El Salvador’s Claudia Hernández on war, women, and burning. Translated by Julia Sanches.

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.

The volcano that can be seen from my house has been dormant for more than a hundred years. For a time, parts of its face were often dotted with fiery birthmarks. Just like much of the land in the country. Since before the day I was born. Since before colonial times.

My first memory of this burning – a farming method whose purpose is to enrich the soil – is not the heat but the ashes that used to rain down on us, wafting through the doors and wandering around the house until they settled on the basket filled with clean laundry, or on the plates set out on the dining table. I asked the girl who looked after me what the black threads that kept falling on my toys were. She answered by gesturing with her lips toward the various plots of land being set on fire. And silence. Even when I asked if we should call the firefighters. All she did was shake her head.

As someone who’d grown up in the countryside and understood that this death was a part of life, she helped me understand the importance of this process and our powerlessness against the flames. Seeing the distress and alarm on my face, she murmured that the vegetation would grow again, in due time.

Our mothers once had a similar exchange. After learning that some of the woman’s children planned to engage actively in the war, my mother asked what would happen if they were killed. All the woman said in response was Yes. And nothing else. No matter how much my mother urged her to talk them out of it. It was clear from the gentle but firm expression on her face that she would not be moved, nor would she explain herself to someone who could never understand the motivations behind it or the outcomes it would produce.

From a hiding place, I eavesdropped on the end of that conversation, and many other conversations I wasn’t supposed to overhear. This was grown-up talk. And little girls were not meant to listen. It’s bad manners, my mother used to say. And it was dangerous, too. Though she never put it in words, my mother lived in fear that a piece of information we’d hear might innocently slip into a conversation with the wrong people – at great cost to my parents, our guests, and those we didn’t know. She never explained it outright, but it was clear that the war could swallow up even those of us who hadn’t joined the battling factions, regardless of whether we were of age. She’d call us children out to say hello to the señoras who’d come from towns, and from a time when she’d experienced many difficulties. She said she wanted them to see how much we’d grown, but the truth is she wanted us to meet them and learn how we were related, so that we could help them when needed, and, if luck turned against us, so that they could lend us a hand, just like my mother was doing right then. That’s why they had come. From all over a country that was burning. Like ash.

My mother used to keep us in the living room until it became impossible not to touch on  the sensitive subject. Then she’d send us away. I could tell it was time to go before she said so because both she and her guest would start looking at one another differently, lowering their voices, changing their postures, and filling the room with tension and pain.

It was the silence that erased their smiles, and compelled my mother to rush to grab her car keys so she and the guests could immediately leave, that made me disobediently listen to the whispers surrounding these women, who sometimes spent the night at our house or stayed with us for a little while.

When the war ended and my mother felt comfortable talking about the subject, I asked after several of the people I’d seen throughout those years. She was surprised to find out about all the conversations I’d overheard, and filled me in on what had happened in the same low voice she’d used with the women back in the day. As she spoke, I understood the ways in which women who were never on the battlefields still took part in the war. When they offered each other comfort or went looking for the disappeared. When they – who seemed so harmless – ferried messages from one city to another, or cooked large quantities of tortillas near a trail they knew the combatants would take. When they warned other women to stock up before an imminent attack. When they gave each other shelter or helped someone flee. When they stood on the frontline of their houses so that others could go to the frontline of war. 

I don’t remember the men ever asking for favours at the house. If they were present at all, it was still the women who advocated on their behalf. In the intimacy of the home, they were the ones who spoke, who stood up in favour of life. And not to the ‘man of the house’, but to his wife. Woman to woman. Like communicating vessels.

Unlike the men I interviewed once I began collecting memories of war, the women, even the ones who’d enlisted, often spoke of emotional connections; instead of referring to concrete facts or particular battles in terms of victories won and strategies used, they lingered on gestures of generosity and networks of solidarity. There were historical records of the things the men spoke about. But the stories the women told were shrouded in a silence inversely proportional to the printed matter. So I started asking questions. Memories of the fires that once lit up the country were rekindled and their ashes brought back to life – and they blew all the way to the farthest reaches of the house, from where I am writing this piece, with my back to the volcano, in the hope that life will grow again where there was once destruction.

Claudia Hernández is the highly acclaimed author of five short-story collections and two novels, the first of which was Slash and Burn, published in Spanish in 2017 and now in English in 2021. Born in El Salvador, she was named in the Hay Festival’s Bogotá39 list of important Latin American authors.

Julia Sanches translates from Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan. Her most recent translation is Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández, for which she won a PEN/Heim award. A founding member of the Cedilla & Co. translators’ collective, Julia currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s