Giving a voice to rural Argentina’s ‘dead girls’

CN: descriptions of femicide

Andrea Danne, María Luisa Quevedo, Sarita Mundín ­– these are the names of the three tragically murdered young women who Argentinian writer Selva Almada focuses on in her challenging yet necessary book, Dead Girls.

Genre-defying, with beautifully crafted and reflective prose, the book sets out to give a voice to these three women and touches upon the lives of many others who have also fallen victim to femicide. Dead Girls is the fatal story of so many women, yet it somehow feels incomparable in its nature. Gendered violence is picked apart and examined in an urgent manner. There are no suggestions for a better world. Instead, Almada has allowed us to take away from the book what we wish. But what we cannot discard are their names.

The book begins by setting out the details of three killings that occurred in 1980s rural Argentina, around the time and in the same area as the narrator herself grew up in. Sarita Mundín was 20 years old when, after going missing for a number of months, her skeletal remains were found in the branches of a tree on a riverbank. María Luisa Quevedo was missing for only a couple of days before her strangled body was discovered in a wasteland by a child. Finally, there is Andrea Danne, the most closely connected to the narrator, who was found stabbed in the heart in her bed, seemingly while she slept.

Our narrator then takes us through the lives of each of these young women and the incidents that followed their deaths. She conducts her own research, interviewing family members, digging through case files and returning to the sites where their bodies were found. Yet, we are under no impression that these are unique or isolated incidents. The narrator also weaves in her own experiences of growing up in a community where women are subjected to varying degrees of gendered violence. During her journey to learn more about the three women, she also uncovers similar stories to the ones she is investigating. Femicide, we learn – despite now being widely acknowledged in the area – is sadly still rife.

While reading, there was a strong sense that I was part of something timely and important

I flew through this book, yet it was by no means an easy read. Almada’s storytelling is effortlessly captivating, but the subject matter asks a lot of the reader. Although I am far removed from the setting and circumstances, I felt instantly immersed in the narrator’s desire to shine a light on these femicides. As one encounter with the Señora – a tarot card reader who is significant to the investigation – tells her: “Maybe this is your mission: to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and then let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.”

While reading, there was a strong sense that I was a part of something timely and important. I was helping to complete the narrator’s wishes of amplifying these stories and the deep-rooted ongoing issue of femicide in this lesser-known area of Argentina. It’s a book that is designed to be discussed, the names intended to be said and shared.

When I set out to do some research into the realities of femicide in Argentina, I discovered the vital work of the Argentine women who are working against a lack of resources and limited budgets to address the rise of gendered violence in the area. Seeking to target the lack of training surrounding violence against women, the 2018 Micaela Law “is aimed at training judges and law enforcement on how to better deal with cases of gendered violence”. Earlier, a 2016 social media movement in the country (#NiUnaMenos – “not one woman less”), bought to attention a number of cases, mirroring the tragedies addressed in Dead Girls. However, prosecutor Marcela Juan says that while the visibility and empowerment are progress, a serious budget to enforce new/proposed laws and fund preventative efforts will be the main thing that protects vulnerable women. She also makes a gut-wrenching point which echoes the underlying theme in Almada’s work – how many have to die before we realise this is a problem?

In its simplest form, Dead Girls is a lyrical mystery book, but it works hard to be so much more. It highlights just how close to this type of violence any woman in that environment can be. Luck is discussed by the narrator at length; she addresses the fact that she is simply “lucky” to still be alive, for neither she nor any of her close female friends to have suffered the same fate as Andrea, María Luisa or Sarita.

Building the backgrounds of the women regarding poverty and class also illustrates that we may not be as far away from these lives as we initially think

Dead Girls also brings attention to the material circumstances of the women living in this area of Argentina, and how that contributed to what happened to them and also impacted the events after their deaths. In the case of Sarita Mundín’s family, this even meant having to continue to receive financial support from the last person  to see her alive (Sarita’s controlling lover, once considered a suspect).

I’m glad Almada didn’t shy away from the issue of class in Dead Girls. While initially showing us the privilege of being distant from such acute violence, building the backgrounds of the women regarding poverty and class also illustrates that we may not be as far away from these lives as we initially think.

The word ‘femicide’ occurs frequently throughout the book, and it made me question just why we don’t seem to use this phrase as much in the UK when referring to the murder of women. As discussed in a piece published by The F-Word earlier this year, an awareness of the term can help to “equip [future generations] with the tools to defeat it.” Indeed, Argentina has taken steps to do just that – femicide is included is the country’s penal code, meaning that perpetrators receive a longer sentence.

While the use of ‘femicide’ achieves in calling attention to the uniquely gendered nature of the crime, our narrator in Dead Girls highlights that normalising the word in la Argentina profunda (the Argentinian provinces) hasn’t yet impacted its prevention. In this instance, giving a ‘label’ to the atrocities has perhaps become just that: a label. Maybe Dead Girls is also Almada’s way of making her political statement on this growing issue.

