Brenda Navarro’s evocative and powerful novel Empty Houses explores the pain of losing a child, the social impositions of motherhood, and the plight of Mexico’s disappeared and economically disadvantaged. It opens with the voice of a distraught mother whose autistic three-year-old boy Daniel is snatched away from her in a Mexico City park as she is distracted by a break-up text from her lover. But her anguish is based not only on Daniel’s disappearance but her own self-preservation and ambivalence about being a mother. She hadn’t wanted a child in the first place, so why should she now suffer in this way? The narrative then switches to the voice of the woman who abducted the boy, who she calls Leonel, and hers is a story of desperation in the grip of poverty and violence, whose outlook only grows bleaker with this new burden of responsibility. It is a taut and devastating study of loneliness, guilt, trauma and inexpressible love that lives on long after reading.

Mark: Daniel’s mother doubts she should ever have brought a new life into the world. To what extent do you feel that a woman’s identity is erased on becoming a mother, and what are the chances of her retrieving it?

Brenda: I don’t feel that motherhood erased our identities; on the contrary, what I think is that political identities are configured around motherhood because up to this point it is women who have children biologically, and there are logistics of the state that encourage us to be mothers because it is what sustains power relations between states and citizens. I mean, motherhood is in the air: there is no woman, and no man, that escapes from this discussion about whether or not to be a mother and how that defines our future; even if you are a man, you are talking about the maternity of your girlfriend, wife, lover, sister, etc. And you evaluate that when you choose whether to go out with a woman, or if your friends should commit or not in a relationship.

Although we do not want to define ourselves through motherhood, society defines us that way. But the most important thing is not that I feel it, but that there are data, facts, reports and research that prove it and generate an oppressive environment that is reduced to identity, but that undoubtedly has to do with women’s economic autonomy. Autonomy to do everything is what motherhood as a concept denies us in all societies.

What spurred the idea of building a novel around the snatching of a child, told through the voices of the mother and the woman who abducts him?

The novel inside me started with a red umbrella opening. That was the first image that existed. Then I knew that the umbrella hid something painful.

This is what the second voice says: “I was the woman with the red umbrella who jumped into the taxi…” Then I thought that this woman had to break the life balance. I needed someone else who this woman had damaged, and that’s how the first voice appeared. That’s how I started, giving the woman who had received the early damage a chance to say the first word. Afterwards, the second voice would say what she had to say about her actions.

I wrote this novel thinking about missing persons in Mexico. But especially thinking about the year 2013, when all of us as Mexican citizens were in a kind of state of shock. It was a tough time, and for me as a writer it was interesting to try to figure out how we could survive with all this pain around us.

And I remembered that my main questions were: What keeps us alive despite the constant misfortunes? How does a mother go on living, how does she live, how does she breathe with that pain? How does she not disappear?

That is how the novel began, with many questions about dealing with pain, and to this point there is nothing more painful than a missing child.

Change the word motherhood for happiness or success, and you will see that we share many more feelings with these two women than we think at first glance. Pain and dissatisfaction are what unites us with other living beings.”

The two women are from opposite sides of the track in Mexico City, but both are unstable and uncertain, gripped by fear, obsession, shame, pain and loneliness. How would you describe the qualities that link and divide their lives? And how together do they represent the lives of women in the city and in Mexico at large?

They are indeed from different social classes, but they do not live that far away. That is Mexico City’s peculiarity; a simple street can divide someone who is middle class from someone who is working class. People with money need to have poor people around to survive; otherwise, they would not hold out.

When the second voice meets Daniel/Leonel, she finds it curious that a woman of her skin colour is there with rich people, because Daniel’s mother is not white. That paragraph of the novel defines that they are closer than it is believed. And that is what I think happens in Mexico City and the world in general: the idea that we are more different than we think raises borders that should not exist.

You say they are full of pain, obsessions, shame and loneliness, but isn’t this what defines Europe right now with the pandemic? Human beings who are trying to survive for an uncertain future when we have seen many people die, obsessed with ‘returning to normality’, who feel a lot of loneliness because we have been told that we have to achieve happiness but cannot. Change the word motherhood for happiness or success, and you will see that we share many more feelings with these two women than we think at first glance. Pain and dissatisfaction are what unites us with other living beings, only circumstances change, but in the end we are all suffering because the world is not as they told us, and we have to adjust to what we have in front of us, there is no more even we want it.

The two narrators’ voices are wholly distinct. The mother is considered and controlled, even as she expresses her anxieties and self-doubt, while the abductor’s voice is frantic, unhinged and vulgar. Did you write one first, then the other before bolting them together, or were you alternating between the two as you wrote?

