Translated from Spanish by Heather Cleary (2022).
“All women are born with a bit of bruja in them, for protection,” Brenda Lozano asserts in her new fictional memoir Witches, a story of gender-based violence, sisterhood, and solidarity. Witches renews the experimental style and fragmented form of Lozano’s previous novel, Loop, as Lozano recounts the lives of Zoe and Feliciana, two Mexican women from vastly different worlds. Zoe, a young urban journalist, and Feliciana, an old curandera (healer) from a remote village, lead extremely dissimilar lives. However, as Zoe interviews Feliciana about a recent murder, she finds that they share a similar experience of womanhood. Through their contrasts, Witches accentuates womanhood as a powerful force capable of bridging the differences between women. Like Zoe states, “you can’t really know another woman until you know yourself,” Witches encourages vulnerable self-introspection and communication with fellow women as an act of solidarity.
In a twist to the memoir genre, Lozano provides us not one, but two memoirs in one as the chapters of Witches alternate without warning between the perspectives of Zoe and Feliciana. Lozano gives each woman a unique voice by experimenting curates each woman’s unique voice The chapters containing Zoe’s perspective exhibit traditional and clean writing while Feliciana’s takes on a repetitive and run-on form that deviates from syntactic conventions and lacks dialogue.
During the interview, Feliciana chronologically recalls memories from her life. Her memories recreate rural Mexico and extrapolate on the general condition of women under poverty and patriarchy. Feliciana’s life is filled with tragedy, from the death of her parents to the adultery and bloody murder of her husband. Although Feliciana grows in a constraining environment that prohibits idleness, these constraints make her into a strong matriarch who goes on to lead a primarily female household. Most importantly, Feliciana becomes a cornerstone of her community when she begins pursuing her path as a curandera and conducts healing ceremonies with the tools of her ancestors: the Language, the Book, and the mountain’s psychedelic mushrooms.The psilocybin mushrooms that grow on the mountain are crucial to Feliciana’s healing ceremonies. These mushrooms first introduce Feliciana to her long but dying lineage of curanderos, in which healing abilities were for men only. As the first female curandera in her family, Feliciana struggles to be taken seriously.
Paloma, Feliciana’s cousin and the only other curandera, teaches Feliciana how to use herbs and mushrooms to heal emotional wounds. Paloma’s subsequent murder drives the plot as the interview slowly reveals the circumstances of her death. Paloma was a Muxe, a third-gender identity recognized in Oaxaca for women who were assigned male at birth. Due to her gender deviance, Paloma frequently entered into self-destructive relationships with men. When one of Paloma’s amorous encounters goes wrong, she is murdered. Through Paloma’s murder and Feliciana’s recollection of memories, Lozano clearly articulates the consequences of male violence and unchecked toxic masculinity.
When the chapters turn into Zoe’s perspective, we find that urban and progressive cities are no better for women than the traditional Mexican values of rural areas. Zoe’s life is equally tumultuous as she deals with her father’s death, a semi-psychic mother, a troublemaker sister, and many terrible boyfriends. Despite her introverted nature, Zoe thrives as a smart woman, graduates college, and forms a family. Lozano characterizes Zoe as a direct byproduct of the relationships she has with other women, mainly her mother, sister, and finally, Feliciana. Lozano shows how the bonds between women do not form automatically but are slowly cultivated as women empathize and help each other. Above all, Zoe’s story drives home how bonds form between women amidst the strains of gender norms and violence.
In Witches, a large majority of male characters partake in some form of violence against women. At worst, it inflicts physical wounds and psychological distress, and at best, it simmers within men as anger that threatens to explode at any given time. Lozano does not shy away from the dark reality that women and gender-conforming people face everyday at the hands of men. She recounts the financial and emotional abuses of Feliciana’s husband who turns alcoholic and later cheats with a younger woman whom he plans to run away with, much like Zoe’s boyfriend who flees when Zoe becomes pregnant. Feliciana’s career as a curandera is also not safe as she faces the same form of male anger from One Eyed Tadeo, who shoots her with a rifle out of jealousy. As a whole, Witches is a recollection and reminder of the many forms that violence against women can take. Sometimes gender-based violence is subtle and acceptable, hidden under the guise of traditional gender norms. Other times it manifests blatantly as rape and femicide. Lozano’s story shows how all forms of violence against women, subtle and obvious, are inherently linked under the patriarchy.
Although Witches contains many heavy topics, Lozano depicts them realistically and empathically, always prioritizing the woman’s perspective. For example, sexual harasment and rape are fairly common amongst all female characters, including Zoe’s sister and Feliciana’s sister who are both raped at a young age. When Feliciana’s sister is raped, Feliciana recalls that “that wretch who was telling her in her ear…that she was going to remember him on her wedding night, that she was going to remember how big he was…he told her many times that she would always remember him.” Lozano’s writing reveals the nuances of the effects of violence against women—rape is not an isolated and tragic occurrence, but a life-changing event that has repercussions on women’s mental health and lives. Such effects of male violence might seem obvious, but Lozano reminds us of the specific ways it manifests and how prominent they are among women. Ultimately, no matter how different Feliciana and Zoe are, or how different women are, male violence permeates into every sphere of their lives: domestic, financial, professional, and even into their mind and memories. Witches is an ironic book, fragmented yet insisting on the unity of everything; it treats time as a single entity and women as a collective. Parallels and opposites exist everywhere: urban and rural, magic and reality, past and present, male and female. Although Lozano writes each woman’s voice differently and separates their stories in alternating chapters, she does not label the speaker, leaving it to the reader to decipher each woman’s voice. This structure can be confusing at first, but it is a first-hand demonstration of the differences between women and their simultaneous unity. This kind of feminist unity ties the book’s ending under a call for solidarity among women. Ultimately, Witches encourages women to unveil their memories, speak their stories, realize their similarities, and appreciate their differences. However, it is not enough to simply acknowledge other women. Women must acknowledge the cause of their perils: the patriarchy and male violence. By recounting Feliciana and Zoe’s life story, Witches is an example of the first steps women can take against male violence—speak out and let others hear.