The unique genre of the novel also allowed for some interesting literary features, which placed the book in this middle ground between fact and fiction. It has all the makings of a bestselling crime novel, yet of course these stories are sadly true, and there’s no embellishment here. However, it’s also not weighed down with heavy facts and figures that you might find in a forensic-style book.

Almada’s way of presenting the lives and investigation of Andrea, María Luisa and Sarita’s deaths is effective and personable. Her writing is sparse and the tone largely detached, but there are still some stunning lyrical passages that breathe life into the book:

“Andrea must have felt lost when she woke to die. Her eyes, suddenly open, would have blinked a few times in the two or three minutes it took her brain to run out of oxygen. Lost, dazed by the drumming on the rain and the wind that snapped the thinnest branches of the trees in the yard, hazy with sleep, utterly disoriented.”

At the virtual book launch, attention was also given to the fact that Almada and the narrator are separate. While a lot of Almada is put into the narrator, they should be referred to and treated individually, due to the genre-bending nature of the book. I found this revelation so intriguing, and it definitely challenged the way I re-read the novel. When writing a book like this, how much of any writer is (and should be) applied to the role of the narrator? Will ignoring the differences make for a limited reading experience?

In the case of Dead Girls, it means that the narrator’s journey into uncovering more about the three women is a separate narrative path in its own right. Almada’s narrator is able to deviate from the linear ‘storyline’ and sprinkle the book with personal experiences, which helps to create another analysable character who would have perhaps gone overlooked if we continued to consider Almada and the narrator as one. Almada’s choice to separate herself from the narrator also means that this intense, distant tone is maintained throughout the book. This also furthers the lyrical creation of the world-building, which gives Dead Girls a beautifully unique grounding.

Translator Annie McDermott’s comments about her decision to omit the passive voice was again an eye-opener. By including phrases like “Someone had stabbed her in the heart”, power was returned to the victims, and blame placed elsewhere.

This notion of ‘blame’ is touched on by the narrator in Dead Girls – she recalls being told how to avoid being raped or killed, and writes about how many young women are often considered to have been doing something to have placed them in the way of danger before their deaths. It was refreshing to see that McDermott had recognised and attempted to rectify this deep-rooted – and ubiquitous – attitude in her role as translator. McDermott has undeniably done a fantastic job in translating this book, and a huge amount of responsibility must have come with the task of capturing these atrocities and conveying them to readers who are far removed from the story’s setting.

One of the most culture-defining elements for me was the way the narrator considered death and spirituality. She, and many others in the book, consult tarot card readers to help bring to light any answers surrounding questions of death. The importance placed on these people, who often appear mystical, is evident. However, the narrator later goes on to realise their own humanity and vulnerability. They, too, are victims to the behaviours of so many people who turn to them for reassurance.

While Dead Girls ultimately addresses the most severe forms of gendered violence, it also shows just how much it exists on a continuum

Another unique and intriguing aspect of the book is the narrator’s childhood views of death. As a girl, she understood that “death wasn’t only for the old and sick. I’d hear people saying that so-and-so had died in the flower of youth and I thought it was quite a beautiful image.” It’s a natural and nuanced relationship but, as she points out, one that has ultimately drastically altered with the knowledge of how such people came to die. Perhaps it was this new fear that prompted Almada to face the brutality of writing of a book like this: a way of reaching her own personal reconciliations.

While Dead Girls ultimately addresses the most severe forms of gendered violence, it also shows just how much it exists on a continuum. The narrator not only brings to light all the extreme and fearful tales she grew up with, but also the everyday occurrences that go unnoticed, forgotten and explained away:

“My friend’s mum, who never wore make-up because her husband wouldn’t let her. My mother’s colleague, who handed her whole salary over to her husband each month to take care of. The woman who couldn’t see her family because her husband looked down on them. The woman who wasn’t allowed to wear high heels because they were for whores.”

These were discussed in “whispers”, almost as if the women involved should be embarrassed, the narrator continues. In many ways, it feels as though Dead Girls is also an essential piece of reading that is needed to draw attention to these small, yet by no means insignificant, actions. Like her ‘gossipy’ mother, our narrator refuses to discuss these stories quietly.

Dead Girls is hard-hitting and compelling. It is refreshing and unavoidable. It is real: these crimes, and many more, happened. This poignant quote, about halfway through, perfectly sums up the intentions of the book, and just why a book like Dead Girls is important to our continued understanding of gender equality: “I think we have to find a way of reconstructing how the world saw them. If we can understand how people saw the girls, we’ll be able to understand how they saw the world, does that make sense?”

Dead Girls is published by Charco Press and is out now in paperback.

Cover image of Dead Girls, used with permission, courtesy of Charco Press. This shows the pubic hair of a woman, and the author name, translator name and book title.