no ideology. It’s just pure, horrific capitalism in the most terrible form. It’s just about money.”

The affront to female dignity, however, is not an isolated phenomena. This abuse occurs across the world. It is also a complex dialectic. “Women learn patriarchy too,” said Clement. They can perpetuate neglect through dogmatic adherence to patriarchal norms. Unconsciously, “women are part of the problem.” This dialectic underscores the shear complexity of this human rights issue. Clement’s central figure in her novel possesses many of these same sentiments. The narrator’s voice is of absolute acceptance, Clement sadly concluded. “She just didn’t expect anything better.” In combating the violence against women, this acquiescent mentality is a key psychological barrier that must be overcome. “I’m very interested in how people who have no power and people who are unprotected exercise power,” Clement explained. The hope is that this power becomes manifest in more than just fiction, but also permeates reality, giving the unprotected a voice—a voice that can be wielded as a weapon.

To conclude, Clement read the section of her novel where her character had found love. It was a welcome change from the heavier subjects with which the audience had been wrestling throughout the night. There is love, Clement encouraged—real love. She brought this love into her story, a story whether truthful or fictitious desperately needed hope.

“When you were talking to the women you interviewed for the book, did any of them actually speak to you about love?” one student asked. “A lot about love, yes,” answered Clement. “And usually it was: ‘my life was fine until I met...’.” There is even a public campaign in Mexico titled “beware of love.” The promise of love acts as a manipulative tactic to encourage young women to willingly cross the border. Lured by romance, they are soon forced into the incubus from which so few return.

This tactic perhaps best encapsulates the horrific nature of both the trafficking and the general pattern of female abuse—its betrayal of hope and dignity. It also represents the violent consequences of seemingly-banal actions. “I would always like asking the women,” reflected Clement, “‘what did he buy you?’” One woman spoke of a flight to San Antonio that resulted in the purchasing of a mere leather jacket. It makes you wonder, proclaimed Clement, “How many people have died over this leather jacket!?”

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