Forty-seven women were murdered in Argentina in the first two months of 2021, according to a report by Telám, the national news agency. That’s one femicide every 30 hours. An article by Reuters put the figure at 12 women per day across Latin America. While Latin America has the highest rates worldwide, femicide is a global problem. In November 2020, the UN called femicide a “pandemic” (notable as the coronavirus raged) and advised states around the world to institute “femicide watches” to prevent the killing of women.
This is the stuff of breaking news reports though it’s also nothing new. In fact, it’s hard to tell if violence against women has increased lately or if the mobilization of global activist movements has drawn increased attention to it. In the US, “personal conflict” is the number one cause of murder, with one-third of women killed by an intimate partner. Dolores Reyes’ Eartheater is a thoroughly contemporary and artful novel, bringing fresh urgency to the problem of femicide through the voice of its narrator, a young woman who lives in poverty on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and goes by the moniker of the title.
Eartheater has earned her name through a supernatural gift: when she eats dirt, she has visions of murdered and missing people. She discovers the talent after her mother dies. As word of Eartheater’s gift spreads, families start coming to the house where she lives alone with her brother Walter. They drop off bottles of dirt, notes attached, begging her to locate their loved ones. Like the boy Cole Sear in the Sixth Sense, who famously disclosed “I see dead people,” in a quavering voice, Eartheater is haunted by what she sees when she grants their requests. She has recurring dreams about one victim in particular. But unlike Cole, she’s not incapacitated by her fear. Curiously, Eartheater is always in control. The gift is thrust upon her, but she doesn’t let it take over. When people come to her, and she’s inundated with images of violence, she takes on the pain and internalizes it, sometimes coping by scarfing down burgers and beer afterwards, but she does not collapse under the weight. It’s like she looks around and sees the other kids in the neighborhood, all dropouts, all suffering, boys working dead-end jobs and girls getting pregnant, and decides, no, that’s not for me.
The particular manifestation of vision in Eartheater seems symbolic on at least two levels: the earth is the anti-Heaven; it is also an historical record of all the life that has existed in a particular place. Souls are inextricable from bodies, Reyes seems to argue, and the dirt tells stories, even when people, and society as a whole, have forgotten them.
To read Eartheater as an “escape from poverty” story would be missing the point, however. Reyes, a first-time novelist, teaches writing to elementary students in Pablo Podestá, where Eartheater (Cometierra in Spanish) is set, and the intimate knowledge of her subject matter likely contributes to the avoidance of trope. The novel is political, but it’s impossible to see Eartheater as an archetype, either of her neighborhood or of mythology. Through her unique, first-person perspective, the book explores cyclical violence and what it takes to withstand, survive, and yes, break free of those cycles, without veering into polemic. Eartheater does not carry her burden with the resignation of a saint. She often acts selfishly and impulsively, like the young teen she is. She is drawn to helping people, but also, to the money they pay her for her services. Most of the time she just wants to play video games, listen to music, eat junk food, drink beer, and have sex with her boyfriend, who is, surprisingly, a cop. If people like her are often called medium, channel or conduit, she rejects these notions of (feminized) passivity. Her interests lie in this world, not the other. It is the girl Eartheater we are meant to celebrate, not the bruja.
The Spanish of Cometierra is slangy, colloquial, and specific to its teen characters, starting with the first line: “Los muertos no ranchan donde los vivos” (1). “Ranchar” is an Argentine verb, derivative of “arrancharse”: to hang out, meet up, get together. In the English version, Julia Sanches translates the line as, “The dead don’t hang near the living.” The book is full of delicate difficulties like this: how do we take speech that is clipped, mutated, and perhaps already evolved into a new form, and make it into something that sounds seamless enough for a reader to continue on with the story?
In her translator’s note Sanches calls the book’s language a “mix of gritty, turf-bound slang and mysticism” (205). Sometimes this mashup functions beautifully, like poetry:
A woman looking for her son can turn invisible, like a cat stalking a pigeon.
I got it, she was looking for somebody. (19)
Other times, the language hitches and draws attention to itself, such as when Eartheater comes home with a gift for her brother after secretly meeting with a family, and he asks her where she got the money from. “I’ve been working,” she says. ‘Took on a gig.’ My brother kept mum, so I carried on. ‘I’m helping that woman from the other day. She’s paid me (29). Why “took on” a gig instead of “took” or “picked up”? “Kept mum” sounds quaint, or noticeably British. Why keep the perfect tense of “She’s paid me” instead of switching to the smoother English of “She paid me”? The beauty of, and trouble with, using slang, is that it’s ephemeral, like a photo of a place and time. Sanches herself admits that “Something has been lost in this translation,” and while the translation process can be as much generative as it is mournful, there would be something at best strange, at worst unethical in adapting it to a hyper-specific English slang (207). In this context, there are no equivalents, only approximations.
And the dissonances that occur are minor glitches in an otherwise recognizable world and unforgettable character. Through her tenderness and toughness, her willingness to stand out and stand alone, to speak for those who have been silenced and for those who never got the chance to speak, Eartheater herself bridges the divide between life and death, fiction and the real lives that inspired it. I hope this is the first of many works for Dolores Reyes.
Reyes, Dolores. Eartheater. Translated by Julia Sanches. HarperVia, 2020.
Melanie Broder is a writer in New York and elsewhere. She’s currently at work on a novel and translating a poetry collection from Spanish. She has recently been published in The Common. You can find her on Twitter @melbroder or at melaniebroder.com.