Mónica Ojeda (trans. Sarah Booker)

November 16, 2023 
The following is from Mónica Ojeda's Nefando. Ojeda is the author of the novels La desfiguración Silva, Nefando, and Mandíbula, as well as the poetry collections El ciclo de las piedras and Historia de la leche. In 2017, she was included on the Bógota39 list of the best thirty-nine Latin American writers under forty, and in 2019, she received the Prince Claus Next Generation Award in honor of her outstanding literary achievements.

Kiki Ortega, age 23. fonca scholar.
Room #1

It had to be She, a She, with eyes like two big, sinister, ripe pechiches, with nails like seashells and the tongue of a mollusk, a tongue like an octopus tentacle, chin-length black hair, dark black, five foot five, no, five foot four, how much do fourteen-year-old girls weigh? she wondered as she leaned back against the wall’s wrinkled skin. To write means renaming the space around you, describing it as if it were something else. For example, when she wrote, she liked to picture herself surrounded by ramparts, which wasn’t the same as picturing herself surrounded by drywall—that was the inappropriate, imagination-flouting word. Few things were as important as finding the right word; no, those kinds of words don’t exist, only the expressive ones do, she remembered, chewing her nails. Reformulation: few things were as important as finding the expressive word. The wall expressed her reality: a stomach full of fingernails, pica, cannibalism. The wall behind her, therefore, was a wall, not drywall. The four ramparts of her room protected her from the language of the others; there, inside, unlike any other place, she could fashion herself by forming lines, long sentences to snort. She had to be a peephole, a tiny hole through which the desire to desire would enter; dark, perverse, much more of a crater than Them. The four ramparts made it possible to break syntax, the word order that always alters the product, to create her own landscapes, to paint with a boy’s voice. They would be marionettes by choice; the eyes that would peer out of the tiny hole. Sometimes, when she wrote, greenish flakes would sprinkle onto her hair, the skin of a reptile-wall peeling off from the humidity and covering the bed and floor with chips of dried paint. There isn’t a standard height for fourteen-year-old girls; they aren’t copies of one another, she thought; height doesn’t matter, it isn’t proportional to age. She brushed her hand over her head like a feather duster. They would be fourteen too. Her name would be Nella. They’d be Diego and Eduardo.

The blank page on the screen, though virtual and imaginary, was as tangible and destructive as any other. The blank page doesn’t actually exist, she thought. That nominal emptiness could exist nowhere but in her imagination. Diego would be pale as the night. Eduardo would have freckles. How hard could it be to write a novel? Reformulation: How hard could it be to write about the sexuality of three children? A novel about cruelty, a novel meant to disturb. Something like The Confusions of Young Törless but mixed with Story of the Eye. To disturb means throwing a stone into a smooth pond. They’d be students at a boarding school, and She’d be the new girl. To disturb means sleeping next to someone with your eyes open. At first, Diego and Eduardo would be the corrupters, the stone in the pond, the eyelids open while sleeping. To disturb means staring at a stranger without blinking until your eyes burn with tears. The reader would have to unravel the characters and then see horror in Nella. To disturb means scratching the paint so that sounds of life outside could be heard in the next room over. She would be the spider. To disturb means writing with half your body submerged in a swamp. They, the flies.

There wasn’t even the slightest breeze outside. Nella would read Marquis de Sade and, like Kochan from Confessions of a Mask, She’d understand physical love through pain and death. The tree looming through the window—the same one that filled with black birds pecking at the panes in the mornings—stood still and gave the impression of not existing, being only an image, a representation. A photograph on a postcard. Nella would like torturing little animals in her amorous rituals. She opened a can of Coca-Cola, set the laptop aside, jumped off the bed, and stepped on the wall’s sloughed skin with her bare feet. A teacher would catch her driving needles into a kitten trapped in a plastic bag. She walked over the organic material toward the window and peered through the branches. That’s why She would have been expelled from her previous school; that’s why they’d have sent her to Diego and Eduardo’s boarding school. She thought Barcelona was a shithole, just like Mexico City. Filth everywhere, she thought, and a bubbling black drop slid down her lip. The boarding school would be strict, and it would demand obedience and discipline. The street was called Indústria, and the same old man was pissing on the same tire of the same red Renault. Nella would feel lost in that world of moderation. The women walked as if their legs hurt; the summer compelled them to wear floral dresses that made their bodies into crude gardens overgrown with weeds. Nella and the asphyxiation of the rules. She could feel dried flakes trapped between her toes. Nella and good behavior. The glass was an insect cemetery adorned with splatters of pigeon shit. Nella and her desires condemned to the electric chair. That’s how the world revealed itself to her inside; but there, surrounded by ramparts, the filth did too. She, the spider, would struggle to understand a morale beyond Her individuality. Where there’d once been the greenish skin of the wall, there was now grayish meat, the walls’ true face. Nella would still find a way to secretly satisfy herself. Gray was the color of stones, sharks, and clouds just before it rains. In hiding, She would find Them.

