Cris Mazza interview

US Novelist takes on human trafficking and a buried past

Time In

Here’s something we’ve never seen in a novel before: pull quotes. Like the big excerpted quote you see in the centre of this article, this new novel features the kind of page design typically reserved for newspapers and magazines. It’s a little upending to have part of the fictional narrative repeated and re-emphasised, but it works in creating a journalistic feel in a book about one woman’s reactions to a human-rights crisis.

‘That was my publisher’s idea,’ says Mazza, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. ‘He wanted people to be able to flip through the book and have something pull them in, just like in a newspaper. I thought it was a great idea. I wish it was mine.’

There are plenty of Mazza’s ideas circulating through Various Men, the story of Hester Smith, a woman working in a horticultural nursery in southern California. After witnessing two naked teenage girls tearing through a nearby field, she discovers her workplace borders a sex-trafficking site, where girls are brought from Tijuana. Though her initial instinct is to dip back into her journalism school days and write an exposé, she rules it out, accepting that one feature couldn’t make any real change. Instead, she decides to rescue one of the girls and begins hatching hesitant plans.

The book has, as its ballast, a clear human-rights issue: the trafficking of underage girls across the US border from Mexico, a huge trade that has received only passing interest in the mainstream media, but has provoked outcries from the non-profit sector. Yet the novel takes a surprising turn, focusing more on the inner turmoil of Hester.

Mazza says she wasn’t motivated to expose the trafficking trade when writing. In fact, it turns out it was almost the opposite. ‘If anything, I was animated more by the knowledge that the novel would have almost no effect,’ says Mazza. ‘The novel is steeped with the kind of helplessness that a person with no real power often feels.’

Mazza has made a career of crafting provocative fiction, and Various Men continues in that tradition of pushing buttons and raising questions: does a 16-year-old have more control than we think? Should a man who has relations with an underage girl be granted empathy? And how do we contextualise our own smaller tragedies in the face of mammoth social issues?

Mazza’s fiction provokes in a way that journalism could never try. ‘All I know is I take my characters to a place where they will never be able to look at their lives in the same way,’ she says. ‘In a lot of ways, I’m provoking myself.’

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