In Annie McDermott’s superb translation of Selva Almada’s journalistic novel, Dead Girls, the story of three young women murdered in 1980s Argentina asks how long will the world stand by and remain silent about violence to women?
In summer 2015, thousands of women took to the streets of Buenos Aires. It was a couple of months after the pregnant body of fourteen year old Chiara Paez had been found: she had been beaten to death by her boyfriend. She shared the same fate as Daiana Garcia, Angeles Rawson, Melina Romero and hundreds of other women, all victims of femicide, all murdered simply because they were women. A tweet by journalist Marcela Ojeda sowed the seed for the protests, which rallied around the slogan #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less). ‘They are killing us: Aren’t we going to do anything?’
Around the same time, Selva Almada’s journalistic novel Dead Girls (Chicas muertas) was published. The result of three years of research and a hard, painful three months of writing, it tells the story of three of those girls, all murdered in the 1980s while Almada was growing up in the Argentinian province of Entre Ríos. Andrea Dunne, aged nineteen, was stabbed in her own bed. Twenty-year-old Sarita Mundín disappeared without trace; a body assumed to be hers was later washed up on a river bank. And María Luisa Quevedo, aged fifteen, was raped and strangled before her mutilated body was dumped on a patch of wasteland. Part call to action, part denunciation, part tribute to these girls and hundreds of others like them, Dead Girls is a hard-hitting and tightly crafted book, superbly translated by Annie McDermott. Ultimately, it asks the same question as Ojeda. Women and girls are dying. Aren’t we going to do anything?
At the time of protests, NGOs in Argentina estimated that a woman was killed every 30 hours because of gender violence. In Dead Girls, Almada reveals a culture of deep misogyny, in which the line between sex and violence is incredibly porous. ‘Violence [towards women] was normalised…if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.’ Attitudes and behaviours that objectify and sexualise women are pervasive. In interviewing friends and relatives of the victims, travelling around the hot, dusty small-town interior of Argentina, Almada is often faced with justifications for what happened to the girls. Victim blaming is as normalised as the violence that precedes it, and entwined with this is a sense of shame. Almada recounts how, as a young girl, she would hear her mother talking with friends, discussing situations of everyday violence in whispers, careful of being overheard. Gender violence, it seems, had become a dirty secret that everyone knew but no one would name.
Poverty also plays a part. Sarita worked as a prostitute, María Luisa as a maid. These are common occupations for women who have no other means of making ends meet – but both occupations place them in subservient positions, usually to men. Women have very little agency, and abusive relationships are often tolerated because of financial need. Despite being mistreated by her lover – towards the end of her life she took pains never to see him alone – Sarita stayed with him because he paid for her apartment. He was later one of the main suspects in her disappearance, but his high social standing meant that he was never properly investigated.
At the heart of all of this is a justice system that is often corrupt, inefficient, and incompetent. There are laws against gender violence in Argentina, but they are very rarely enforced, and sometimes the web of violence and corruption extends so far into the offices of power that justice is all but impossible. Almada cites the case of María Soledad Morales, raped and beaten to death in the province of Catamarca. After months of pressure, an investigation found that the chief of police had orchestrated a coverup; charges were brought against the son of a local congressman. But this investigation was an exception. Like most crimes of femicide, the cases of Andrea, María Luisa, and Sarita were never solved. No perpetrator was ever brought to justice. It was left to family members to investigate themselves, to keep pressing for answers, to keep looking – and not always with the support of their relatives.
One result of this that is perhaps slightly surprising is the thread of mysticism that runs through the narrative. The use of psychics and mediums is popular as a recourse in Argentina, especially when family members have exhausted all official channels of investigation. In Almada’s narrative, ‘Señora’ uses the tarot to connect with the dead girls, but sometimes ‘the girls get in ahead of the cards.’ A particularly vivid description is of Señora, sitting at her table unable to breathe. ‘I was suffocating, it was so intense. Pressure here and a pain here, she says, pointing first to her neck and then between her legs.’ Both women believed it was María Luisa, strangled and raped.
Growing up in Entre Ríos, Almada was profoundly affected by what she heard and saw all around her. The cases of Andrea, María Luisa, and Sarita form the focus of the book, but woven in around them are stories of friends, neighbours, strangers, Almada herself as the narrator. There is the sense that Almada feels incredibly lucky that she did not become a ‘dead girl’ herself, and throughout the narrative there is a tautness, a feeling of suspense as in a crime novel. At the same time, there is a lyricism that brings the narrative alive; all the nuances of brutality side by side with the poetics of the landscape are deftly handled in translation. These girls become real on the page. Almada herself, although a principal character and the main investigator, stays out of their way in the wings. This is, after all, their story.
‘The new year began a month ago. In that time, at least ten women have been killed for being women. I say at least because these are the names that appeared in the papers, the ones that counted as news.’ This is the end of Dead Girls – a final reminder, if one is needed, that femicide continues. Every day, women are murdered simply for being women. But there is also a glimmer of hope in one final story: Almada’s aunt, who escaped being raped by her cousin and whose father, instead of blaming her, made sure that the cousin never went near her again.
Dead Girls by Selva Almada and translated by Annie McDermott is published by Charco Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK. Follow Charco Press on Twitter @CharcoPress
This piece was completed for Life in Languages, a new series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes
Submissions are now open for this series. See our Submissions & Contact page for full details.
Feature image: Selva Almada by Vale Fiorini courtesy of Charco Press.