Argentinian writer Selva Almada discusses femicide, violence in lockdown, and how to write historic trauma.

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Selva, when PEN Transmissions spoke to you last year, before Chicas muertas had been translated into English, you said that you ‘owed your activism’ to the book – that it was a ‘public stand’ that ‘reaffirmed your feminism’. It is now available to an anglophone public, and I want to ask how important it is to you that this public stand has moved across linguistic and national borders. Dead Girls is about femicide in Argentina, but it is also about gender-based violence at-large – how do the issues you address in the book ‘translate’ across the world?

I think the book pushed me to throw myself, body and soul, to the reflections and preoccupations that I had, for many years, most of the time, on my own. If an author should always try and accompany their book, I felt that Dead Girls in particular demanded more of me than any of my previous ones. It also coincided with those vibrant years when different feminisms began to emerge in Argentina. We – as women – started to come out onto the street to express in public our ideas, our position vis-à-vis male violence, our condemnation. Two years ago, there was also a very strong debate in Argentina regarding the legalisation of abortion. We, as women writers, participated actively in the campaign. It was a very intense period, in which people began bringing taboo issues like abortion and (naturalised) male violence out of the closet. People started to understand that the killing of a woman at the hands of a man is a crime that is more closely related to cultural than criminal issues. These have been highly educational years. Unfortunately, misogyny is a problem affecting almost all societies in the world –  in some more exposed or more vicious than in others. Is the advance of the Right in Europe not proof of this? I don’t think it’s crazy to say that these phenomena go hand in hand: misogyny and the Right.  

Could you talk to me a little about the intersections of violence, gender and capitalism that Dead Girls examines?

The cases narrated in the book are the cases of very young, working-class women. One of them is going to college, in a period in which, in Argentina, this represented an aspiration and an opportunity to move up the social ladder. But she nevertheless comes from a working-class family: her father works in a meat-packing depot, and her mother is a housewife. In the other two cases, they are even poorer – one of them is a maid, and the other a sex worker. Added to the vulnerability inherent in being a woman and being young is the vulnerability also of being poor. The abuse they suffer is related to a class issue: the cruel games they are subject to, like the one they call ‘calving’. However poor and deprived a man is, when he gets home, there is always someone lower than him: a woman.

Dead Girls is one of several recent and extremely powerful novels from Latin America that render violence through lyrical writing – that arrest, and prompt deep searching, by bringing gender-based violence and art together. Could you talk a little about your mode of writing here, which is urgent and spare and honest, whilst also lyrical and artful and beautiful?

When I started to think about this book, and once I had finished the research and collated the fieldwork, the key question was how I was going to write it. I drafted a few versions, but it was very hard to arrive at the voice of the text. What would the narrator be like? How much would she have in common with me? What kind of distance would she take? A distance similar to the one I’d taken as a journalist? I wasn’t convinced by any of those drafts. The writing seemed foreign, lifeless, to me. I talked to my about it, and we came to the conclusion that I didn’t have to go looking for new tools to write the book – that I already had them in me, that they were the same I had used for all my other books. I was going to write a book of non-fiction using the narrative tools of fiction. That’s why this book has several points of contact with the rest of my work: the construction of the characters and the landscape, the territory of the language of provincial Argentina, far from the city; the lack of an intention to be just a testimony, but rather to work as a poetic form.

Exploring that a little further, Dead Girls doesn’t settle neatly into one genre – it is personal but public, journalistic but novelistic. You’ve spoken elsewhere about the factual and the fictional both being deployed out of respect for Andrea Danne, María Luisa Quevedo, Sarita Mundín, and their families and friends – in order not to hide the truth of these stories behind reinvention, but also not to claim to offer complete accounts through reportage. The modulation – and its rendering through interview and conversation – results in a deeply intimate text. Could you speak about intimacy, and the role it plays in the book?

When I decided that the narrator (the reporter) was going to be closely linked to me (the author), the possibility of something intimate, something personal, appeared. These stories, these tragedies that had happened to these girls, could have happened to me or my friends. And although we hadn’t traversed the limit of horror that is death, femicide, we had experienced first-hand hundreds of other types of abuse. Abuse that had become normalised. Forms of abuse that we were told to get used to, and were brought up to accept, because that’s how we were brought up as women – to accept the norms of machismo behaviour. This meant that the public and the private couldn’t be separate in the book.

One always cautions against reading biography into the novels of women writers, but you place yourself firmly within this narrative. In the slow moments – when the narrator is travelling between interviews, waiting to speak to relatives – the context of Dead Girls means readers can’t help but fear, in a way, for you. Did you feel a heightened sense of risk whilst researching and writing this book? What effects did proximity to such traumatic but tragically prolific events – ones that you, early in the book, frame as perpetually close-to-home – have on you?

