Author’s Note: The following review contains mentions of sexual assault.
Gothic is the instrument by which Latine authors have historically been able to explore coloniality, migration, violence, and other horrors of Latin American society. Human Sacrifices, a short story collection of pure disturbance and grittiness, executes this with sheer precision. And it is a book that will haunt me for years to come.
Originally written in Spanish by María Fernanda Ampuero and published in 2021 by Páginas de Espuma, Human Sacrifices was translated into English by Frances Riddle for a 2023 re-release published by Feminist Press. The stories in the book are told from those existing outside the margins, those who perpetrate harm onto others because they’ve either been dehumanized or are part of larger forces at play, and those who don’t fit neatly into a binary. These characters are struggling to understand girlhood and the multi-layered relationships they find themselves in. A good number of them are nameless, which serves to amplify the horror: we can easily imagine them as anybody we personally know in our lives
I do want to stress that this book is not for everyone. Sexual assault is a major theme that threads a lot of the stories together. A couple of stories include pedophilia and incest. These are transgressions that are common in Gothic fiction and date back to 18th-century literature. However, many of the European men who wrote Gothic stories of sexual violence wrote for shock value, or associated immorality with characters who were racialized or queer-coded. Also, a lot of those stories, upheld in academia, generally suck. Ampuero’s depiction of sexual violence critiques the machismo culture of Ecuador, a culture that promotes hypermasculinity and violence against women. Through these stories, Ampuero is giving a voice to women and survivors of sexual assault. I won’t write about every single story in the collection, but I will highlight a few that left the strongest impression on me.
“Biographywp_postsfollows an undocumented woman searching for work and finding herself being held hostage by two men. Throughout the story, the words “see mewp_postsrepeat themselves. She’s demanding her presence, daring readers to truly see the harsh realities of immigrant women. She is forcing us into our vision even when it is hard to look. “See mewp_postsis also used as a cry for help, a last resort despite being doomed by the narrative (or so it seems).
Much of the writing is very tongue-in-cheek, and “Believers” is the best example of that. The Believers are missionaries that travel to poor countries and use religion to save people from their own destruction. They’re white saviors, blonde like “baby Jesus”. In film, “men who looked like them always saved the planet”. Why wouldn’t the narrator and her friend, Marisol, be obsessed with them? The Believers are all they know; they haven’t been allowed to dream beyond them, even when red flags are apparent to the readers. Merely thinking of an alternative is inconceivable to these characters. Also, there is a quiet queer love story that develops between the narrator and Marisol. It’s not the most important part of the story, and neither character has the time or language to really describe what’s going on between them. Nevertheless, it’s not a coincidence that a queer relationship is the healthiest relationship we see in a book filled with abusive, heteropatriarchal relationships.
Men are the predators for most of Human Sacrifices, but “Chosen” subverts that. Girls marked as ugly are front and center. Because they’re ugly, they’re free — but they don’t want that. They want the superficial boy-girl parties. They want cishet male validation. All they do is want, and want, and want; their ugliness and beauty conventions determined by heteropatriarchy have reduced them to monstrous, needy beings. It’s not just their desire to be desired that drives them, but also sexual frustration. The ugly girls have a carnal horniness that turns lethal, and folks know that one of my kryptonites in literature is horny women. The final passage of the story is imprinted into my brain. The prose, unrelenting and indulgent, is some of the best writing I’ve read this year yet:
“After dancing we sat on their graves, each of us with a perfect boy whispering his dreams to us, giggling like idiots, asking for kisses through fluttered lashes. The kisses came and the madness followed, desire crashing like violent waves against our backs. The dawn found us naked, mounted atop the erect sexes of our lovers, galloping like ferocious jockeys, plunging headlong into the world, ready to destroy it.”
“Sister” is my personal favorite story of the collection. One cousin is dark-skinned, fat, and a product of “a stain on the bloodline.” Another cousin is skinny, popular, and embodies the family’s “cleaner race.” One wants to transform into the other desperately for separate reasons. Both of them pick Mariela, a new girl in their school who’s more than what she lets on, to be a spectacle of their own meanness. Oh, and there’s an Ouija board — who doesn’t love that horror trope? This story’s my favorite because of how it executes a raw portrayal of girlhood in less than 10 pages. The girls are bitches. The girls are so damn self-loathing because, no matter what, they are never enough: “Fat girls live on lies. Starving girls live on helplessness. Lonely girls live on pain. Girls always, always, always feed off the abyss”. But, despite it all, the girls have no one but each other because of how the world sets them up to fail. Additionally, the story proves another reason why I love this book: Ampuero knows how to set a scene. Certain locations are described as desolate and ravished, others carry a smell that literally assaults the nostrils. Ampuero’s settings are their own monsters.
Human Sacrifices is a Latine and feminist gothic must-read. Her stories are bleak, but fascinating examinations of girlhood, machismo, corruption, and sexual violence. They’re not washed down, easily digestible stories that feign radical politics. I’m excited about Ampuero’s other works, and I would love to see a full-length novel written by her one day.
Human Sacrifices by María Fernanda Ampuero comes out tomorrow, May 16.