Award-winning Ecuadorian writer Mónica Ojeda makes her English debut with Jawbone, a hair-raising novel about the horrors of adolescence. Ojeda has published short stories, poems, and novels. Jawbone is her third novel, originally published in Spanish in 2018. Sarah Booker, who renders Ojeda’s dense, tightly woven prose into a stunning new English translation, reflects that “both reading and translating this novel are unsettling experiences.” Jawbone reveals the razor-thin line between fear and desire, and the horror of becoming a woman.
Each day after school at the Delta Bilingual Academy, best friends Annelise and Fernanda meet their friends in an abandoned building, where they participate in a series of dares, rituals to Annelise’s rhinestone-encrusted firefly God. The girls bond over the terrifying stories Annelise tells them about the White God, and the painful, humiliating challenges they watch each other complete. One afternoon, when Fernanda faints during a strangling game, Annelise reminds their friends that “it’s only fun if it’s dangerous.” The girls’ new English teacher, Miss Clara, is also slowly coming unhinged; she is frightened of her students and obsessed with becoming her dead mother. The women in Jawbone are terrified and fascinated by each other.
Jawbone emphasizes the repulsiveness of the female body. Annelise explains that “the fear of the white age came on as my body was changing. First a rancid smell. Then nipples that rose up like hematomas, painful to the touch. Then the vaginal discharge, like fresh, whitish snot. The wiry hair. The stretch marks. The blood.” For Annelise, puberty is bound up in her fear of the White God, and her changing body prompts her fascination with the occult. “Childhood ends with the creation of a monster that crawls around at night,” she explains. “Puberty makes [young women] werewolves, or hyenas, or reptiles [so that] when the moon is full, we can see how we lose ourselves.” When she likens her pubescent body to a monster, Annelise highlights her capacity to be ugly, desirable, and powerful.
Adult women also struggle with the terrifying potential of their bodies. When Miss Clara realizes her mother is dying, she tries to become her. “Picking at the delicate skin between the fingers of her left hand, for example, was something that came to her naturally when she was anxious, but it had taken her seven months to adopt her mother’s body language—two years to sweat like her, a year and a half to go to the bathroom the same number of times a day.” Miss Clara’s expressions of love terrified her mother, but only after her death does Miss Clara realize that while “everyone engenders their murderers,” “only women give birth to them.” Miss Clara doesn’t just assume her mother’s habits; she also consumes her. She “cannibaliz[es] her” mother’s words in the classroom “without thinking about the taste of the eyelashes she had ripped from her mother’s cadaver like a bouquet of flowers.” Their relationship is one of disgust and love.
For Miss Clara’s students, growing up means grappling with desire, which is nearly indistinguishable from fear. In an essay she writes for Miss Clara, Annelise describes her first encounter with the White God while masturbating alone in her room. The “dense, mucousy white stain” that she saw in the darkness, “not unlike my vaginal discharge, was an apparition of my White God.” Annelise felt “a yearning and an infinite horror hanging from the same thread, and I needed to see Them again. I’m embarrassed to write this, but I’d never felt as much pleasure as I did that night, when I lost control. For the first time, I experienced true horror. And that horror was also an orgasm.” Annelise wonders if “there’s something that unites pleasure with pain and fear” because “as frightening as it was, it was also enormously arousing.” Terror pushes Annelise to her climax, highlighting the resemblance between longing and fear.
Annelise asserts control of her body through fear. “Sometimes in my nightmares,” she explains, “I’m raped by my teachers, by the gardener, by my uncles, my brother, my father … Have you ever thought about it, Miss Clara? Have you thought about how easy it is for any man to rape us? It’s as if we were made just for that purpose, so they could ram right into us; not only men, but also our mothers.” While bathing her, Annelise’s mother taught her to “sit properly and keep your mouth shut tight,” so “bad men [don’t see you and] want to abduct you and do bad things to you.” Annelise learns as a child that her body is something to fear, both for its power over others and its powerlessness against them. As a teenager, then, Annelise “put into practice a technique that allowed me to avoid masturbation and consisted of the following: when the desire to touch myself became strong and I was alone, I replayed the most sinister nightmares of rape I’d had in the previous days. That was usually enough to calm me down.” For Annelise, fear is the antidote to desire and—in her encounter with the White God—its stimulation.
Jawbone depicts the process of becoming a woman as the ultimate horror story. Annelise opines that “that’s what sets the best horror stories apart from the worst: they achieve a true form of fear.” With terrifying ease, Ojeda illustrates how womanhood is characterized by dualities: fearful and feared, desired and desiring. The line between them is so thin there is hardly a difference. Women’s potential for duality makes us powerful, but it is also the reason that we have to live in fear. “I wrote this for you,” Annelise tells Miss Clara, “because you’re the only one who understands: because sometimes it’s necessary to talk to someone who understands what fear is.” Women understand fear because we know the grisly changes of the body, and the smell of our own blood.
By Mónica Ojeda
Coffee House Press
Published February 8, 2022
Morgan Graham is an English PhD student at the University of Minnesota. She is Managing Editor at Pleiades and has published work in Colorado Review, Great River Review, The Evansville Review, and Salt Hill Journal. Find her at morgandianegraham.wordpress.com and @morgraha on Twitter.