For me, the novel is a conversation between both characters. In that way, it was essential to differentiate one from the other in how they express themselves, the smallest detail in the words they use, how they both narrate their pain, and the importance of existing in different places through their stories. The difference between the middle- and working-class outlook on life, their expectations, and how they experience their world had to be felt.

I was interested in having two voices that were in dialogue with each other. Like, you know: “Do you think this is pain? Look, I have this one, and I have these reasons. Do you think this is unbearable? You haven’t seen anything because you forget these other facts.” It’s not a competition about who is suffering more; it is about context and the eternal question: to do or not to do in a world where women don’t have rights and the truth is a questionable concept. What is true, and who judges that?

I tried to write a kind of treatise on pain and put on the table how much their pain could be universal. Mainly because I consider that pain is what unites us with all living beings. We all suffer, and the way we deal with it is what I’m interested in talking about.

Three-year-old Daniel’s plight is still more devastating because he is autistic and incapable of expressing his feelings, and his behavioural problems make him more difficult to love. Why did you decide to give him this additional disadvantage?

I think Daniel knows how to communicate very well. He, in his own words, calls out to the person he needs. As he cries and struggles to adjust to what life throws at him, his dissatisfaction is in plain view; the problem is that society has educated us to communicate in a particular way, and if we veer from that we have a problem. It’s like with language: people who don’t speak the dominant language are the ones who have to adapt to those who have all the tools, and not the other way around. And that happens to Daniel; he knows how to communicate. The adults have no intention of listening to him because, first, he is on the autism spectrum, second, he is a child, two disadvantages in an adult-centred world.

This disadvantage of childhood is a subject that seemed important to me to touch on. The autism spectrum is a metaphor for a society absorbed in its own individual desires and sufferings that cannot listen to childhood in all its diversity. This is the seed that leads to pains beyond all others. As humanity, we are a chain of unprocessed pain.

The mother’s husband Fran is unloved and impassive, the abductor’s partner Rafa is an unfeeling, violent gangster, and Fran’s brother-in-law Xavi killed his wife, Fran’s sister. How would you summarise the characters and functions of the men in the novel?

They are triggers and possibly the reflection of a society which, as I have said, has a lot of pain that translates into different forms of violence. I am sure that Fran suffered from what happened. Still, since he is a man brought up not to show his feelings and guided to be the breadwinner of the family, he focuses on that, puts his feelings aside and overvalues ​​his duty. This also seems symptomatic of an economic system that oppresses both women and men. Rafa is a violent person, but he is not a monster. He can empathise with his partner when she loses the baby, and there is a scene where he cries about this. I know many men who are not Mexican or Spanish who are like these characters, and this should make us question how much violence is social and not just a personal decision. We all grow up with different levels of cruelty. But this was a novel about two specific voices. That’s why men are not the protagonists, but at the same time they influence events.

Each chapter is prefaced by lines from the poetry of Wisława Szymborska. What draws you to her work, and why is it such a good fit for this novel and its themes?

I really admire Wisława Szymborska’s work because she could talk about the most philosophical things in a way that can seem almost too simple. I believe that she knew how to use each word perfectly and understood that they can have different signifiers, and she managed to make every word universal.

It is difficult for me to understand that my novel could be classified as only about motherhood. When I was writing it, I wanted to explore disappearances, pain, injustice, poverty, loneliness, love. To reduce it to what these two women have to say about motherhood is to suggest their problems lie in the fact they are women. Szymborska’s work fits because she makes a contrast of beauty where it seems no beauty can exist, and I contend that in my novel there is beauty too.

Justice is a concept that we urgently need to review. The rule of law was made to protect property, and those who own are a tiny group of people who govern the lives of millions who are made invisible in pursuit of the common good.”

At a couple of moments in the book, the title is used to evoke the female body as “a container, a kind of empty courtyard reverberating with distant city sounds. The empty house, structurally sound but never lived in, bleak”; “ready to accommodate life or death, but, when it comes down to it, empty.” Where did this central metaphor and the title spring from?

First, and perhaps the most obvious, that of the house that is left empty due to Daniel’s absence. Then I refer to Mexico, a country that has thousands of homes, 82,000 to be exact, with the absence of a person who has disappeared; then for those same houses that are empty because mothers go out to look for their children. And lastly, in the meaning given by the first voice, it is a woman who is considered the pillar of a house because she is a mother but is devoid of personality, destined only to take care of those around her.

