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OLM Favorites: Prayers for the Stolen

By (December 1, 2017) No Comment

Prayers for the Stolenprayers for the stolen cover

by Jennifer Clement

Hogarth, 2014


Similar to Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award winner The Round House, which highlights the appalling number of rapes Native American women suffer yearly in the United States, Jennifer Clement’s new novel Prayers for the Stolen sheds light on another modern tragedy: the trafficking of young girls into prostitution by Mexican drug cartels, and the elaborate measures taken by mothers to prevent it.

Clement (The Widow Basquiat) focuses on Ladydi and her friends Paula, Maria and Estafani. They live in Guerrero, beginning life disguised as boys until their womanhood can no longer be hidden. Then, pressured by their mothers, they attempt to appear as undesirable as possible through various crude methods, including blackening their lips and teeth with markers, and rubbing charcoal across their faces. Other forms of disfigurement are permanent, but without them, nothing prevents drug cartels from stealing these village girls and selling them into slavery.

Clement invests substantial power in her poetic dialogue. In exceptionally poignant exchange has the young Ladydi questions her mother about the presence of a gun, and her mother’s obvious determination to use it:

What are you doing with a gun, Mama?

My mother stopped and was quiet for a moment.

What gun?

What are you doing with a gun Mama?

Some men need killing, my mother answered.

Ladydi Garcia Martinez is named after Britain’s fairytale Windsor princess. The girl’s drunken, kleptomaniac mother fixated on Diana as a symbol of male betrayal; in her case, a Lothario of a husband, who left to find work in America and instead found a second family. Ladydi’s closest friend, Maria, who was born with a facial deformity, also has an uncanny resemblance to Ladydi’s father. An operation tightens the resemblance and eventually puts her life in danger.

But it is the beautiful Paula who disappears, despite her mother’s ingenious idea of digging holes for the young girls to hide in while cartel SUVs drive past. Unlike other young girls who’d been stolen and lost, however, Paula finds her way home; she’s tattooed, scarred, emotionally broken, and must be spoon-fed baby food by her mother.

The recurring theme of disfigurement causes Prayers for the Stolen to writhe in one’s hands, like a snake. When Paula returns, she’s covered with cigarette burns. For the girls stolen and auctioned off to the sadistic highest bidder, it’s a way for them to leave a message to their family:

If we’re found dead someplace everyone will know we were stolen. It is our mark. My cigarette burns are a message.

I looked at the pattern of circles on her arm as she continued to hold her limb, stretched out like an oar into the jungle air.

You do want people to know it’s you. Otherwise, how will our mothers find us?

Ladydi discovers the truth of Paula’s words when she’s wrongfully arrested as witness and accomplice to the murder of a prominent drug baron’s six-year-old daughter. Though underage and soon to be moved to a junior facility, Ladydi is kept in a women’s prison long enough to learn how others have justified their crimes. Prison enlightens her, because every woman there is encouraged to be beautiful, attend educational programs, and plan for a possible future (or at least dream of one). Ladydi meets new friends, but it’s with Aurora that Ladydi hears the story of her own life, as Paula spoke of it:

I thought of our angry piece of land that once held a real community, but was ruined by the community world of the drug traffickers and the immigration to the United States. Our angry piece of land was a broken constellation and each little home was ash.

In the end, Ladydi’s own mother becomes the hero. Finally discarding the illusion of living happily ever after in Guerrero, she trusts her intuition and realizes her daughter and Maria are worth fighting for:

Where are we going Mama?

We’re going to the USA and I’m going to wash dishes. I will wash all the dishes, all the steak blood and cake icing. You’re going to be a nanny to a family. You and Maria can be nannies. And we will never tell anyone where we came from.

Why? I asked.

It’s simple my mother said. It’s simple because no one will ever ask.

Jennifer Clement gives poetic deliverance to grim lives in rural Mexico, where, “A woman can be sold to different owners many times, and even dozens of times a day as a prostitute, while a plastic bag of drugs can be sold once.”

Though born in the US, Clement has spent much of her life in Mexico, and over the past ten years has used her talent as an author and poet to report the atrocities occurring to women daily; her work is classified as fiction, but it’s based on fact. Clement has thoroughly researched her subjects, from the young women who live in danger of being stolen to the wives and daughters of the drug traffickers responsible. She’s seen the holes that rural mothers dig to protect their daughters from theft, and the innocuous city buildings that provide safe hiding places. Then there are the prisoners in the Santa Martha Acatitla Prison for women in Mexico City, where Clement listened to their stories of drugs, violence, rape and the loss of dreams. And yet, these women continue to hope. One seventy-year-old rubs salt onto her arms so she can remember the sea.

Prayers for the Stolen won the NEA Fellowship in Literature 2012.  As a potent, charged narrative, it demands to be embraced and remembered, especially considering how surreal it may seem when read from the comfort and security of one’s own home. Recommending it to others can help bring attention to the violation of women’s rights in other parts of the world.

As a single voice, we can make a difference. One that is long overdue.