Scratching her head, she wondered when she’d last cleaned her sanctum, but she couldn’t remember. Everything would be written in first person. She squinted against the scent of sweat and humidity. Everything would be written from Nella’s perspective. That evening she would have to clean, get rid of her own waste strewn across the floor. No: writing only from Her perspective wouldn’t work. Among the shreds of reptile-wall skin were invisible pieces of her own skin, long black hairs, fingernail clippings that hadn’t made it to her stomach. The novel should also be told in Their voices. She looked at the floor like someone looking into a mirror. We’re falling apart every day, she thought, time erodes us, that’s why you have to deceive the reader. She’d better start writing now while the characters still burned inside her, while she was still able to sweep up her own remains. The reader couldn’t know the truth. To write in Mexico or Spain was absurd, pointless. You could only deceive the reader temporarily. She didn’t fully know what it was she wanted to say, but she wrote to find out; she said it was a pornographic novel about three children in a boarding school just to disguise the pressing need to speculate, to think, so the world wouldn’t say she was wasting her time. They and Their cynical voices would block out Nella’s true nature for a few pages. Thinking was an invisible activity that had to be made physical somehow. Diego and Eduardo would seem like the corrupters. Writing was the only way she knew to sculpt ideas. But the one with the spider’s web would be Nella. She wrote so the words wouldn’t speak for her, so the language behind the ramparts wouldn’t destroy her. Diego’s and Eduardo’s voices are essential. With metaphors, perhaps, she could save herself from the unfamiliar constructs. They would be the flies. All she wanted was to say it in her own language. The bugs that fall into a spider’s web aren’t innocent. All she wanted was to articulate herself. My characters will be the real and I a fiction.

She’d felt dreamt up before, when she was little and her parents took her to the circus for the first time. The backlit room is a basement. The actors were dressed and made up like caricatures of themselves, and their costumes didn’t fit. The room: an intestine. Some were stuffed into them, their skin marked and red where the clothing stopped, and others struggled, with the help of thick, colorful laces, to keep the outfits on. The room: a toothless mouth. That day an acrobat in blue stockings fell from the tightrope, and to the audience’s horror, his leg bone ripped through his skin and stockings to splash the floor with crimson. The room: a lizard’s tail. Two muscly men carried him away and immediately brought in the elephants. The room: a fortress. The people forgot about the acrobat. The room: a clearing. The tent filled with applause and sad-eyed elephants. The room: a placenta. She knew, looking out at the crowd, that she was the only one who wouldn’t forget the acrobat. The room: a blank page. She knew she was the only one who wouldn’t let the elephants distract her from the fallen man. The room: a twisted tongue. “The show must go on” really was a terrifying motto. The room: a stage. “The show must go on” was the formula through which people looked straight ahead, smiling, while someone bled out next to them. The room: a self-portrait. That was her first contact with the indifference of the rest of the world. The room: a cell. She understood it better when, years later, her father left home for a woman with graying hair; before leaving forever, he told her he loved her. The room: a wound. At the time she knew it wasn’t true but that it was part of the script dictating what a father should say to his daughter before abandoning her. The room: an aleph. She was revolted—because it was in the script of what a daughter should say to her father before he abandons her—when she responded that she loved him too and theatrically begged him not to go. The room: never a room. In fact, she remembered, she didn’t really care if her father left and, if she were being honest with herself, she loved him less than Chicho—a devil-eyed Doberman that died when he was hit by a sanctified van stamped with the Virgen de Guadalupe—but she told herself that she should love him, she should be sad, this was exactly how the show must go on. Her roomneveraroom. She was too young to understand that departing from the script wasn’t an act of perversion. Her room: a luminous cave. Later, grown up, everything was clearer and more complicated.

