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María Fernanda Ampuero on “Cockfight,” Visceral Writing, and the Cruelty of Family Life

By Victor Meadowcroft

Victor Meadowcroft attended the 2019 international book fair in Guadalajara, where he interviewed writers María Fernanda Ampuero and Ariana Harwicz, and publishers Diego Rabasa (Sexto Piso) and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press). Read more about his experience at the book fair.


María Fernanda Ampuero is an Ecuadorean author and journalist whose debut collection of short stories, Cockfight (tr. Frances Riddle), will be published by the Feminist Press in 2020. She is the manager of the Plan Nacional del Libro y la Lectura José de la Cuadra, an initiative that promotes reading and literary diversity in Ecuador, and is also one of the organizers of the Quito International Book Fair.

Having met María at the Guadalajara Book Fair in 2018, I caught up with her again this year following her participation in a fascinating panel discussion about narrative nonfiction— specifically, the nebulous boundary between fact and fiction—that was chaired by Jorge Volpi (Mexico) and also featured writers Leila Guerriero (Argentina), Javier Cercas (Spain), and Julián Herbert (Mexico).


Victor Meadowcroft (VM): What brings you back to the Guadalajara Book Fair (the FIL) each year?

María Fernanda Ampuero (MFA): This year, in particular, was very difficult, and coming here is like being able to breathe. There’s something that happens at the FIL—you meet with lots of people you care about, and with readers. But what it really makes you do is connect with yourself, with what you dreamed about for yourself, with this fascinating thing that is dedicating yourself to a profession that, for the rest of the year—those 360 days—is miserable. And suddenly you’re at this party that is only, only, only dedicated to what you do. I don’t know if ontologists feel this way at an ontologists’ conference—maybe they do.


VM: Is that different from other book fairs? And, for you, what positives have emerged from coming to Guadalajara last year? Having your book picked up by a US publisher?

MFA: There’s a lot of joy here. It’s like when you go to a party where everything goes perfectly because everyone’s really happy and fond of each other—like the kind of party you would throw for your child, which, if done entirely with love, is beautiful. Well, here the child is the book. You can tell that there’s love for the book. Not just for selling it, but for talking about it.

I find much more fulfillment in feelings and emotions than in professional achievements. Of course, professional achievements make me happy, and of course I feel super excited, and of course I’m ambitious. We wouldn’t publish if we weren’t ambitious. But, from Guadalajara, what I take away each year is a love of life, a love for myself. Each time I come, because of the way I am treated, I remember why I do this. I remember that there’s one thing, at least one thing in my life, that I know how to do. And that it’s not just about what I’ve written, but to do with the way I am. It’s lovely to see the most beautiful part of yourself reflected in each smiling face of the people who receive you. I feel that my role here is to take advantage of this energy. Have you ever seen the movie Cocoon? It was one of the movies from my generation, and it’s about a group of people who get into a pool that revitalizes them with energy. They’re all very old, some of them sick, and the pool has this power over them. Guadalajara is like a Cocoon that rejuvenates.


VM: Last year you spoke up about the lack of female representation on some of the literary panels. Do you feel the festival has made any progress in that department this year?

MFA: Yes, totally. Now that I’m organizing [the Quito International Book Fair], I put myself in everybody else’s shoes and, of course, it’s very easy to criticize. But it’s also difficult, with such an extensive canon based solely on male authors, for a woman who writes about a specific topic to occur to you naturally. The most logical thing, to begin with, is to have women talking about women’s writing. But the real evolution will be . . . Think about it, for example, in terms of indigenous literature. Indigenous literature is literature; it’s poetry, it’s prose. Perhaps, initially, you might group indigenous writers together. But later on, you already know what they write about, and they don’t write about being indigenous—some do, but others don’t—rather, they write historical novels, they write chronicles, they write romantic poetry, they write humor. Now that you already know them, you know what discussions to include them in: humor in Mexico, for example. And so instead the theme is “authors who write about humor.” I think that learning process is starting, and people will say, “OK, María Fernanda Ampuero”—to use myself as an example—“writes about violence: let’s have a discussion about violence in Latin America,” and you’d have [Julián] Herbert, Antonio Ortuño, you know? Without having to make the statement of “I’ve got women talking.” Because, what’s more, it’s offensive.