No, I can’t say I felt I was in danger, but I did feel I was about to write a book that would be different to all my previous books. In this one, I would be particularly exposed. And I was going to write the stories of women I didn’t know, which was a responsibility. I suppose all those feelings do permeate the text.

Though your research and writing of this book took place some years ago, its urgency is still of course – and damningly – urgent. With Dead Girls coming out in English in 2020, its look at gendered violence in small towns and domestic settings speaks arrestingly to the much-documented rise in femicide and violence against women during COVID-19 lockdowns. What connections between the stories of the book and this recent context do you see?

This was – and is – a big concern among feminists in Argentina: What happens with women who are victims of gender violence and are obliged to live under the same roof as their aggressors during lockdown? What happens to them when the ties – always weak – that they can establish with the outside, on the other side of the door that leads to hell, are shut by an order from the State and by a situation that goes beyond the needs of the individual? The government took some measures, yet the statistics for femicides in recent months obviously show that these were not enough.

Something that comes out in the discursive nature of the book is intergenerationalism (particularly between women of different generations), and the differences in perspectives that attend it – shame, blame, survival, anger, activism, speaking, hope. It reminds of the collective, cross-generation women’s narratives of books like Alia Trabucco Zerán and Sophie Hughes’s The Remainder, and Sema Kaygusuz and Nicholas Glastonbury’s Every Fire You Tend. What did those intergenerational perspectives reveal to you?

I wanted the book to tell the story of women who’d been my contemporaries because, although I didn’t know them, I was able to know how they thought, how they lived, how they’d been brought up as women, since, surely, we would have shared a very similar upbringing. Stemming from how my generation was at that point – in which violence was still pretty much accepted – stories emerged from my mother, my female neighbours, women from previous generations. And the truth was that not much had changed. I think the big changes have only begun taking place in the generation of those who today are teenagers – who are growing up within feminism, who go to the Ni Una Menos demonstrations, and who take part in the debate for the legalisation of abortion. In twenty-five years, not much had changed. But in the last five, there’s been quite a radical shift, also among women of my generation: there’s been a collective awakening.

Dead Girls rightly damns patriarchy, but men’s voices – friends and family of Andrea, María Luisa, and Sarita – also appear in the book. That struck me, and I wonder if you could speak on that?

In María Luisa’s case, her brother acted as a spokesman for the family. I am not sure how that happened, but, ever since the body was found, he was the one that became the visible face of the family’s quest for truth. Twenty-five years later, he was still the one in charge of demanding justice. That is how he expressed it to me, and I respected his role. His mother had already passed away.

In the case of Andrea, her sister didn’t want to take part in the book or give her testimony, apart from a brief email reproduced in the text. Many years had gone by, so it was very difficult to find people willing to talk about the cases. It so happened that most of them were men. Sarita’s case is different: the ones providing testimony are the women of the family. I did not see it as something that stands in contradiction with the book, to be honest. I needed to talk to someone and, if the voices came mostly from men, I would do something with that anyway.

Finally, I want to ask about the words femicide and feminicidio – words that weren’t in common usage in the anglophone or hispanophone at the time of the murders explored in Dead Girls, and words that are today used with different frequency in different national and linguistic contexts. How useful are these terms in bespeaking the terrible truth of the murder of women for being women – of its horror, and at once its horrific prevalence?

In the book, the term ‘femicide’ is mentioned only a few times. At the beginning, it’s used to clarify that the murder of a woman at the hands of a man is not a ‘crime of passion’ or a ‘domestic crime’, as it used to be called. Once that’s explained, I think it sets the political tone of the book, and the narration of the cases: it is not a book about crimes, nor is it a police chronicle; it is a book about femicide and how femicide is part of a culture that enables men to make use of the bodies, and even the lives, of women. A word may sometimes not be a grand thing, but I think that today in Argentina no one can ignore the fact that this type of crime has a specific name, and a very particular weight. Even those who deny it and insist that more men than women are killed every year – even those deniers know that we are talking about different things. That is the real weight that a word, a concept, can have once it gets internalised by an entire society. And this is a huge step that we have taken in recent years.

Compared to Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Sara Gallardo and Juan Carlos Onetti, Selva Almada (Entre Ríos, Argentina, 1973) is considered one of the most powerful voices of contemporary Argentinian and Latin American literature and one of the most influential feminist intellectuals of the region. Including her début The Wind that Lays Waste, she has published two novels, a book of short stories, a book of journalistic fiction and a kind of film diary (written in the set of Lucrecia Martel’s most recent film Zama, based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel). She has been finalist of the Rodolfo Walsh Award and of the Tigre Juan Award (both in Spain). Her work has been translated into French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Swedish and Turkish.

Attend the launch of Dead Girls here.

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.

Translated from the Spanish by Carolina Orloff.

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