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Prayers for the stolen

Interview: Heike Mund
September 26, 2014

American-Mexican author Jennifer Clement's newest book portraits the life of young girls in rural Mexico. For her novel, she spent a decade investigating the Mexican drug trafficking cartel. DW met Clement in Germany.

Mexiko Drogenkrieg vermisste Kinder
Image: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

DW: Miss Clement, your newest book, "Prayers for the Stolen," is about the brutal kidnapping of young girls by the Mexican drug trafficking cartel. Large parts of the book are based on in-depth research you conducted over the last decade. How exactly did you get access to your interview partners, which include the women of major Mexican drug lords?

Jennifer Clement: The research took about ten, eleven years and had different stages. At first I didn't know I was going to write this book. I was just interested in Mexican drug culture, so I was interviewing women in hiding that were the women of drug traffickers. Then I sort of got immersed in what the world of drug trafficking was like, which contributed to the idea to write a book about it. But then it became way too dangerous to continue with that work because the violence escalated in Mexico, and so I had to stop doing that.

Jennifer Clement spent a decade researching her newest book
Author Jennifer Clement was born in the United States but grew up in MexicoImage: DW/H. Mund

The second stage was when I was president of PEN Mexico [PEN is a worldwide association of writers] and many journalists were being killed. I had to go to many areas of rural Mexico and see how the local state governments were being infiltrated by the drug trafficking cartels. That also manifested itself in my book.

The third part of the research was more organic: hanging out in the rural areas of Guerrero, in the supermarkets, on the beach, and just talking to women in an informal, relaxed way to try and find out exactly what was happening.

The last stage of my research was in the women's jail in Mexico City where I participated at a workshop that an artist gave. Through the collages that the women were making in the workshop, I would ask them to tell me their story and what was in their collage and why they were in jail.

But the novel was really born when a mother told me about how little girls were digging holes into the grounds so that they could hide from being abducted. I couldn't even sleep that night. It was an image that just embraced me, trapped me, didn't let me sleep.

And that's what your book is about: stolen girls, girls that get kidnapped by the Mexican drug cartel. Did you ever talk to one of these girls?

I never ever interviewed a girl who had been stolen, because they never come back. In my novel I let the reader follow a girl's journey back home. But in reality I never interviewed a girl like that. I only interviewed some people in shelters that had been saved from drug trafficking rings. But more than anything I was speaking to their mothers.

Jennifer Clement reads the beginning of her new book "Prayers for the Stolen"

You focused your novel on girls rather than boys. Are there big differences when it comes to the childhood and education of girls and boys in Mexico?

My novel takes place in a very rural part of the state of Guerrero in Mexico. So this is just a portrait of the kind of violence towards girls that occurs very much in this part of Mexico. I wouldn't say that it is happening all over Mexico but certainly in these very vulnerable areas it is happening. Some girls who have been trafficked only speak indigenous languages, they don't even speak Spanish. But they have been found trafficked to the United States, because there are rings of trafficking that go up to the United States.

Mexiko Rafael Caro Quintero freigelassen
The war against drug lords is a part of everyday life in rural MexicoImage: Hector Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

In your book it seems that Mexicans are very proud of their country. Even in this area where they live such a dangerous, hard life. Can you confirm that?

Mexicans love Mexico very much. And sometimes that's a problem. A man who runs a very important group for immigrants in New York has explained to me that the greatest problem that the United States has with Mexican immigration - be it legal or illegal - is that Mexican immigrants don't want to stay. They are all dreaming of going back. So all they want to do is make money and go home. They don't want to become part of the society. They don't want to take English classes. They don't want to enroll in school. They don't see the United States as their country and this makes it a hard group to integrate.

Jennifer Clement is an award-winning author. She was born in the United States and moved to Mexico City together with her family when she was still a baby. She later returned to the US for her studies. Clement has published several novels and poetry books. Her latest work is "Prayers for the Stolen" and was published by Hogarth (2014).