I don’t quite know where to begin to attempt to write about this book. The historical roots and global and economic crosscurrents that course through the so-called War on Drugs that has openly threatened the fabric of Mexican society since 2006 go back much further. Yet, as I understand it, when President Felipe Calderón sent troops to his home state in a bid to end the longstanding drug violence there, the action initiated the ongoing conflict between the government and the drug cartels, that has effectively brought an unspeakable brutality out of the margins and into the daily lives of the country’s citizens. It has become a war against the Mexican people, and a war against women.
Cristina Rivera Garza’s hybrid essay collection Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country gathers twenty-eight pieces—some personal, some journalistic, some literary—as a tribute to the power of language in the face of unrelenting fear and violence, and at times her words leave you gasping for breath. It is not a comfortable read. She writes about the barrage of visceral attacks that reduce human beings to unrecognizable bodies, tortured and mutilated, and of the killings, targeted and incidental, that rob mothers of their children, communities of their respected members, families of loved ones. And she writes about femicide, the murder of women, that too often goes unpunished. Like that of her own sister.
But what to do? How to address this accumulating pain, the pain of an entire people? Grieving in this context is not a mere process of coming to terms, to peace with a loss. There is no peace, the losing is relentless, the grief exponential. In Rivera Garza’s passionate, gut wrenching Introduction she speaks of the importance of recognizing the shared experience, the shared voice:
When everything falls silent, when the gravity of the facts far surpasses our understanding and even our imagination, then there it is—ready, open, stammering, injured, babbling—the language of pain, the pain we share with others.
And this is the importance of suffering, for where suffering lies, so, too, does grieving: the deep sorrow that binds us within emotional communities willing and able to face life anew, even if it means, or especially when it means, radically revising and altering the world we share. There, where suffering lies, so, too, does the political imperative to say, You pain me, I suffer with you, I grieve myself with you. We mourn us.
The texts that follow include published and unpublished essays, poems and crónicas, Spanish pieces translated Sarah Booker along with some originally written in English. For admirers of her enigmatic, dark novels like The Iliac Crest and the Taiga Syndrome, Grieving offers an opportunity to hear the acclaimed Mexican author speak directly to the tragic state of her country with painful honesty, strength and hope.
The works that comprise this collection are varied and relatively short, but the intensity of the material may be best processed and appreciated by taking a few pieces at a time. As someone with little understanding of the political reality of present day Mexico—awareness of the gruesome violence and the dangers to citizens and, at times, visitors, yes, but limited comprehension of the dynamics at play—I was continually faced with my own instinctive reaction to the idea of living under the conditions in which so many Mexicans find themselves on a daily basis. Rivera Garza’s language is powerful, poetic, but so much of what she touches on is grim, raw and heartbreaking. A central unifying construct is her notion of The Visceraless State—one that lacks political acknowledgement of the human body and its individual subjectivity—arguing that by engaging in this mis-named Drug War, the Mexican government has placed maximum profits above its obligations and responsibilities to its own citizens.
Essay collections are sometimes weighed down by a degree of sameness, a feeling that the same or similar themes are being rehashed, rather than viewed anew as the work progresses. Although Grieving is an attempt to articulate the present situation in Mexico, it is not an explicitly historical or journalistic effort. It is, rather, a human response, from a woman who is not just a reader and a writer, but “a mother and a daughter and a sister. A grieving sister.” Rivera Garza is writing from within her personal experiences, offering astute intellectual observances only as needed. The result is an eclectic, thematically focused exploration, yet one that picks up refrains, images and stories, calling on them again and again through the course of the book.
This is, then, a work that cannot be easily summarized. I was fascinated by several of the pieces that spoke about books not yet translated into English and their authors’ perspectives and contributions to an understanding of forces at play—not just in Mexico but in other analogous situations in social and political history. Cruelty and inhumanity is not the sole domain of any particular time or place. But there are a few key pieces that I found especially powerful. “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life” examines the impact of drug based violence on youth through testimonies contained in a volume called Estos últimos años en Ciudad Juárez (2020) which looks at the recent period in Ciudad Juarez, a city on the Rio Grande, south of El Paso, Texas, and the price paid by the people there. Rivera Garza frames the lived reality:
No survives a war unscathed. Just as rivers feed nearby land by virtue of their mere existence, wounds run deep and pain seeps through every inch of the body. No action, no word, no gesture is unconnected to war. Similarly, actions and words and gestures remain linked to a growing alertness, a critical consciousness, about the sources of tragedy and loss. There are laments in the book, but they are never disassociated from the rage and indignation against a Visceraless State and the profit-making cartels. Wounded and on their toes at the same time, the people who remember their youth in a war-ravaged Ciudad Juárez, while still, in many cases, confronting the damage brought upon them by forces larger than their own, speak directly and to the point: We were robbed, many testify. They robbed us of our youth, indeed, but more importantly, they robbed us of our future.
Another especially powerful entry that again takes us back to Ciudad Juárez is “The Longest Sunday.” This essay recounts, in 13 brief numbered segments or chapters, a day Rivera Garza spent in the city. She is heading there to meet a woman whose testimony was included in the volume discussed in the piece mentioned above (which appears in any earlier part of Grieving). Luz Mariá Dávila had lost her only two sons in a violent massacre in 2010. Their meeting is sensitively portrayed. But this visit also brings to the surface the author’s own anxiety before arriving in a city that occupies “a sadly privileged place in our geographies of contemporary horror” to which increasing reports of femicides had also been added:
I remember the wide streets, empty of people, the string of abandoned houses that lined the road all the way from the airport to the hotel. A black hole in the very heart of the city. An immovable immobility. That way of repeatedly looking over your shoulder like you were expecting the worst, sure it would come at any second.
Her account unfolds under the quiet burden of grief, of pain, carried not simply in the story of one grieving mother’s sorrow and stubborn resolve, but in the complex emotions that Rivera Garza wrestles with under the “overwhelmingly blue sky” on that Sunday in Ciudad Juárez.
This is just a very brief sampling of this vital collection. For a taste of the intensity and insight, Rivera Garza brings to her essay writing, I can point you to a slightly different edit of the second last piece in this work which I had the great honour to publish in the spring of 2020 when I was an editor with 3:AM Magazine. Written in the early days of the pandemic when Trump was still President, “Touching is a Verb: The Hands of the Pandemic and Its Inescapable Questions” is not only an ever relevant meditation on the impact of COVID-19 on our relationships but a cautiously optimistic look ahead to the possibility of a Visceral State. It can be found here. Only time will tell what more questions and answers the pandemic will bring, but hope must be maintained, against all odds.
Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza is translated by Sarah Booker and published by Feminist Press.