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Brenda Lozano: Brujas (Witches)

It is generally well-known that violenvce against women, including femicide is a major problem in Mexico and this subject is now being dealt with in Mexican literature. While not the only topic in this novel, it certainly is key.

We are following the stories of three women. Two of them are brujas, witches, but in a positive sense of the word. They act as curanderas, i.e. traditional healers as well as being able to see into people’s souls and help with their problems. The first is Paloma, who is murdered at the beginning of the book and whose murder leads us to her backstory and the backstories of the other two women.

Paloma was a curandero (note the masculine ending) called Gaspar as she was a muxe. The word is a corruption of the Spanish word mujer, meaning woman and refers to a person assigned male at birth in Zapotec culture who dresses and behaves in ways otherwise associated with women. Gaspar comes from a family of curanderos (it is generally a family tradition) and because Gaspar’s family had a good reputation, people consult him even as a child. He will later become Paloma and continue as a curandera.

Related to Paloma and telling much of Paloma’s story is Feliciana. As she says, you’re a curandera because you carry it in your blood. Her mother was almost thirteen when she was born and her father sixteen. By the time she was twenty, she had three children and was a widow. She looked after her children, her sister, Francisca, her mother and Paloma. They live in a small town called San Juan de los Lagos which, despite its name (it means Saint John of the Lakes) did not have a single lake and, indeed, not much else. She may well be based on María Sabina.

The family was illiterate but Feliciana enjoyed the Simpsons (yes, the US comedy) with her first book being Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life. The Simpsons remained a big influence on the family.

The third woman is Zoe. She is a journalist and is eager to cover the stories of Paloma and Feliciana, which she does.

The book is essentially the backstories of the three. Feliciana, as mentioned had a hard early life. She had a younger sister called Francisca. She married Nicanor who went off fighting with the revolutionaries. She gets word that he has been killed but later learns that this might not be the case and, indeed, he turns up, almost unrecognisable and a changed man. His taste for liquor rotted our marriage the way a fruit rots if no one collects it from the ground. He is a drunk, violent towards his wife and children and unfaithful, though it is the latter that leads to his premature death.

As a widow she keeps going and gradually becomes a curandera. She starts out when her hip is hurting and she manages to cure it herself – she has little faith in what she calls the sages of medicine, i.e. conventional doctors. Initially her work with others involves physical medicine, using herbs and mushrooms, but she gradually starts treating diseases of the soul. She also works with Paloma. Like most of the women in this book, Paloma is subject to male violence. There are people who fear us because they don’t understand what we do…I look inside the sick one, I see the root of their physical sickness or the suffering buried in their soul and that is something the sages of medicine can’t do.

Her sister Francisca is not as strong and she looks after her, curing her when she gets very ill. Francisca is also subject to male violence.

Feliciana is very successful and becomes famous internationally, leading to a lot of resentment from the locals. Though she never learns Spanish, she does communicate with people from all over the world who help her out but consult her and admire her.

Zoe, of course, has a very different life, growing up in Mexico City and being formally educated. We follow her life and her ups and downs. Her sister, Leandra, is more colourful being rampantly bisexual. Zoe is subject to sexism, with two major instances. The first is when she wants to be a drummer but, of course, girls don’t become drummers but, of course, they do. The second is when she wants to become a journalist and is told there weren’t any openings for little girls with too much time on their hands. We work here, he said, this isn’t a place you come to kill time. She does, of course, become a journalist and interviews Feliciana. She is more cautious than her sister in matters sexual but still gets pregnant and has to have an illegal abortion. Leandra, apart from being expelled from school three times, the last one because she tried to burn it down, almost gets raped when her drink is spiked but is saved by her mother’s intuition.

We will follow all of them till the murder of Paloma – by a man, of course.

This really is a first-class novel. While violence against women and sexism in general are key features, much of the book is about the lived life of the women. Men of course can be curanderos and can be journalists, but what we see with Feliciana and Zoe is the woman’s perspective, clearly a different one from the man’s. Not all the men in the book are monsters, though many are, nor are all the women saints, far from it, but the book shows that, in Mexico, and, obviously, elsewhere, women are far more likely to be the victims but also the ones that show the way.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Alfaguara
First English publication in 2022 by Catapult
Translated by Heather Cleary