Andy Cummins, in his Guardian review of Empty Houses, writes, “As a portrait of cruelty, it isn’t itself cruel – in fact it’s full of empathy, challengingly so. But it does outline a moral universe devoid of redemption, in which justice is a mirage, and we’re left wondering what the concept even means.” How would you define the notion of justice and how it relates to the lived experience in Mexico City?

Justice is a concept that we urgently need to review because it is made for the people who have power and to safeguard the state. The rule of law was made to protect property, and those who own are a tiny group of people who govern the lives of millions who are made invisible in pursuit of the common good. Still, that common good only belongs to a few people. In that sense, justice is a terrible thing.

But if we consider the concept of justice more philosophically, I would say that justice is something that is built. For me, there is no better example of this than what the mothers of the disappeared are doing in Mexico: they are going out to look for their children as a group, they accompany each other, take care of each other, strengthen each other. They accept themselves as they are, do not speak of criminals or good people, only of people who deserve a worthy memory, and reparation for damage that is beyond fallacious notions of good and evil. That, for me right now, is what brings justice the closest.

How closely did you work with Sophie Hughes on the translation, and what were the particular challenges she faced in the original Spanish?

I know how renowned Sophie is, and I have seen how professional she is. She was very meticulous with her work. She consulted me on every question she had, even on things that seemed to me to be irrelevant but that I later understood were not.

I don’t know about Sophie’s biggest challenge with this novel, but I can tell you mine: I have seen this translation and the Italian one, and I find that they are the same characters but living in parallel worlds. They are the same women in other contexts. They have tiny variations and experiment differently according to the language in which they tell the story. They are them, but they are not them; there is a dimension that makes them different, and as a writer it is exciting to know that I wrote something that has suddenly transformed into something that is no longer just mine or how I conceived it. It is one of the best things that can happen to us as human beings because it puts us face-to-face with the world’s different perspectives. For me it is enriching because I think, it’s true that I wrote this, but not like that. And yet I cannot refute it because the destiny of a book lies with its readers, not when the writer closes the manuscript.

Which other Mexican or Latin American writers have influenced you in the past, and which recently published authors and novels do you particularly admire?

This is a complicated question because I will always forget someone important, but Josefina Vicens and Nelly Campobello are fundamental to me within Mexican literature.

There are many women writers with strong and innovative texts. I think that Mexico in particular has a fascinating poetic movement, the most innovative work I have seen I have seen in poetry. And from Latin America, I would highlight that Bolivian literature has been doing incredible countercultural work in recent years that is not recognised as it should be.

What are you writing next?

I have a new novel to be published in Spanish next year. It’s about suicide and the long road to becoming an adult. For me, it’s the story of how you suddenly become an adult because you recognise yourself in the mistakes of others and realise that life is not simple. But what do I know? I thought Empty Houses was about disappearances and not motherhood. In any case, readers will come to their own conclusions.

You studied Sociology and Feminist Economics at UNAM in Mexico City, and have a Masters in Gender Studies from the University of Barcelona. At what point did you decide to engage in women’s rights in the form of fiction?

I strongly deny that I wrote thinking of talking about women’s rights. All the reflections I make regarding women’s rights are because readers ask me about this with that emphasis and because I like to talk about these issues, but if someone asks me about my creative process, about the construction of atmospheres, about the language and the text’s literary intention, I would rather talk about that.

What single law or societal change would most improve the plight of women in Mexico?

The end of capitalism, and for the north to stop being extractivist from the south. That would change the circumstances in a way that no science fiction could explain. We would continue to be human beings with a lot of pain, but without the oppression that falls on us so that the north can live comfortably. Imagine that since you are born, you have a brick imposed on your back and one day it is removed. You would walk differently, you would breathe differently, you would look different. As I said, there are no good or bad people, but there are bricks on top of some, and the others put more bricks on them because they think that is normal. What is justice when people without burden keep putting more bricks on the backs of others?

 

Brenda Navarro was born in 1982. She studied Sociology and Feminist Economics at UNAM in Mexico City, and has a Masters in Gender Studies from the University of Barcelona. She now lives in Madrid. In 2016 she founded #EnjambreLiterario, a group of writers who promote writing by women. She researches and writes about women’s labour, women’s access to culture, digital rights and humanities, and migration. Empty Houses, translated by Sophie Hughes, is published in paperback and eBook by Daunt Books.
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Author portrait © Montse Mármol

Sophie Hughes is a translator of Spanish and  Latin American literature. She was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize for The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zéran (And Other Stories) in 2019, and Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (Fitzcarraldo Editions) in 2020.
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Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.
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