Rating 4 stars
Cockfight is the debut collection of short stories by Ecuadorian writer María Fernanda Ampuero, translated by Frances Riddle, that explores the violence and exploitation that comes with being a woman in Ecuador.
The writing is lyrical and Riddle’s translation chooses words and phrases with care, capturing the visceral nature of Ampuero’s original narrratives.
The stories are often concerned with childhood, particularly those pre-teen and early teenage years of sexual awakening, and range from strange encounters with neighbours to parental expectations of what a daughter is in comparison to a son. Incestuous cycles of abuse are a recurring theme, with families internalising the trauma and friends explaining away the consequences as though there is nothing unusual going on.
More than the violence that occurs, more than the corruption of what love should be, it’s the mundanity of the abuse that horrifies, depicted as it is by Ampuero in matter of fact terms. This is abuse and gender-based denigration as quotidian. Reading these stories, it was hard to remember that there are decent men in the world, that abuse isn’t universal.
This everyday violence is so normalised that it spills over into play. In the story ‘Pups’, the narrator tells of her friends next door and their terrifying father.
He was a very tall, very pink man who had glasses with thick black frames, wore white suits, and was almost never home. When he was, we had to lower our voices to whispers, and the air was filled with an electric energy, wet, like when a huge storm is coming, and then our games would take a dark turn.
Fathers are often absent, sometimes working all hours, other times hiding away in a separate room from their family, but mostly pursuing a new life, with a new woman, having abandoned the original family. Their wives and grown up daughters learn to say yes to whichever men approach them, chasing love, settling for a corrupted version of it as a consequence.
Religion plays its part, a mix of Christianity and mysticism. ‘Passion’ is a clever retelling of the story of Christ, suggesting that miracles are the domain of wise women and wyrd sisters, part of a female quest to be seen and loved. ‘Passion’ is followed by ‘Mourning’, a reimagining of the biblical sisters Mary and Martha, whose brother Lazarus was raised from the dead by their friend Jesus. In Ampuero’s story, we meet the sisters feasting in celebration of their freedom from men. In particular, freedom from their brother, a hyper religious man who believed women should be punished for having the same urges as men. It’s quite a twist on the biblical story, and its violence makes for uncomfortable reading. At its heart is a critique of the blindness of religious faith.
Ampuero also shows us a class of Ecuadorian women who are the equivalent of how I imagine the women on reality shows like ‘Real Housewives of …’ or ‘Made in Chelsea’ to be. They are upper class, monied, disparaging of women whose skin is darker, who might have had to share a room with a sibling growing up, who they suspect of having socially climbed their way into their current circle, and dismissive of the women who work for them. They are so obsessed by appearance that they gloss over anything that threatens to destabilise their gilded existence. It’s difficult to feel sympathy with them.
For all the horror in these characters’ existences, there is an undercurrent of strength. Many of the women and girls whose lives Ampuero depicts are survivors, resourceful in the way they deal with what is doled out to them. The final story in the book, ‘Other’, offers up a brief moment of triumph, showing as it does an effort at breaking free of the tyranny of men. And yet, it is hard to feel anything other than sadness in response to Ampuero’s portrayals. The relentlessness of the 13 tales in this collection doesn’t leave much room for hope.
That said, it is important to recognise that some women experience the violence depicted in these stories as an everyday, inescapable occurrence, and that those of us who don’t experience it can never fully understand what it’s like.