from Slash and Burn
PEN America is thrilled to showcase the work of recipients of the 2018 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. The fund awards grants of $2,000–$4,000 to promote the publication and reception of translated world literature in English.
The following is an excerpt from Julia Sanches‘s grant-winning translation of Slash and Burn by El Salvadoran novelist Claudia Hernández.
Sanches writes: The following excerpt is from chapter five of Claudia Hernández’s Slash and Burn. Until now, we’ve met the main protagonist, a nameless young woman who fought in the guerrilla army of a nameless Latin American country’s civil war. In the previous chapter, an excerpt of which was published in Words Without Borders, we witness her, a strongheaded teenager, resist being taken to the mountains and raped by three former guerrillas. Although most of Slash and Burn actually takes place postwar, when our protagonist is left to fend for herself and for her daughters, below is a short section detailing the immediate aftermath of the peace agreement, the tension between former guerrilleros and civilians, and also a snapshot of her time in the guerrilla. I love this section in part because it shows a much more lighthearted side of the world of war—a bright light in what our collective conscious already knows is filled with darkness.
I began Slash and Burn at the request of the author’s agent, but I quickly became engrossed by the voice, which is so direct and simple, in the most delicate sense of the word, and filled with both wisdom and artlessness. Claudia Hernández allows her characters to fully speak for themselves without asserting her presence in the text. My impression of war narratives has been, perhaps due to my limited interest, that war and the postwar period are nearly always portrayed bombastically. In Hernández’s novel, however, there is the opposite. We are given a glimpse of a postwar time filled with practicalities of survival of the most basic and universal kind: how to get food on the table, how to provide for one’s family, how to ensure that they have the future they desire—all while living in a place where being a woman adds an extra dimension to the hardship and danger of the day-to-day.
From Slash and Burn:
She’s told this story to her daughters—the ones who live with her—many times. For as long as they can remember. She thinks it’s good for them to know what the world can be like outside their house, even though the neighborhood they live in is supposedly safe and the world is no longer what it was. The war was over. Her daughters tell her there’s nothing to fear, but she’s not so sure. Despite the evidence and the many years that had passed, she thinks sooner or later something will happen and you always have to be ready, either to face it or to run.
Her neighbors—ex-combatants, like her—think so too. Every day they scan the news for a sign. They pay close attention to what people say, especially when they whisper. For a while, they train as if they were still in the mountains. They run, they roll on the ground, they crawl to keep in shape. It makes people in the area nervous because it looks to them like they aren’t planning to keep their end of the peace agreement. The locals keep a constant eye on what they’re up to, watching for a sign that it’s time to leave. Many report them to the new authorities and accuse them of putting together an underground army. They claim the ex-combatants didn’t turn in their weapons in the disarmament, that they walk about with rifles slung over their shoulders in the neighborhood that was built for them after they came down from the mountains.
Over the first few years, international observers and the new police force make frequent inspections in the area. To keep everyone calm, they tell them it’s routine. The ex-combatants know it’s the people in town who are worried. They don’t trust them—the feeling is mutual—not even when, after every inspection, the police and the observers deliver their reports stating no weapons were found in their investigation. The villagers think that the international observers and the new police force have sided with the ex-combatants. So they keep spying on them. The ex-combatants know this. They decide to train in the hills instead, where the townspeople won’t see them or get nervous—unless they follow them, spying on them under the pretext of feeding their cattle or looking for new land to cultivate.
As years go by, the accusations subside, though the fear and distrust linger. Some of the ex-combatants sell the plots they’d been assigned and go off in search of a new life somewhere where no one will know them or watch them. The ones who stay would rather their children didn’t go into town. They prefer doing their shopping and health check-ups elsewhere. They even send their children to a different school, until they realize it’s more expensive—they have to take more buses and their shoes wear out faster, so they start sending them to the school in town.
On the day the children’s grades come in, the other parents won’t sit near them. They warn their kids to do the same every day in class. They don’t want anything to set off the ex-combatants. They still believe they have weapons and that they might, at any moment, decide to finish what they started.
The kids think their parents are exaggerating, but still they don’t go down to where the ex-combatants live. They don’t go there and they don’t date their daughters, even if they think they’re pretty, like her own four daughters are.
