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Author Jennifer Clement Delivers Justin Society Address
Greg Waxberg

Mexico City, 1986: Nigel Paton, teaching drama and English at the Greengates School, proposes to a local community theater that they should stage Anton Chekhov’s play Three Sisters. After being selected to direct it, he needs to cast three women and meets longtime Mexico City resident Jennifer Clement, who immediately impresses him with her audition. He casts her as one of the three sisters. Then, for 37 years, he follows her career as a dancer, poet, novelist, essayist, and memoirist.

New York City, 2023: Pingry Upper School English and AP Art History Teacher, and Justin Society Coordinator, Nigel Paton is accepted into an advanced fiction writing class at the 92nd Street Y, which he finds out is taught by Jennifer Clement.

Thanks to Mr. Paton’s knowledge of Ms. Clement and her writing, he was proud to introduce her to Pingry students for the 2024 Justin Society Assembly in late March. The Justin Society, established in 1997 by Mr. and Mrs. George Ring in honor of their son, Justin ’94, encourages creative writing by inviting writers to the School to read from and discuss their works and to participate in workshops with students. “Ms. Clement has long been known and appreciated as someone who feels passionately about, and speaks eloquently about, the importance of writers being able to exercise their craft with absolute freedom,” Mr. Paton told the audience.

Among her many notable accomplishments, she was the first (and so far, only) woman elected President of PEN International, founded in 1921 and now the oldest and largest organization of writers in the world; she held the position from 2015–2021. She had also served as President of PEN Mexico from 2009–2012. “Of the many things that PEN cares about—apart from the most important, which is freedom of expression—we believe very strongly in the role of literature to create social change,” Ms. Clement said.

At Pingry, she read excerpts from two of her acclaimed novels, Prayers for the Stolen (2014) and Gun Love (2018). Prayers for the Stolen is about the abduction of girls and young women by drug traffickers in rural Mexico; mothers tried to disguise their daughters as boys so the cartels would not take them away. “I was very interested in trying to understand how the violence in Mexico was affecting women—the news was only covering stories about men,” Ms. Clement explained, having spent three years interviewing women, most of whom were in hiding. Mothers “made their girls look ugly—by rubbing their cheeks with chili powder, by blackening their teeth, by cutting their hair, by pretending they had boys . . . The image that broke my heart was to hear that they would hide their girls in holes in the ground . . . I wrote about something that hurt and moved me and didn’t leave me alone.”

Gun Love takes as its subject the struggles of those facing poverty and gun violence in a homeless community in Florida, as well as the trafficking of guns into Mexico and Central America. “I’m interested in writing about violence, but without violent prose . . . I’m interested in states of consciousness and how to create scenes through dreams and daydreams,” Ms. Clement said. “And it’s important to visit the places you’re writing about.”

For his part, Mr. Paton considered her readings “transformative.” “It added a new dimension to the understanding of her books because she delivered the text with the authority of a trained actor.”

Ms. Clement’s novels and memoirs
Auf der Zunge (Stormy People)
Gun Love
The Poison That Fascinates
Prayers for the Stolen
The Promised Party: Kahlo, Basquiat & Me
A True Story Based on Lies
Widow Basquiat: A Love Story

Contact: Greg Waxberg ’96, Communications Writer, Editor of The Pingry Review