Look, I’m a real activist, so it’s logical [that I am asked about being a woman writer], but journalists never ask me about my aesthetic approach, about my references within world literature, about my next work. It doesn’t bother me, because I’m an activist, but I do understand that many female writers have had it up to their ovaries with this situation. Because they aren’t necessarily activists, but for simply having a vagina between their legs, or for identifying as a woman, instead it’s, “Why are you a woman? Why are you a woman? Why are you a woman?” I’m a living being with thousands of interests: the sciences, mathematics, the arts. But for some journalists, it’s as though we wrote with our vaginas. And we don’t. I mean, they don’t spend all their time asking men about their foreskins, their scrotums, their penises; they ask them about the world. But with me, they only ask about being a woman. I have opinions about the world as well. I’m actually here, I represent fifty percent of the population, you know? What’s more, this book fair is organized by women; it’s basically women who put on this gigantic festival. But when you start a revolution, it’s about making a crack in this tower that appears so indestructible, right? And making that crack takes time, I think. There have been many years of roundtables where nobody questioned why we had five men talking about a theme. Nobody thought it was strange. Feminism and social media had to come along before people began to say, “What?!” But this doesn’t happen overnight, and I think [the FIL] has really taken note.


VM: Your first book of short stories, Cockfight, is due to be published in English next year by the Feminist Press. Can you tell our readers a bit about the collection?

MFA: Oh, I’m so excited. I know that in Latin America pelea de gallos [cockfight] has very strong connotations, because, although it comes from Spain, there is a practice of cockfighting from north to south. It exists from Mexico to Patagonia, despite being outlawed in several countries. Here, in Jalisco, for example, it’s legal and is seen as extremely important. It has these connotations that relate to social class and a certain kind of Latin American culture, like bullfighting—something that also came from Spain. But on the other hand, in “cockfight” you have this double meaning of the word “cock,” so it’s really powerful. Just the translation of that term gives the book a whole new life. And it gives it this semantic element, this other interpretation. Because, of course, in the Spanish, all the violence is present in the title, but just imagine all of this violence being implied by a title that has this double meaning. I’m very excited. I’m very grateful to the English language for existing, and for having this connotation of the word “cock.” Oh, I’m expecting great things.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover, but it’s marvelous. Against all expectations, it’s yellow. Normally, you’d think of red, which is what they did with the Spanish cover. But, out of nowhere, they decided to make the English version yellow, brutally yellow. It reminds me of books by [Chuck] Palahniuk. That yellow looks so violent, I don’t know how or why. It’s such a good reflection of that blur of cocks fighting. I’m over the moon.

And there’s also something I can’t deny, which is that our culture, the culture of my generation, has been demonstrably influenced by the English-speaking world. We grew up watching British and US series and movies; a large part of my narrative structure was provided by Superman and E.T., Hollywood narratives. Without meaning this pejoratively, I think many of us learned to tell stories thanks to The Goonies. So to suddenly discover that something I’ve written can prompt the English-speaking world to look inward at itself rather than at Latin America—because this is something I’ve always said—my writing isn’t just a depiction of Latin America. That’s precisely why I’ve removed all the geographical references, because this is something universal; we’re talking about families here. So I’m really excited.   

“The rhetoric of exceptionalism is actually really offensive. . . . The fact that women write is not an anomaly.” 

VM: Where do you find inspiration for your work, and do you think there are any specific themes that emerge throughout your fiction?

