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By Danielle Papamichael
The death of the Witch in Fernanda Melchor’s brutally intoxicating novel, Hurricane Season, shines a heartbreaking light on the misogynistic rhetoric and femicide that is deeply rooted in Mexico and beyond.
Although Hurricane Season focuses on Mexico, the term witch’ has been used as a tool to disempower, dehumanise and silence women all over the world. From witch-hunts and executions, to political smear campaigns, the ‘bitter’, ‘ugly’ or ‘wicked’ old woman is a trope that is all too familiar.
What if we begin by asking the question: who created the witch archetype and why? In societies that rely on inequality between the sexes and adhere to prescribed gender roles, ‘witches’ are a threat. They stand accused of not conforming to expectations and of using their own knowledge to better themselves and other women in times of crisis. For many women today, who are able to safely reclaim the title and take ownership of her so-called ghastly attributes, ‘witch’ has become a positive force for feminine liberation and power.
Hurricane Season (shortlisted for the International 2020 Booker Prize) is not a novel for the squeamish; Melchor dives into harrowing detail from the opening page. The book carries such emotional weight; it’s almost as if she’s daring you to look away.
Melchor invites the reader to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the gruesome lives and sinister inner monologues of the La Matosa villagers. They live in a community which is governed by poverty, extensive abuse (from crippling drug addiction to sexual and emotional terrorism), toxic masculinity and misogyny. Their neglected lives are fuelled by gossip and superstition, prejudice and hate.
The story begins when a group of children playing beside the irrigation canals discover ‘the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes’. The corpse belongs to the Witch, previously known as the Young Witch whilst her mother was still alive.
As the narrative unfolds, we hear harrowing accounts from residents of how the Witch was involved in their lives and why the murder occurred, but we’re never sure about who or what to believe. One fact is the powerful role both Witches (mother and daughter) played in the community as knowledgeable herbalists, an occupation associated with witches throughout history. Offering up their services without judgement or fuss, the two Witches provided love potions, abortifacients, ‘a remedy for indigestion, or a tea to keep tiredness at bay’; they listened so that locals could ‘lighten the load, let it all out, the pain and sadness.’
Despite the Witches’ contribution, using nature’s free remedies to build a career and earn a little income stirred up dangerous feelings of envy and rage among men who complained that the Witches made them feel ‘sterile and weak’. Violence ensues in Hurricane Season. Two young men, Luismi and Brando, conspire to murder the Young Witch in an act of pure greed. ‘You convince her to open the door,’ one says to the other, ‘and once inside we get the money by force if we have to, who gives a fuck.’
Although Hurricane Season is fictional, Melchor based the novel on a real-life murder that took place outside Veracruz, Mexico. Initially, she intended to write a non-fiction investigation but decided it was too dangerous. Amnesty International’s 2020 figures show that ten women and girls are killed every day in Mexico. Every year, big crowds march in Mexico City for the ‘Day of the Dead Women’ protest, demanding justice for the victims of femicide.
Witch-hunts are rife in 35 other countries around the world; thousands of women are tortured and killed every year. Witch-hunts prey on those perceived to be easy targets – the elderly, the widowed, single mothers, children and the disabled; they’re all scapegoats for problems and tragedies that cannot easily be solved. Witch-hunts also target those who step outside of their prescribed roles or challenge the status quo. Freedom and independence from patriarchal reign, be it through an accumulation of wealth, power, knowledge, or bodily autonomy, is reason enough to be branded.
Modern witch-hunts mirror the harrowing campaigns of the fifteenth to seventeenth century that swept over Europe and North America. Silvia Federici, author of Caliban and the Witch, argues that witch-hunts were a terror campaign used to successfully establish capitalism. The power of women was diminished with the destruction of ancient female practices (such as midwifery or the ale brewing business, in which women showed off their trade wearing pointed hats, and stood in front of cauldrons full of beer). With capitalism, women’s bodies were commodified as essential for reproduction, thereby ensuring a surplus of workers. This paved the way for the great indoctrination of domesticated womanhood.
For generations, witch-hunts have been a tool to repress the intellect of women and to prevent women from rising to positions of influence. A modern version of political witch-hunts can be observed in the ‘Ditch The Witch’ campaign against former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the labelling of Hillary Clinton as the ‘Wicked Witch of the Left’. As reported in the Guardian, the classicist Mary Beard ‘is frequently branded a witch in an attempt to discredit her and older women generally.’
However, women are fighting back. Fifty-year-old Stacey Macken, whose drunken male colleagues left a witch’s hat on her desk, recently won more than £2m in compensation for sexual discrimination; the ‘Witches of Scotland’ group has campaigned for pardons and official apologies for the women executed during Scotland’s great ‘witch purge’, three centuries ago; and in 2001, victims of the Salem Witch trials were officially exonerated buy the state of Massachusetts.
Positive witch storylines have also risen in popular culture – from Netflix’s reboot of Sabrina The Teenage Witch to Brand New Cherry Flavor, a TV show about a woman who hexes her boss after he sexually assaults her. During Donald Trump’s inauguration, 13,000 ‘hedge witches’ took to the internet to cast a spell and ‘bind’ the president.
The links between witchcraft and activism, it’s apparent, are not new. During the global Covid pandemic and ongoing wars, spirituality and herbalism have overtaken social media platforms as forms of unconventional guidance for Gen-Z and Millennials, with the use of tarot card readings, astrology, the power of manifestation, and natural remedies such as Sea Moss.
Nonetheless, in today’s societies, the conception of the ‘witch’ continues to symbolise a threat to existing hegemonies, often resulting in the kind of violence towards women depicted in Hurricane Season. However, the shift in pop culture towards embracing otherness, standing out and nurturing ideas of spirituality, offers an exciting moment for reclaiming the witch, to reject inequality and toxic masculinity.