Almost three decades after her sister was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in Mexico City in 1990, Cristina Rivera Garza was determined to track down Liliana’s case file. She was up against more than just the labyrinthine justice system; she was also challenging the patriarchal belief that wrongly labels femicides as crimes of passion and places the blame on the victims. “Femicide is, in this context, a hate crime, one committed against women because they are women,” she writes in Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice (Hogarth, Feb. 28). “Ten of them take place in Mexico every single day, leaving a trail of heartbreak pierced by impunity and flanked by indignation.” Rivera Garza credits the grassroots movements that have formed in Mexico in recent years for giving her the language to finally tell her sister’s story. There was another crucial element: After she found the strength to look through Liliana’s belongings, including her letters and journals, she realized the most important voice had been there all along.
What followed from that critical breakthrough was a collaborative project between Rivera Garza and her deceased sister, a beautiful testimony to a bond that can’t be broken. “If there is something that I’ve been very sure of all these years, it’s that Liliana has been there with me,” the author says. “And that we’ve been in very close conversation.” Kirkus calls Liliana’s Invincible Summer “a moving, heart-wrenching memoir as well as an unflinching appraisal of the widespread violence against women in Mexico.” The author, an award-winning writer of fiction and poetry, spoke with Kirkus via Zoom from Germany, where she’s currently a fellow at The American Academy in Berlin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You started writing this book while nursing a swimming injury—an activity you had in common with your sister. How has working on this book deepened your connection to her?
I’m quite convinced that the people who have been taken away from us—especially in violent ways—remain with us. So in many ways, my relationship with Liliana has been the music of all my life. I am now able to share something that has been very private to me. I’ve been able to share the grief but also to share the luminous person Liliana was, and remains to me, with others.
How was writing a form of freedom for both of you?
I didn’t know the extent to which Liliana was becoming a writer as well. I had little idea about how disciplined she was and how devoted she was to writing. So that’s something that talking to her friends, and especially looking into those documents, gave to me. That was one of the main gifts that I got by looking into her archive. We lived in and live in a society with very strong gender hierarchies. In a time in which many of the issues that the book is touching upon, specifically domestic violence, were not openly spoken about, writing allowed young girls to explore inner subjectivity, to explore the world as you imagine it to be, to expand your idea of the limits of your world. There is a connection between writing and introspection, and writing as a tool of knowledge, of imagining, of investigating—observing the world as it is but also imagining alternative possibilities.
You incorporate Liliana’s notes, interviews with her friends, and perspectives from your parents. Can you talk about the sources you turned to in order to research and write this book and how you settled on the structure?
Writing is not an isolated practice. It’s something that we do with others. I’ve been working with archives for a long time. Institutional archives and state archives, but this is the first time that I got to work with what I call the affective archive, the archive that my sister built herself. And it’s an archive that goes well beyond the reach of the state. So in lieu of the [case] file that I wasn’t able to locate at the time of my search, I knew that I had to re-create that testimony, that repository. I didn’t want to write a book about her. I wanted to write a book with her. I was very aware of the many dangers about approaching violence through writing. And just a couple of those dangers are the possibility, first, of exercising additional violence by silencing my sister’s voice again, by speaking over her voice, or trying to editorialize her voice or explaining her voice [or] describing gruesome scenes of violence and revictimizing the victim again. Having access to Liliana’s voice through her own work as an archivist of herself was really important. That allowed me to organize and structure the work in a way that could honor the way in which Liliana was collecting and organizing her own archive, which was a way of organizing her own story.
This is the first book that you wrote both in Spanish and in English. Why was it important to you to not have a translator involved with this project?
I have the greatest respect for translators. I have worked with wonderful, bright, incredibly generous translators, and I work well with them. When I’m working with a translator, we’re both working together, and we become co-authors of the book in the other language. So I feel very comfortable with that. But in this case, the materials were so close to me, I wanted to have all of the responsibility. I wanted to keep the conversation going between my sister and myself. I was writing both versions, the Spanish version and the English version, at the same time. I was using one language to revise the other language. Languages behave in different ways. I’m always very aware of the resonances, of the echoes. I think I’m going to continue doing that. I don’t know if I want to continue writing in English as such. That’s something that I need to think through. But I’m keeping that resonance in my own work, intermingling these languages at the level of the structure. That’s something that I’m very interested in exploring further.
The subtitle of this book is A Sister’s Search for Justice. Did your idea of justice change from when you first began this important project?
It has. I tried to reopen this case thinking that I would be able to catch the killer, to force him to face justice. What I’ve learned recently, and something that was in the newspapers (even an article in The New York Times), is that it’s very possible that he died two years ago on May 2, 2020. And obviously, I felt very frustrated when I learned of that possibility. I talked to Sayuri Herrera afterward, the head of the Mexico City Public Prosecutor’s Office Special Unit for Femicides, and it was thanks to conversations with her that I’ve been exploring the law of dictums, which is a very complex document that is about not only contemplating punishment as a means to achieve justice, but also the work that we do with memory and truth. These two elements are key and are crucial for the restitution of damage. Liliana’s truth, at least Liliana’s perspective, is out there for everybody to take a look at and consider.
Michele Filgate is a writer in New York and the editor of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.