By Brenda Lozano
(Translated by Heather Cleary)
Catapult Books — 16th August 2022
ISBN: 9781646220687 — Hardcover — 240 pp.
Witches (Brujas) forms through the contrapuntal voices of two women: their distinct experiences separated by time and societal position, yet united in conversation around themes of shared experience, and the haunting ghost of a memory – the murdered Paloma.
A curandera from the rural mountain village of San Felipe, Feliciana has struggled to be accepted as a traditional healer within a community accustomed to males alone serving in the ceremonies of the role. But, Feliciana herself has been trained by her cousin, the retired curandera preceding her: Paloma, formerly a curandero named Gaspar. Gaspar/Paloma was Muxe, a third gender recognized by the indigenous Zapotec people of Oaxaca, Mexico. And now Paloma is dead, a victim of prejudice against Muxe.
A journalist from the urban modernity of Mexico City, Zoe has faced her own opposition as a female in her profession, and she also has a close familial relation afflicted with intolerance: her queer sister Leandra, a non-conforming young woman with vocal far-left politics. When Zoe hears of the murder of Paloma, she journeys to San Felipe to interview Feliciana for a story.
There, she learns of what Paloma passed on to Feliciana: of the velada ceremonies with their hallucinogenic mushroom Children; the reception of the Language and the knowledge of the Book. But even more deeply, she gains insight into her own life and its parallels to a history of colonialism and oppressions, universalities that transcend education, class, or environment.
In her notes, translator Heather Cleary perfectly summarizes a thematic core of Brenda Lozano’s novel: “Witches is an exploration of the many ways that women and gender non-comforming individuals are marginalised in our hetero-normative patriarchy.” With its divergent narrators, it’s also a study of indigenous versus Western perspectives, and of the importance and variegation of language in all its diverse forms. In contrast to Zoe, Feliciana speaks only in the local traditional language of her ancestors, rejecting the Spanish ‘tongue’ of government, colonialization. Unable to read or write, Feliciana continues an oral tradition of storytelling and understanding, and the Language of her mystical healing.
Lozano accentuates the cultural and educational differences between Feliciana and Zoe through distinct styles in the chapters that alternate between their points-of-view. Whereas chapters from Zoe’s point-of-view are more conventional in grammar and related structure, Feliciana’s chapters follow a stream-of-conscience style that wends and flows lyrically in long, flowering phrases strung together with elliptical asides and conversational wit.
The precious nature of language to identity and meaning also resonates through the act of translating Lozano’s novel from Spanish. Alongside the novel, Cleary provides a thorough and fascinating discussion of her choices in translating the novel, and putting it in the cultural and historical contexts that might be unknown to readers. She also describes reasoning behind word choices in keeping, or altering, original terms from the Spanish or indigenous traditions. The fact that translation of this novel by Clearly doubles the inherent artistic themes of Lozano’s work makes the work an even more complex and layered piece of literature.
While plot may be secondary to the self-revelations of the novel’s protagonists and the sociopolitical commentaries that lie beneath the text, the discovery of two families’ pasts and secrets through the perspective of Zoe and Feliciana does give some linearity to the otherwise elliptical novel, particularly in Zoe’s relation with (understanding of) her sister Leandra.
A sub-theme of the novel within the indigenous versus Western traditions sphere that I particularly enjoyed would be the contrasting, yet unified, faith traditions of Feliciana and Zoe: the Zapotec and Roman Catholic mysticism, respectively. Colonialism has of course created countless hybrid religious systems that marry the indigenous and Christian, but what’s most interesting to compare within Witches is the ways in which separate mystical beliefs guide the lives, and hopes of the two women amid uncertainty and oppression alike.
From the novel’s description, and the categories that some Goodreads readers placed the novel within, I expected Witches to qualify as ‘speculative fiction in translation’, with magical realism. Though the novel is magical, mystical, even macabre in spots in otherworldliness, it’s decidedly not fantastic. Nonetheless, this shouldn’t be a detriment to any genre fans to checking it out.
Relatively short, Witches is paradoxically blatant about its feminist themes yet understated in its presentation of them within the lives of Feliciana and Zoe, interweaving both of their perspectives as women with greater complexities of gender diversity and colonial politics. It’s a novel of timeless ideas that gives off vibes of brimming with both modern sensibilities and ancient wisdom. The words pour over readers effortlessly, yet call for second readings beneath the surface of that flow. Read it, and reflect.