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Dead Girls: gender violence and the radical imagination for Book Week Scotland

CW: Gender-based violence

As Carolina Orloff, co-founder of Edinburgh-based Charco Press, softly reads the epilogue to Selva Almada’s Chicas muertas (‘Dead Girls’), the effect is piercing. Though panels such as this have had to migrate to the virtual sphere and audiences are quite literally muted, the silence that accompanies Almada’s devastating list of only a portion of Latin American femicide victims, still feels poignantly heavy.

This non-fiction chronicle, which provided the basis for Sunday’s discussion, journalistically weaves a national portrait of Argentinian gender violence through three individual cases of violence from the 1980s. To discuss the work, and the power of converging imagination with social justice, a powerful trio of women was assembled by Charco Press and Lighthouse Books for Edinburgh Book Week 2020. Alongside Orloff, Sharon Cowan (Professor of Feminist and Queer Legal Studies at Edinburgh Univeristy), and Camila Cavalcante (a Brazialian visual artist) joined host Mairi for a vibrant colloquy that urged the necessity for radical empathy, inclusion, and creativity in the collective endeavour for social change. 

Each woman, first acknowledging their privilege in being able to discuss this topic so openly, showed themselves to be fiercely committed to justice through their respective skill sets. Following Orloff’s introduction, Sharon Cowan highlighted her project ‘The Scottish Feminist Judgements Project’, which seeks to interrogate how past legal cases might have resulted differently if the judge had adopted a feminist perspective. Unlike other projects of its kind, Cowan’s incorporates artists in its representations of alternative judgements and in doing so, she noted, reaches and informs an audience beyond professional circles.  

Likewise, Cavalcante voiced her passion for art as a means of popularising feminist discourse and destabilising the mainstream patriarchal narrative. She reinforced how the arts reach people in a unique way and thus possess a responsibility to engage with and amplify issues of social justice, as mapped out by Cowan’s work and by her own confrontational pieces, addressing such political topics as abortion and displacement, to name but two. 

For over three decades, an average of one woman every three days has been killed by a man in the UK. As worldwide instances of gender based violence show little sign of diminishing, this conversation felt vital in instructing those who may otherwise feel powerless on how they can contribute to the movement for justice whilst ensuring that they do not fall into speaking for victims. 

Though by no means a solution, art can move its audience in a way that only it can boast, and a thread of hope spun through the concluding thoughts of the panel. It became clear that empathetic collaboration between academic and creative spheres is an imperative mode for revolutionary disruption, and for promoting the emancipation of countless women who, Almada notes, are currently alive “purely as a matter of luck.”

Image: Charco Press