Books Unlimited: Leni Zumas & Jennifer Clement

The 2019 WINTERNACHTEN FESTIVAL in The Hague

Books Unlimited: Leni Zumas & Jennifer Clement – 18th January 2019

What do abortion and gun laws have in common? Both have perennially served as powerful points of consensus for conservative voices in the US and beyond. In Zumas’s  ‘Red Clocks’ and Clement’s ‘Gun Love’, both writers tackle issues that have gained renewed impetus in the States under Trump, particularly from a feminist perspective.  

Red Clocks focuses on repressive legal processes that threaten women’s reproductive lives in America. Although it has been likened to Atwood’s dystopian novel, A Handmaid’s Tale, Zumas describes her novel as paratopian – highlighting the nearness of the world it recreates. Such sentiments have been echoed by literary critics who claim that under the Trump administration, plenty of conservative politicians are plotting to make  such novels works of nonfiction.  Set in a small Oregon town, the novel was inspired by Zumas’s own struggle with fertility and her decision to try IVF in an effort to fall pregnant. She admits that the research that followed caused her to confront a range of cultural narratives – many long established and still deeply powerful about motherhood and marriage.  Many, reinforced in the US today by grassroots organisations such as the Personhood Alliance, an association of anti-abortion groups from 15 US states. Zumas points out that Vice President, Mike Pence has long been a supporter of such organisations as has former House speaker, Paul Ryan.

‘Fear of female power is central to the novel’ – Zumas

Indeed, in Red Clocks, the Personhood Amendment to the US Constitution has nullified Roe v. Wade and criminalised abortion. Anyone who tries to end her own pregnancy is jailed and a sturdy Pink Wall along the border with Canada keeps desperate women and girls from seeking help there. Zumas also touches on the publication of the Nashville proclamations, recently translated into Dutch, noting that the ideal of separation of Church and State is not as sacrosanct as Americans might like to think. Underlying many of these sentiments is what the author describes as ‘the fear of female power’ and the age old tendency for society to blame women and their powers for collective disasters. Zumas drew for inspiration on the Salem witch trials and indeed one of her characters, The Mender, lives alone in a small cottage in the woods and has special ability with herbs and natural remedies. She is treated with general suspicion by the rest of the town’s folk, until one or other of them finds themself in a difficult situation with no one else to whom they can turn.

An abiding concern for the powerless and how they might be empowered also characterises the work of novelist, journalist and human rights advocate, Jennifer Clement. She talks to us of her most recent book, Gun Love, which she summarises as ‘a book about how guns get to Mexico from the US.’ In the tradition of her previous novels, like A Prayer for the Stolen and A True Story based on Lies, Clement takes what she calls the iceberg approach. What one reads in the novel represents only the tip of the iceberg of research that lies beneath her writing. Some critics have credited her with a new journalism in her novels, a literature that is more like oratory in its powerful depiction of reality. The author admits that her research for Gun Love was extensive and included visits to the NRA and the museum of the NRA which she describes as the Church of the Gun. She also interviewed survivors of numerous gun massacres and drew on her own knowledge of the role of gun violence in the Mexican drug wars, a subject about which she has written extensively.

‘I see this novel as a great ballad, it’s full of music’ – Clement.

But above all, Clement admits that one of her major concerns in this novel, is the power of the gun, not only its power to annihilate but what she terms ‘the eroticism of the gun’. ‘Guns are powerful, when you shoot a gun, something happens, and when you carry a gun, something happens’ she maintains. Perhaps it is for this reason that she describes the novel as, ‘a great ballad’ that is ‘full of music’. Indeed the book includes ‘The Gun Song’ which she reads to us and tells us of her passion for music and the multiple references to songs made throughout Gun Love. ‘Music is the university of love’ she announces simply, it is certainly integral to her efforts to write about guns ‘in a way that has enchantment.’ Clement manages a rare combination of enchantment and poetry when writing about some of the most brutal subjects. Her previous novel focused on the trafficking of women and girls in Mexico and she tells us that A Prayer for the Stolen and Gun Love speak to one another. They are diptych, in the manner of two medieval paintings that sit next to one another forming a complementary pair that, when taken together, illuminate each other.  Illumination is something which Jennifer Clement does with both passion and talent.  Souwie Buis   19th January 2019

 

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