Her second daughter is the one who looks most like her. Her body and hair are like hers were at that age, and they share many mannerisms. They also have a similar character. If her second daughter had been older when she’d taken her trip, she would’ve happily left the girl in charge of her sisters. The eldest, on the other hand, is the spitting image of her father, except without his courage, or hers. She’s a good, strong girl who doesn’t shirk work, but will freeze up at any sign of threat. It was more for her sake than any of the other girls’ that she decided to hire a woman to keep them company while she was gone. Even though her daughter told her there was no need and insisted she use that money in Paris instead, her mother knew her daughter couldn’t handle the pressure of a man hounding her on her errands, claiming that, first, he’d make her his wife and then mother to his children. She needed somebody to walk her to school and to the corn fields. The lady she’d hired was perfect for it—she inspired some respect in the man, because she was the daughter of the woman who’d taught him at school.
The third daughter had her mother’s face, but got her body from her father’s side of the family. She hadn’t fully developed yet, but it was clear she’d be the tallest. Though quick to smile, she also beat up the kids at school with a stick whenever they bugged her about being an ex-combatant’s daughter. She’d assumed the responsibility of protecting her kid sister, even though the younger girl didn’t need it. She knew how to get smoothly in or out of any situation with the other kids. No one ever picked a fight with her. She was so friendly that people in town even invited her into their homes whenever she was out and about in that area on her own. They served her coffee and fed her whatever they had lying around just so they could hear her chat about things that were ordinary but became funny when she talked about them. She’d sing and dance for them when they asked and would even put on a show when there was no one around. She didn’t need an audience. [. . .]
They must have taken after her—even in wartime, tucked away in the mountains, she’d always managed to have her hair done up nicely. At one of the villages they’d visited, she’d managed to get hold of a bunch of colorful hair ties that stood out from her uniform. The people who’d taken care of them in return for their help had asked her what she needed, what she wanted. So she told them.
Whenever the person in charge of supplies asked if she needed anything, she always requested pastel colored panties—like the ones she’d been given as a gift by a foreigner who’d come to see them at the camp—even though they always gave her the simplest black pair and then scolded her for her vanity at a time when the country needed the full commitment of each and every one of them. He reiterated that this commitment meant making appropriate use of the funds their compañeros in the political sector had acquired—not spending it on trifles. She countered that the fact that she was in the mountains was better proof of her commitment than the panties she wanted and that she needed a really good pair so she could stay. She also said she needed bras. Before then, at home, she’d looked down her nose at those contraptions, unable to see the point of them. But with time and the way her body had developed, she came to need them, especially for running. Being men, they couldn’t understand it, but they should go ahead and ask any woman in her circumstance.
They must have done that, because just a few days later they gave her two quality black bras with a little ornament on them that she’d play with whenever she had time on her hands. Her greatest treasure, which she kept in her rucksack, was a little mirror her aunt, who knew her well and understood her needs, had given her. She’d sent it via her husband, who’d taken a while to get it to her because they kept missing each other in the camps and mission areas.
This and, later, her fondness for skin creams gave her a reputation in the camps for being a flirt. The men would tease her and the women would get her whatever they could to spoil her. She was everyone’s little girl.
Her father was the only one who didn’t give into her whims. She always got fewer things and shabbier clothing when he was in charge of supplies. Her father loved her, but he couldn’t risk being accused of playing favorites. He’d never be forgiven for it. She understood and never once complained about it. Instead, she picked flowers to make her look prettier, which he scolded her for. He said it could expose her, spoiling the effect of the camo uniforms, which had been so hard to get hold of, especially in her size.
That had made her upset. She said she was tired of living like this and she wanted to go home, to her mom and to her old life. She also told him she didn’t see the point of what they were doing in the mountains. Her father called her a coward, saying I wish I were your age . . . I’d fight so hard so we could all be equal.
She felt ashamed of how he saw her. From then on, she only clipped flowers to wear on the days she stayed in the camp.
They couldn’t shake her concern with her looks, not by lecturing her or with shortages. There was even a time when, forced to get a boyish haircut in punishment, she’d found a way to wear it more stylishly than anyone else. And when the moment came to sign the peace agreement and come down from the mountains, she used the stipend they gave her to buy skin creams and makeup in the village market.
The only thing that stopped her from trying to buy or get a hold of these things was when her daughters started wanting and needing them. Since they didn’t have enough money to cover it all, she gave up her share so they could enjoy it and look after their skin and their hair, so they could do their nails and smell of their favorite flowers.