MFA: The inspiration? Unfortunately, reality. It’s very sad to have to say that in relation to such a cruel book. But, as I always tell everybody, I don’t even scratch the surface of the horror. I can’t. I remember, for example, when they found that authorities were storing hundreds of corpses inside a container here in Mexico. Who can describe that? Who would think that up? Or the decapitated bodies that appear? Or the ones hanging from bridges, in view of children? Unfortunately, I have to say that it comes from reality. And, this is hard to say as well, but I don’t know anybody whose family life has been free from cruelty. Everybody has lost their innocence in horrible ways, very early on, and inside their own homes. So I think that’s where it comes from. It’s not just my pain, but the pain of everyone I’ve met in my life. I think the “leitmotif,” my obsession, is violence against the weak; this system that is classist, racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic; this crushing of the Other, just because they aren’t white men from the West.


VM: Two other Ecuadorean authors, Gabriela Alemán and Mónica Ojeda, have also recently been translated into English. Do you think we’re witnessing a particularly rich period for Ecuadorean fiction, or is it just a case of the English-speaking world finally taking notice?

MFA: It’s like the chicken and the egg. Which came first? Because it’s also a matter of supply and demand. The publishing market is a market. What a difficult question this is—it’s so difficult to answer.


VM: Do you think there has always been good writing in Ecuador?

MFA: Yes, and good writing by women. In fact, one of the nice things those of us who make up the current generation in Ecuador do is to constantly remind ourselves that we aren’t exceptional or unusual. Because the rhetoric of exceptionalism is actually really offensive. It’s as though you’re this “rare bird,” which is perhaps how they viewed the Ocampo sisters in Borges’s time—as an anomaly. The fact that women write is not an anomaly. Placing the focus on “oh, a woman who writes, a woman who writes” also turns her into a freak show. And that’s not what we are; we’re humans who write, just like Shakespeare or anyone else. So yes, in Ecuador there has been very powerful writing by women. I’ll mention Lupe Rumazo and Alicia Yáñez Cossío, for example. What’s happening is very beautiful, because there’s a process of exhumation, as I call it, taking place, of great novels and poetry collections that came into the world stillborn—either because the books were self-published or part of a tiny print run, or won some prize and were just kept in a warehouse, or because the book simply had its moment, sold three hundred copies, and that was that, right? It was consigned to oblivion. Something else that happens in our country is that the library system is pitiful, so there’s no record of anything. This process of rescuing our ancestors is going on all over Latin America, which is beautiful. Next year they’re reissuing Lupe Rumazo’s great novel, for example.

So it’s not a case of exceptionalism. I think what’s happening is not so much because we’re being published by foreign publishers, although I’m sure that has something to do with it as well, but rather a case of the visibility we’ve been afforded by social media, allowing readers to share books by word-of-mouth, which is un-silenceable. Because it no longer matters what that man who writes the roundups and reviews says. No, there are thousands of women readers; in fact, the vast majority of readers around the world are women. And there are thousands and thousands of them creating this sort of echo effect on social networks. You can no longer silence them. They’re exercising their right as consumers. So it’s a mixture of all these things. I don’t think it has anything to do with quality. I think it has to do with the historic moment and, above all, with technology. Now, there’s also Daniela Alcívar, with her novel Siberia, which is being published by Candaya in 2020, and, alongside that, we have Gabriela Ponce with Sanguínea, and María Valladares, an impressive writer who I’m sure will be discovered very soon. So, yes—it’s an entire soccer team!


VM: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?

MFA: Actually, I’ve spent a long time thinking about the next book; thinking of a title helps me. With Cockfight, I did things the other way around. It was something I worked on with Juan Casamayor, my editor, trying to find a title that somehow encapsulated the spirit of the book. Now I want to do that exercise in reverse, and I think it will be called “Visceral,” because that’s one of the words that has been used to describe my writing. I always remind people that the heart is part of the viscera—in gastronomy, for example, the heart falls under “viscera.” I find that interesting, that being visceral is also to act from the heart.


Translated by Victor Meadowcroft


Read more about the 2019 FIL Guadalajara

Read interviews with writer Ariana Harwicz and publishers Diego Rabasa (Sexto Piso) and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)

Published Jan 24, 2020   Copyright 2020 Victor Meadowcroft

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