How to write about your sister’s femicide

Liliana Rivera Garza was a smart and luminous woman, a witty and teasing woman, a reliable friend, a passionate architecture student, a charismatic leader, a woman who believed more and more in herself. She was 20 years old when an ex-boyfriend broke into the Mexico City apartment she had moved into for college and killed her. Angel Gonzalez Ramos, the killer, was never caught and the murder went unpunished. But not forgotten. Thirty years later, her sister, the writer Cristina Rivera Garza, has created a dossier in the form of a book that tells her story, that demands justice and traces a journey that takes us from that 1990 to the present day, when the echoes of ‘and it wasn’t my fault, or where I was or how I was dressed’ resound in front of courthouses all over the world.

The Invincible Summer of Liliana’ (Literatura Random House) takes its title from that phrase by Albert Camus that says: “In the middle of winter I finally learned that there was an invincible summer in me”. Because Liliana was murdered just after she made that particular discovery about her life and decided to put an end to a violent relationship for good. But also because the book explores a new language and a new way of talking about male violence. Rivera Garza introduces us to her sister and brings us into her world as she recounts her attempt to seek justice 30 years later and tries to connect that particular story to the machista and misogynist structure that allows it.

“The great dangers of telling stories of violence or writing violence is to emphasize hegemonic power so much that you end up portraying passive victims who only receive the blows of the world and, on the other hand, pornoviolence, which ends up using the victim doubly,” the writer explains to There’s more: Rivera Garza mentions the challenge of avoiding telling these stories “as if they were extraordinary, isolated events or self-absorbed stories that tell what concerns an individual as if forces that go far beyond oneself were not at work in the story. In this way, her work is in line with the concern and work of several generations of journalists and writers, who have been seeking for years to denaturalize the old stories about male violence and create new ones.

It is from the beginning that Liliana’s story connects with that of many other women and families. Cristina Rivera Garza makes us accompany her through the corridors of the courthouse to look for her sister’s file. And then more corridors, and more distant buildings, and other windows and offices.I was terrified to think that there would be no institutional trace of my sister left on earth and I thought that, whether I found it or not, this book would be lost. “When a civil servant told me that the files did not last forever, I was terrified to think that there would be no institutional trace of my sister left on earth and I thought that, whether I found it or not, this book had to be that file,” she adds. That’s when the writing process began, which started with a thorough investigation of Liliana’s life.

Family guilt and shame

The book is a mixture of “geological layers” that contain letters, quotes from books, interviews, descriptions of different places and dates, although the guide of the story is the writing of Liliana herself, who left testimony for years of her thoughts, plans and emotions in diaries, notes and jottings. For this reason, Cristina Rivera Garza considers that the book is in fact a “co-authorship” that she shares with her sister.

To document herself, Rivera Garza opened the boxes in which her family had kept Liliana’s things after her murder. They had remained locked for 30 years. “Who can say if 30 years is a few years or many years?” the writer asks in the book. Because Liliana’s story is also the story of the guilt and shame that patriarchy casts on women and their families. “You don’t keep your mouth shut, they keep your mouth shut,” says the writer.

Or as she describes in the book, “We lower our voices and withdraw into ourselves, with you inside, so as not to expose you to easy accusation, to crippled morbidity, to looks of commiseration. We lowered our voices and walked with foggy steps, shrinking our presence wherever we passed, trying to be at once the ghosts that we became over time, in order to avoid the attacks of the scathing, of those predisposed to incrimination, even of the well-intentioned, against us and against you, who were at our side, hanging on our arm, holding our hand”.

All kinds of objects and souvenirs appeared in those boxes. Also the diaries that Liliana used in 1990. From there, her sister managed to find her circle of friends, who agreed to “remember”. “They were relieved to be able to tell this story in a way other than the crime of passion narrative. What happened in 1990 didn’t have a name, but now it does, it’s a femicide,” Rivera Garza says. Thanks to these friendships, the reconstruction of Liliana’s life during those years is full of details. Her stories also speak of emotions: of theThe most important things they felt for each other, the long nights before handing in a job, the journeys, even the silences, always so meaningful.

A personal story in context

“For me it was very important that, being my sister’s personal story, it should also be a story that does not escape its time, that can only be understood in a context that the book has to bring up by force”, explains the writer. For this reason, the book alludes to the struggle and achievements of the feminist movement, to its efforts to name, to denounce, to raise awareness and to appeal to the powerful. It also contains quotes from books that are a reference to understand the phenomenon of male violence and that are embedded in the text as a search for explanations to the experience beyond the specific fact that a man committed.

‘Liliana’s Invincible Summer’ is also a critique of how the system and language “insist on blaming the victim and exonerating the perpetrator”. “We know little about this kind of mourning. This book is also an invitation to reflect on the complexity of such a mourning.” If at the moment of the murder the one who “triumphs” is the murderer, says Rivera Garza, the tables have turned: Liliana made sure to leave a record of her memory through all her memories and writings and this text does the justice that the system has not given.

Thirty years later, the murderer has not been held accountable for the crime and Liliana’s file is still missing. But this book is part of something bigger, of a change “that is happening” and that allows us to know personal stories but also to point out the structure that oppresses us. “Things are happening, I see them happening, although the reaction is also very strong. What seems clear is that among the most lucid thoughts we have to reflect on the future are feminisms.”

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