by María Fernanda Ampuero
translated by Frances Riddle
Feminist Press, 128 pages
reviewed by Ashley Hajimirsadeghi
In her debut short story collection, Ecuadorian writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero takes an unflinching and intimate look into the turbulent homes and lives of Latin American women. By placing her powerful, moving stories in settings like violent domestic households or lower income neighborhoods, the characters in Ampuero’s Cockfight combat their situations with acts of bravery, loss, and love. As the characters seem to suffocate in their environments, there are acts of bravery, loss, and love. The idea of a happy family is a myth and men are depicted as lecherous, terrifying creatures of the night. The narrators often are maids, young girls, and women wrenched into horrifying situations such as forced incest, rape, and human trafficking.
The thirteen stories in this collection feature a myriad of women: some brave, many abused, and others fearful of all the men in their lives. From the beginning, readers are faced with the tragedy of what it means to be a woman in contemporary Ecuadorian society. One in four women in Ecuador face sexual violence, while the rape of young adolescent girls remains a large problem. In Cockfight, the first story, “Auction,” features a main character who is kidnapped while in a taxi and is about to be sold on the black market. In another story, “Coro,” a black maid’s room is broken into by wealthy, light-skinned women and shows the racial and societal inequalities in Ecuador. In a third story, “Mourning,” a mother celebrates her husband’s death and her newfound freedom. In each of these stories, Ampuero unveils a hard truth: behind closed doors, even people in the highest levels of society are not immune to suffering. Her stories are constructed from a feminist lens by creating realistic depictions of women. These women aren’t helpless and blameless victims in need of a savior; they are flawed and completely capable of inflicting pain on others, whether it’s through belittling their maid, acts of defiance in order to survive, or wishing death upon someone.
“Monsters,” the second story in Cockfight, follows the narrator, her sister Mercedes, and the maid Narcisa, where they live a upper middle-class lifestyle attending a religious private school, but their parents are often absent in their lives. The story takes place over the course of six months, while they’re still preteens. Mercedes and the narrator watch horror movies every night, despite their parents disapproving of their hobby. These movies are often grotesque, depicting beatings and torture of women, or, in some cases, young girls, like the sisters, being brutally murdered.
In “Monsters,” Ampuero strips the three girls of their youth by showing them how cruel the world really is. For Mercedes and the narrator, they learn of the abuse of women through film, but they initially see it as fiction. Because they’re watching horror films, it doesn’t seem like anything similar could happen to them. They are two preteen girls who lack any real problems up the events of the story; the extent of their biggest woes tend to be against the nuns running their school. As the story begins to unfold, they learn that reality is harsh, just like a horror film. The maid, Narcisa, who is fourteen and not much older, gives them a grave warning:
“[Their] arms burned as [Narcisa] repeated that now [they] had to beware of the living more than the dead—that now [they] really had to be more afraid of the living than of the dead.”
It is then that the films they watched before, the ones that gave Mercedes nightmares, start to seep into reality.
The story immediately following “Monsters” is called “Griselda.” Set in a poor neighborhood, it is narrated by an unnamed little girl with an unforgiving and blunt way of seeing the world. The narrator tells the story of Miss Griselda, the local baker who makes amazing cakes, who is found one night in her home covered in blood. As the neighborhood ladies gossip about what could’ve gone down, the narrator is unassuming, seeing the world for the way it is: full of pain. While everyone calls Miss Griselda an alcoholic, the narrator notices how Miss Griselda’s daughter, Griseldita, tries to dismiss the incident and perpetuates rumors by screaming at the neighborhood women to “mind their own business.”
Cockfight is an investigation of domestic spaces, women’s bodies, and the meaning of a coming-of-age story, one that strips the male gaze and sees the world for how it is: ugly, grotesque, brutal.
In “Monsters,” the conflict directly appears in the domestic space of the narrator, while in “Griselda” the violence is only seen from a distance and from an outsider’s perspective. Those who are from a lower class lack the privilege of being naïve about how the world truly is; this is shown through the narrator’s blunt, almost uncaring, style about what happened to Miss Griselda. Upon the loss of Miss Griselda’s cakes to the neighborhood, the narrator only says, “I didn’t give a damn about cakes anymore.” She watches the scene of the crime calmly, taking note of the growing bloodstained sheet and Griselda’s pushed aside panties. However, in “Monsters,” the narrator and her sister, Mercedes, are unable to describe their trauma. There is an absence of detail–it is only written that Mercedes screams upon seeing what’s happening. The lack of information about what’s truly going on in this story shows the disconnect between the narrator and reality, because what they witness is something they’ve only seen in movies.
Ampuero is unafraid in this stunning debut collection. She takes the language of suffering and abuse and turns it into a memorial for the living. While these are stories of tragedy, they offer an insight to the various issues plaguing Ecuadorian women. Cockfight is an investigation of domestic spaces, women’s bodies, and the meaning of a coming-of-age story, one that strips the male gaze and sees the world for how it is: ugly, grotesque, brutal.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is an undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her work has appeared in Into the Void, Corvid Queen, and cahoodaloodaling, among others. She attended the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute and was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow. You can find her at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.squarespace.com