The Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts proudly welcomes author Jennifer Clement to discuss her book Prayers for the Stolen as part of the Brazos Valley Reads initiative on April 6, 2017 at 7 p.m. at the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center.
The event, which will be followed by a book-signing, is free and open to the public.
Prayers, published in 2014, is narrated by Ladydi Garcia Martinez, a teenager in the Mexican state of Guerrero who lives in fear of drug traffickers who kidnap girls in her community. Parents take extreme measures to protect the girls of the village, including hiding them and disguising them as boys. Despite all precautions, Ladydi’s best friend Paula is abducted and returns a year later to tell of her harrowing experience as a sex slave.
While this is a work of fiction, it is based on more than a decade of Clement’s research into Mexican drug cartels.
Clement discussed her book with college staff writer Heather Rodriguez.
HR: Please explain the significance of your book’s title, Prayers for the Stolen.
JC: Well, the book title came quite late, after the book was written. I think the reason for picking it is because it refers to the stolen girls, and there’s also a sort of play on prayers throughout the whole book: Should you pray for what you want, or should you not because you could make the gods angry? So the title speaks to a lot of what goes on inside the book.
HR: What drew you to this particular topic?
JC: I was very interested in how the violence in Mexico was affecting women. In general, the literature written on the violence here–as well as what’s reported in the newspapers–tends to be the stories of men. Originally, I wasn’t quite sure which women I would be writing about. But when I heard about these little girls in the state of Guerrero who were being stolen, and how their parents dug little holes in the countryside to hide their daughters in when they saw an SUV full of cartel members coming, I realized that was the story I was going to write.
HR: How did you conduct your research?
JC: Well, the research took about ten years. I was trying to find out how the violence was affecting women, so the first two years I was interviewing a lot of women of drug traffickers and women who were in hiding. That research was very important because when I had to write about where the girls in the holes–the very vulnerable girls–were taken, thanks to having spoken to these women who knew about these ranches on the border of Mexico and the United States, I was able to place where these girls were being taken. So even though my book didn’t end up being about that exactly, it helped a lot. Then I had to research the heroin trade in Mexico and the crossing of guns from the United States into Mexico…the way that crime works in general.
HR: Immigration from Mexico is a highly-debated topic right now. In the current political climate, do you think your book will help people understand why people want to come to the United States to escape the cartels?
JC: Yes, I think the book addresses one side of that, for sure. But the truth is there’s never been less immigration into the United States than there is right now. So in many ways, the debate is absurd. The reason this has happened is that President Bill Clinton did build a fence, and it makes illegal immigrants have to go through the Arizona desert which is basically a cemetery. It’s almost impossible to get through there. And people also used to have family members who’d help them cross the border, but now of course the cartels have taken over the crossing so it’s become extremely dangerous to cross.
But the book mostly addresses human trafficking, and people don’t talk about that very much, not even in the United States. They mostly talk about the drugs coming into the United States, but they don’t talk about the trafficking of women and young girls, which is terrible.
HR: The College of Liberal Arts is committed to first-generation students, and we have many students from across our southern border. As someone who grew up in Mexico and came to the U.S. for college, do you have any advice for them?
JC: I would say that they should never forget where they came from, that they came from a culture that was and continues to be great. I always tell Americans that by the time Americans had their first Thanksgiving dinner, in Mexico we’d already had a music conservatory, a printing press, and a university, all for 100 years. I guess because of the racism Mexicans often encounter in the United States, I would just say they should remember that they come from a great country. We have some of the greatest poets, writers, artists, and architects in the world.
HR: Your work with PEN International focuses on protecting the freedom of the press. Do you feel that’s more important now than ever? If so, why?
JC: The freedom of expression and the freedom of the press is deeply important because it means the citizens are getting the truth. If you’re being censored–or in the case of Mexico, getting assassinated–a country will not know what’s happening in their own country. For me as president of PEN International, what’s very grave about what’s happening in the United States is that, since I have to deal with people in countries like Turkey, Hungary, China, and the people in exile like the Tibetans, I have always held up the United States as a beacon for freedom and the First Amendment. And what’s very grave in the world about not having this extraordinary example, is that it will embolden these leaders who practice a crackdown on the press. So for me, from an international point of view, it’s very grave.
In fact, a couple of weeks ago, myself and over 200 intellectuals, journalists, and writers signed a letter of solidarity with the journalists in the United States. [HR’s note: See that letter here.]