One complaint I’ll often hear after recommending books to friends is that the work is too sad. “It’s too depressing,” they’ll say, not only about fiction that heaps ever escalating acts of tragedy upon the reader (as in Yanagihara’s A Little Life) but also nonfiction, especially those of political or sociological focus. It is a reaction I can sympathize with; the world is often a horrible place, much of our time is not our own, and it can be difficult to justify using what little time we do have on “negativity.” For this crowd, the title alone of Cristina Rivera Garza’s new non-fiction book, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country, is likely a non-starter. If they decide to venture as far as the introduction, they will be immediately met with horrific images that would not seem out of place in a slasher film:
“On September 14, 2011, we awoke once again to the image of two bodies hanging from a bridge. One man, one woman. He, tied by the hands. She, by the wrists and ankles… the bodies showed signs of having been tortured. Entrails erupted from the woman’s abdomen, opened in three different places.”
Seven pages later, after further cataloguing and analyzing of contemporary violence in Mexico, we learn that Garza’s younger sister, Liliana Rivera Garza, was murdered in 1990. She was only twenty years old.
Garza herself takes a moment to acknowledge some of the tension here. “It is difficult, of course, to write about these things,” she says, noting that this is perhaps precisely the point. “The ultimate objective is to use horror to paralyze completely,” she writes, evoking the image of Medusa’s decapitated head. In the following paragraphs, she continues the work of unfreezing herself and others, laying out the context for the central ideas of Grieving; Mexico’s misnamed war on drugs, the horror and pain of continued violence, and “the Visceraless State.” There’s a brief endnote from translator Sarah Booker explaining the neologism “visceraless”; it’s a translation of Garza’s “estado sin entrañas,” an attempt to evoke both the physical body and the “sense of a close structural relationship.” Even without this further elaboration, most readers will understand the Visceraless State by outright recognition, “a state for which bodies are not a matter of care but merely for extraction.”’
Garza, who has written novels, essays, poetry, and short story collections, and recently won a MacArthur Fellowship for her writing, is also an adept historian. She provides ample evidence for Mexico’s shift toward a visceraless state, the result of neoliberal policy beginning in the eighties. In the essay titled “The Visceraless State,” Garza examines letters between a sick woman and various personnel in the bureaucracy of the Mexican government in the year 1939. Though Garza freely admits that this older government also has its flaws, she can’t help but note the attention – and in this way, care – that the bureaucracy is nonetheless able to provide to this woman when she writes concerned about her health and the handling of her remains. This positive example is a welcome contrast against the evident lack of care under the neoliberal state, highlighted especially in essays focused on victims and their families, like “The Claimant” and “Horrorism.” Throughout Grieving, Garza quotes the ex-President of Mexico, Vicente Fox: “Why should I care?” he asked. The question is infuriating, and a brazen reaffirmation of her central idea.
However, Garza’s scope extends beyond simply establishing the phenomena of the Visceraless State. For some essays, these ideas exist primarily as context, a backdrop against which to understand art, culture, and society. In the essay “On 2501 Migrants by Alejandro Santiago,” Garza examines the title artwork: clay statues created by Santiago and a team of artisans, to be erected in Oaxacan plazas as “a meditation on absence.” Some of the essays, like “The War We Lost,” and “The Neo-Camelias,” highlight the cultural influence of the narco, and the space they hold in the Mexican imagination. Garza also spends time focusing on the hardships that women face in contemporary Mexico, as well as their activism and their relationship with narco machismo. There are even two essays, “Cacaluta,” and “Dessicated Mermaids,” which take on a conservationist aspect. It’s an incredible amount of ground to cover. Garza is able to slip seamlessly between reportage, criticism, and history not only because of the unifying frame she establishes in the introduction, but also because of the strength of her writing itself. While the prose can occasionally veer academic, it’s clear that Garza is an experienced poet as well, her language evocative:
“Awake, history hungrily moves through the city streets or countryside. Sleepless jaws. History reminds us, as always, that we are mortal. That there are things left unresolved.”
If there’s one essay that seems a bit separate from the others, despite Garza’s unifying style, it’s the penultimate essay, “Touching Is a Verb: The Hands of the Pandemic and Its Inescapable Questions.” A dispatch from Texas toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the piece is as well-written as the rest of Grieving, and is clearly relevant to the central ideas of the visceraless state. But in focusing on the early days of the pandemic, the essay is unable to capture the disease’s scope (it seems likely that no piece of writing will be able to for some time). It’s easy to forgive Garza for these oversights, given the timing, but the reading experience remains jarring and the essay asserts itself as an artifact of the particular moment, first and foremost, rather than something transcendent.
Though there is much reflection throughout on pain, suffering, and of course, grieving, this collection is ultimately more hopeful than grim. Garza remains optimistic about the power of writing – and grieving – and what it can accomplish. “Language is a form of opposition that always takes us elsewhere,” she says in the final essay, “Keep Writing”. She continues, going on to contemplate the central questions for any contemporary writer:
“Is it worth it to get up early in the morning just to keep writing? Can writing, in fact, be something that acts against fear or terror? … Is it possible, not to mention desirable, to grip or wield or raise a word?”
In “Keep Writing” and through the existence of Grieving itself, Garza answers with an emphatic “yes.” And for this promise, this reaffirmation, I left Grieving feeling grateful.
Jefferson Lee is a Korean American, born in a small town in Western New York called Canandaigua. He’s written short fiction for Maudlin House, non-fiction for The Rumpus, and is a student at the Writer’s Studio. He lives and writes in San Francisco. His Twitter handle is @jlee4219.