In late September the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, which I direct, arranged a talk by Anabel Hernández, a Mexican journalist and courageous writer whose book, Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers,has just been published in English by Verso. I had heard about Hernandez and her work, but I thought a better person to moderate the evening would be our doctoral student in sociology, Gema Santamaría, who works on problems of violence in Mexico. I had gotten to know Gema quite well during our Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, where I taught a seminar called Romancing Violence. I knew that though born in Nicaragua she wanted to work on Mexico, where she grew up. I could see that she is a brilliant student and I learned that she is also an accomplished poet. So I thought that she and Anabel – who had not been at the New School before — would make a good team. We had a full house that night, and though some people had to stand on the sides of the Hirshon Suite, nobody moved. Anabel gave an engaging though disturbing presentation, analyzing the tight linkages between Mexico’s political class and its drug economy. Gema was a graceful moderator, and when necessary an on-the-spot translator. After the lecture, some of us went on talking over supper at a nearby Thai joint. Gema pulled from her bag a piece of paper and said she had brought something for me. I glanced at the page, and asked whether I could read it aloud so that Anabel could hear it.

I read Gema’s poem:

Interview with an Expert on Violence

So, tell us,

Anabel Herandez © Stephan Rohl | Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung [Flickr]
Anabel Herandez © Stephan Rohl | Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung [Flickr]
what is the wound, what is its color,

what is the color of the wound that follows

from the closed fist

from the closed anger

of the one against another

the one that is a fire,

the other that is an abyss,

the other that will

from now on

be known as “the victim.”


What is the fear, what is the rhythm,

what is the fear’s rhythm

is the mouth bitter,

is the tongue drier

when the fear crawls like an injured


like a tense, intimate, trembling rabbit?


And the eyes?

Do they close at the blow,

do they stare at the blow,

do they stare at the nightmare

do they think in the caprice

of day and night

of darkness and light

wanting to escape it,

like the dreamer that witnesses the dream and dreams of herself saying:

“now, open your eyes.”


And the knees?

Is it true that they lose control,

that the bone is no longer a stone

a stone that allows to stand up,

that it fills up with water,

with tender, bloody water,

until the legs go strayed,

missing, disjointed,


the liquid substance of cowardice.


And the stomach?

How long does it revolve,

How long does it tremble,

how long, until it becomes

a long knot of nausea?


And the sound of the scream?

The sound that is born in the heat

of the knives,

in the heat of the face that faces the knives,

what does it say?

does it



Tell us


What is the smell of death?

What is the weight of death?

Where do you write death?

Where do you understand death?


What is the name of your next article?

4 thoughts on “Interview with an Expert on Violence

  1. Gema’s poem does the near impossible. It makes violence almost visceral, collapsing the distance between those who suffer and those who ache for them. Apart from the knives, there are no intermediary “things” to blame in Gema’s verse–only people.

    I note this because I was recently invited to participate in the Museum of Modern
    Art’s Design and Violence online project devoted to violence as an idea
    embodied in things.

    The MoMA site has yet to rise to the emotional tenor of Gema’s verse; still it raises questions that this readership might want to entertain. I invite anyone reading this to consider whether violence requires instruments. And whether design, in its role as intermediary between people and things, people and people, is itself a mode of violence turning subjects into objects, i.e., consumers and victims.

    1. I think that design can be an instrument of violence “turning subjects into objects,” but also can be an instrument of the opposite of violence, sustaining critical action. Ethical choice is embedded into design. I wonder: do design schools address this?

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