The light filtering into the room was tenuous, pallid, like the glow of a lava lamp. As with the circus, her room had a different kind of light, one that made her skin look like a disguise. Nella, the spider, would be a character cloaked in a thick mist. Many years ago, in the stands of a traveling circus, she fell in love with a juggler from Beijing. Diego and Eduardo would have known each other for a long time, and They’d be together like brothers, like lovers, like friends with the minds of twins. To write meant juggling with words. The boarding school would be big, with vast gardens, a forest, and a lake for good children, children like the ones in Musil’s novel. She only saw the juggler from Beijing once, but she remembered his long arms made for embracing and his hands moving through the air to diligently catch all kinds of colorful objects. At first, They wouldn’t be interested in Nella, the new girl. Were there circuses in Barcelona? But She would catch Them doing something forbidden. Anyway, she didn’t want to go to the circus; that’s what the street was for. And They’d torment her for catching Them. That’s what the six-room apartment was for. Then, involuntarily, They’d step into the mist.

She slid her hand across the wall, feeling the rough reliefs of the shredded paint that made her think of a crocodile’s spine, and knew this was the only way she could write a novel: surrounded by scales. Even though They were only fourteen, Diego and Eduardo would be sexually active. The smell of moisture in the room was sweet, like a platter of ripe fruit; it penetrated her nostrils and cloyed her throat. Before Nella came to the boarding school, They would have already had their first sexual experiences with girls from higher grades. She lifted her tongue and slid it like a snail across the roof of her mouth. They would have also explored physical pleasure with each other. In Mexico, writing had felt like walking on needles. Diego and Eduardo would fall in love as intensely as They desired the opposite sex. It’s impossible to write at home, she once told her mother, as long as it’s full of your shit. They would approach the girls in the boarding school like a two-headed serpent. Barcelona was also full of shit, but other people’s shit, shit that had nothing to do with her. Diego and Eduardo would be a single person. That was the advantage of living in Spain: she could write as a Mexican. Diego would have oil-slicked hair. Writing like a Mexican meant being a waterfall without a river. Eduardo would have the eyes of a vulture. She was never so aware of her Mexicanness as when she arrived in Barcelona. Diego’s eyes would look beyond things. The chauvinist motto of the unam, “The spirit shall speak for my race,” had never made so much sense. Eduardo’s hair would cover a centimeter of his forehead with blond curls. In Barcelona, she could write without having to prove who she was. Vasconcelos was a fucking moron. Abroad, few things were as true as the fact that she was. And also an asshole.

She walked back to the bed and flopped down next to the blank document. The circus was a dead metaphor. Last week she’d erased every line she’d submitted in her fonca application. The circus was childhood. Twenty scrawny pages, a .docx file of languid sentences in a voice that wasn’t hers, landed remorselessly in the trash can. She wanted to start from zero. “Remorse” was a curious word. She wanted to write as if zero were more than a hollow. It meant continuously gnawing at your own conscience, sinking your teeth into it like a piece of gum. She wanted to write as if zero were a starting point. The circus was an ouroboros devouring its own tail. But writing from zero is impossible. A novel could be an ouroboros. Why a pornographic novel? Why Nella? Why Diego? Why Eduardo? It had to be possible to create a language that didn’t devour itself. Her intention, the most honest of all, was to explore the most unsettling things; to say what cannot be said. Is there anything more human than desires and fears and the indifference to the desires and fears of others? In the forbidden was the full creative beginning. Literature can’t be distracted by elephants, it has to set them aside and look at the fallen acrobat, take an interest in his suffering, in his grimace of pain as he’s carried offstage, because it’s inappropriate, disrupts the harmony, makes the spectacle obscene. Social syntax cowered inside the forbidden. Writing only makes sense, she repeated, if it looks beyond the elephants. And yet the room was still a reptile-wall-sanctum where her voice echoed, indifferent to thousands of voices, where her voice blew out the others with a single puff, where she was deaf and blind but not mute, and her condition made her stammer into the void and chew her fingernails and know she was alone only by not hearing herself, not knowing whether the words came out of her mouth or ran like trains through her imagination.

Three knocks on the door made her snap shut like a clam. “Who is it?”

Iván’s voice, a hand grabbing her by the hair.

“Come on out of your bat cave, güey. They beat the shit out of El Cuco.”


From Nefando by Mónica Ojeda (trans. Sarah Booker). Used with permission of the publisher, Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2023 by Mónica Ojeda/Sarah Booker.

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