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Language, Gender, and Power in “Witches”

Language, Gender, and Power in “Witches”

  • Our review of Brenda Lozano's new novel, "Witches."

Brenda Lozano’s Witches, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary, tells the story of the lives of two Mexican women: Feliciana, an aging curandera, or folk healer, living in a small rural village in Oaxaca who has gained an international reputation, and Zoe, a young journalist from Mexico City. Zoe is dispatched to interview Feliciana after the murder of Feliciana’s cousin Paloma, who identified as Muzhe, a third gender within Zapotec culture. Feliciana uses local mushrooms containing psilocybin to perform healing ceremonies on those suffering from various illnesses, both physical and emotional. As the two women interact, it becomes clear that Zoe is also in need of her own healing.

As Feliciana warns in its early pages, the novel is not really about Paloma’s murder. Though Feliciana is in mourning, Paloma’s death is in some ways an afterthought, a kind of inevitability in a culture predicated on violence against women. Like Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes), Witches takes as its starting point the murder of a trans woman and explores the underbelly of misogyny and femicide in Mexican culture. Yet while Hurricane Season examines toxic masculinity from a largely male perspective, Witches is grounded in the perspectives of two women and how they come to locate their own sources of power.

Lozano deftly captures these two very different women’s voices as they tell their stories in alternating chapters. Feliciana does not speak Spanish, which she identifies as the “government’s language,” and is illiterate. Her narration is circular and at times repetitive, becoming recursive. As the book advances through the major events of her life, she draws continuous connections between the past and the present. In contrast, Zoe, a professionally trained journalist, writes in a clear, concise style, telling, at least initially, what seems to be a straightforward, linear tale.

As the novel progresses, parallels emerge in both women’s lives—the early loss of their beloved fathers, and their close relationships with their younger sisters, who have both experienced sexual assault. Feliciana’s narrative is centered around her development into a powerful curandera; although all the men in her family have been respected healers, only after all the men are gone and her sister is ill does Feliciana discover her talent. She understands the ceremonies she performs as giving her access to what she calls “the Language” and “the Book,” a secret understanding that connects her to an alternate way of knowing. In contrast, Zoe has spent her life resisting her mother’s and sister’s intuitions in favor of her father’s more mechanical worldview. Initially drawn to poetry, she has pursued journalism as the most practical application of her talent for writing. The end of the novel holds out the possibility that Zoe has yet to write her own “book.”

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At times it feels that the novel has missed some opportunities for more external action. The actual interaction between Feliciana and Zoe remains somewhat underdeveloped as the story circles instead through each woman’s past. Yet in its final pages, the novel achieves a kind of incantatory power, enacting the alternate forms of knowing that the book is celebrating. In a concise and very insightful forward, the translator, Heather Cleary, reflects upon her choices to leave certain words in Witches untranslated. Cleary’s note functions as a helpful introduction to the text that also serves as a skillful précis about the intersections of language and power with patriarchy and colonialism. English, Cleary reminds us, is a “hegemonic language,” but so, within a Mexican context, is Spanish. Feliciana’s indigenous language, and the Language of her ceremonies, is accessible to us only through multiple acts of translation. Cleary’s skillful translation of Lozano’s text offers English readers the possibility to read this beautiful novel and contemplate its multiple insights into the nature of language, gender, and power.

By Brenda Lozano
Translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
August 16, 2022

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