Prayers for the Stolen, published by Hogarth on February 2015, is a finalist of PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for 2015. It’s author, Mexican-American writer Jennifer Clement was awarded the NEA (National Endownment for the Arts) Fellowship for Literature for this novel. It tells the story of Ladydi Garcia Martinez, a girl from a rural town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, near the city of Acapulco. Being born a girl to a poor family, life was never going to be easy for her, and her struggle to be alive and free from the shackles of her circumstances makes this book quite a compelling read.
On her website, Jennifer Clement says that this book was written to tell the story of numerous women in Mexico, those who lived in poverty and tried to evade human and drug trafficking. Apparently there are countless women who just disappeared because they’ve been picked up and taken, sent and forced into drug trafficking or prostitution, never seen by their family again. I read this book rapidly, in 5-6 hours, all the while thinking whether the life of the women in that rural town (which is based on truth) parallels the life of provincial women in my own country. Like the Philippines, Mexico has been a colony of Spain too, for the same length of time (three centuries), and the major issues in their country are familiar to me — poverty, drug problem, corruption, extreme poles of society, the desire to flee the country in search for a better life.
The book is anchored by its main character, Ladydi, who I kept pronouncing in my head as Lah-dee-dee, until reading later on that she was named by her mother who was fascinated with British royalty and Princess/Lady Diana (hence an amalgamation). The story is of her, and a group of other girls who are her friends growing up, interlaced with the different challenges that come up due to their dysfunctional families. Their fathers have gone off across the border illegally to America in search of a better life, and yet they end up not coming back and having another family of their own. Their village ends up being filled with women who are to fend for themselves as the mysterious cars come without warning to pick up their little girls to feed the prostitution ring.
There is no major plot, and it is like a collection of stories of various parts of Ladydi’s life as she grows up. It is making the most of their circumstances and finding that the small good things everyday help them get through what is otherwise a misery to people who have grown up with much more than what they have. There is no fairytale ending, no deus ex machina to make things better — Ladydi even finds herself in jail through circumstances where her only fault was that she was with the wrong person. Yet I found myself reading on, because Ladydi’s outlook in life is fascinating, and despite all the hardship, there is an underlying hum of hope for a better life that never gets quashed.
“The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly. […] If I were a girl then I would be stolen.”
– Jennifer Clement (Prayers for the Stolen)
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In other parts of the world, feminine beauty is valued and coveted. In Ladydi’s world, it is a curse.