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Selva Almada: Dead Girls review – the stark proximity of women to violence | reviews, news & interviews

Selva Almada: Dead Girls review – the stark proximity of women to violence

Selva Almada: Dead Girls review – the stark proximity of women to violence

Almada's hybrid writing bears searing witness to the horrors of femicide

"My friends and I were still alive, but we could have been Andrea, Maria Luìsa or Sarita. We were just luckier.”Vale Fiorini

Selva Almada’s newly translated work has a stark title in both English and the original Spanish: Dead Girls, or Chicas Muertas. That apparent bluntness belies the hybrid sensitivity that makes up the pages. Its subject matter is the murders of three young women during the 1980s, spread across different provinces of Argentina, a country where murders of and violence against women are unbearably commonplace.

Selva Almada’s newly translated work has a stark title in both English and the original Spanish: Dead Girls, or Chicas Muertas. That apparent bluntness belies the hybrid sensitivity that makes up the pages. Its subject matter is the murders of three young women during the 1980s, spread across different provinces of Argentina, a country where murders of and violence against women are unbearably commonplace. This book, originally published in 2014 and now out in a translation by Annie McDermott from Charco Press, gives space to what is left over: the immediate grief, shock, and confusion that comes from the killing of these girls, and the long-lasting effect on family, friends and the wider community.

It is also about growing up in a system where violence against women goes unpunished. As Almada shows in the book, there is nothing particularly unusual about these cases, nor about the women themselves. In fact, much of the book is about the danger of simply being a woman in Argentina: a place where each day you are aware of your own proximity to violence. Almada explains in her Author’s Note: “As I wrote the stories of Andrea, Maria Luìsa and Sarita, fragments of my own life story and those of women I knew began to work their way in. My friends and I were still alive, but we could have been Andrea, Maria Luìsa or Sarita. We were just luckier.”

The book does not take the form of a straight investigation or mystery story, though its tone is often journalistic: instead Almada looks for different points of contact between her life and the three young women, speaking with their families, going through case notes, imagining re-enactments of their last movements and moments, and even consulting a tarot card reader. The text moves in between these different communications: the “I” in some places morphs from Almada’s voice into the testimony of a brother or friend, and then again from an account of her own life into stories about other people’s and descriptive narrations of her research trips. This formal flexibility produces an unassuming yet intensely felt narrative in which the writer pays moving tribute to these young women while examining the conditions within the society that allowed for their deaths.

The first chapter opens in 1986 with a young Almada hearing on the radio that a nineteen-year-old girl has been killed in a nearby town, stabbed as she was sleeping in her bed. For Almada, this news exposes the flimsy protection her home life affords: “I was thirteen, and that morning the news about the dead girl hit me like a revelation. My house, any teenager’s house, wasn’t really the safest place in the world … Horror could live with you, under your roof.” Later, she thinks about stories told to her by her mother, in which the possibility of violence is never named explicitly but always implied: “I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.”

This presence of violence is compounded by the fact that the three murders she discusses in this text are unsolved. Almada does not try to use her writing as a means of solving them, but instead thinks about their lack of conclusion, and the possibility that they have to be rewritten, rehashed, even mythologised as part of local lore. Everyone knows about certain killings, and the murder of fifteen-year-old Maria Luìsa periodically appears in the papers as a sensationalised mystery, in which prurient journalists speculate about her sex life, her relationships and her behaviour. In her simple, descriptive language, rendered meticulously in the translation by Annie McDermott, Almada goes in the opposite direction, giving these horrific events a grounding in the life of all Argentinians.

But Almada is also attentive to a crucial aspect of these murders, detailing the class differences between the women she describes, and taking care to outline the distinct details of their life, family and work. Andrea is a student, Maria Luìsa works as a maid and Sarita worked in various jobs before turning to sex work. Many of Almada’s friends in school also had jobs and though Almada saw her friends who had a little of their own money as “superior…Confident, streetwise”, the need to work is looked down upon by others she knows. Though the writer doesn’t always make it obvious, these judgements give a telling insight into the societal belief that there are some women whose deaths are more tolerable than others.

As her book comes to its end, Almada lights three white candles in remembrance of these young women. Her writing cannot give an answer for their deaths, but it can provide a kind of witnessing, a way of attesting that these lost lives have value, long after their stories have lost their novelty.

@kdc_lewin

Much of the book is about the danger of simply being a woman in Argentina: a place where each day you are aware of your own proximity to violence

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