Carolina De Robertis on Queer Culture in Uruguay and Choosing Your Family
This Week, Reading Women in Conversation with the Author of Cantoras
This week on Reading Women Kendra Winchester and Autumn Privett speak to author Carolina De Robertis, whose book Cantoras is a finalist for the 2019 Kirkus Fiction Prize.
Kendra Winchester: For listeners who haven’t read Cantoras yet, would you describe it for them?
Carolina De Robertis: Sure, yes absolutely. So Cantoras is a novel that takes place in Uruguay, which is my native country, a little country in South America. And it follows five queer women, beginning in 1976—so in the era of the very brutal military dictatorship—as they discover each other, come out to each other, and then over the years turn to each other and their friendship for love and survival. So it follows them through the era of the dictatorship and also into time of democracy and looking at all of the, not only political, but also personal upheavals and experiences that they traverse together.
Autumn Privett: And the title is so integral to the story, and you kind of get into this a little bit at the very beginning of the novel. But could you talk a little bit about the title and where that came from and the role it plays in the story?
CDR: What is interesting about that is that I had many different working titles along the way as I was writing the book. And the title Cantoras actually didn’t come until the end. And yet it is so incredibly central to the story itself. So the word Cantoras is a kind of old-fashioned word for “singers” in Spanish, and it also means “female singers.” So implied in the word is that these are all female people, which of course is an untranslatable part because if you translate the word to “singers,” it’s accurate, but it doesn’t capture that piece of “this is about women.” And this is a word that was used by at least a few different crews of queer women who really truly did live under the radar during the dictatorship in Uruguay and who used that word as code for “lesbians.”
So they’d sort of look at each other and go, you know, “What do you think? Is she a cantora? Does she sing?” You know, wink wink. And so this is a word that I learned from these real women I met in Uruguay, beginning in 2001, as I was traveling there to deepen my own relationship to my country of origin and and also just kind of as a young, queer woman from the diaspora, looking for signs of queer life in my country of origin. And I met these women who are a generation older than me and had lived through these times of incredible repression and found these dazzling ways to survive. And I was just blown away, and I’ve basically been listening to their stories and gathering their stories for 18 years, and I’m so inspired even by things like that. Like that little example of using the word “cantoras” to have code for what we are and for finding each other, even in dangerous circumstances.
AP: It doesn’t surprise me that you actually talked to women and were in Uruguay when you were writing this because it is so—I mean, I feel like I was there—it’s so immersive, just the experience of reading this book. But apart from the on the ground research you did, what was your research process like? Where did you decide to start? And what did you look at as you were researching for this book?
CDR: That’s a great question, and what’s interesting is that with regard to this particular book, which is my fourth novel, by the time I knew I was definitely going to write this novel, I had strangely enough done most of the research in terms of the knowledge about the dictatorship era, what it was like, political imprisonment, how things happened, how democracy returned. I had researched all of that very deeply for my prior novels, which also kind of delved into this subject matter from different angles. And so I had a lot of the material. I have shelves of books, you know, in the original Spanish, dog-eared, secondhand copies. I have them, and I’ve been looking at them. So I kind of already had all of that to build on, which is really exciting and refreshing as opposed to setting out on a topic and then realizing you’re going to have to take this deep research dive. Right?
Which is also lovely but much more laborious. And then in terms of researching the stories and the queer stories themselves, which I didn’t find at all in history books, that has just not been part of the official history within Uruguay at all. Which was part of what was so mind blowing for me about meeting these women. And then alongside, having relationships and friendships with them whenever I could go back to Uruguay, spending time particularly with a couple of them and hearing them talk about their friends and their memories and their past. It was really incredible to put that together with the immense silence around queer women and queer peoples’ histories within that era of Uruguay and realize you know there are just so many stories that are historically in the margins and that just get under told.Uruguay went from being such a closed country in those ways to becoming the second country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage in 2013.
And you know my hope as a novelist is to fill those silences with voice as best I can. And then once I knew that I was going to write this novel, that it was going to be a novel, I went back to some of these women. And I told them, and I asked them if I could possibly have their permission to draw on their stories, which they gave me the most open-arm blessing, which was so moving. And then I also asked whether I could interview them. And so that was a part of my research process as well. Getting together with various different women, taking them out to lunch. Come over to my house. I made great milanesas. I’ve got a bottle of whiskey, and I’ll tell you whatever you want to know. Which is a really great part of the research process, I have to say.
KW: Well, it sounds like you definitely also immersed yourself in these women’s stories. Reading this novel made me think, Were there any queer women writers that you read from the time? I know there probably isn’t a lot of preservation around those things. And was there anything that you learned that you weren’t able to include in the novel?
CDR: That’s a wonderful question. I mean absolutely. There are always things that end up on the editing floor, right? That you can’t fit into the shape of the narrative of the book. Which is sort of painful, not to be able to fit everything inside and all. But there’s this story! What about that angle? And ultimately, you know, you start with a wide canvas. And as you start writing the stories, the characters start to crystallize and become themselves. And you know, although I drew on so much raw material from real women’s lives—and I really wanted to use these real women’s lives in order to have real veracity, like I want to do justice to actual histories to the extent that I can with the writing—you know, at the same time there’s invention. And the women in the book are are their own fictional characters. They start as composites, and then they become their own living, breathing beings. At least in my own head and hopefully in the heads of others. So that means that things get left out for the sake of the shape of the story and the narrative.
In terms of reading other queer women, Uruguayan pro-women of the time, there is Cristina Peri Rossi, who is an incredible queer woman writer of the same generation as these characters. She left; she went into exile during the dictatorship. So she was in Spain for later years. So she had a bit of a different trajectory, but she’s definitely of that generation and has been very meaningful to me. And Raquel Lubartowski Nogara, who was very gracious about talking to me. And some of the things she told me became seeds for this book. And I’m also admirer of her work. I’ve even translated some of her poems. So the exchange continues, I suppose.
KW: Yeah. That’s incredible. And when I was reading this book, I forget what it is that it’s mentioned, but you’re reading along in the story, and you’re engrossed. And all of a sudden, they mention Stonewall. And I think when we think about LGBTQ+ history, we think about America, and we’re very American-centric. Especially here. But in reality, there are queer histories all over the world that we don’t really think about or know about. Was that something that you want to push back against when you were writing the story?
CDR: Yes, that is absolutely something I wanted to, if not push back against, at least kind of pry open a little, expand, and explore. Because if you look Uruguay for example, you know the dictatorship began in the early 70s. People were bell-bottomed and dreaming of revolution in parallel ways to Europe and the United States. But then it was almost as if a curtain fell. You know there was no internet. There was an incredibly intense amount of control over what was in newspapers and television and what came in from outside the country. So people inside Uruguay were almost in sort of a mental prison in terms of not hearing about movements going on in other countries at all. So late 70s early 80s, here in the United States, people already knew about Stonewall. You know, there was the black power movement and feminist consciousness raising. And gay rights was an explosively powerful movement in that time. And Uruguay not only didn’t have that but didn’t even have access to knowing that it had happened. And that’s an important story too because Uruguay went from being such a closed country in those ways to becoming the second country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage in 2013 and to do it before the United States! Right?
So I’m also wanting to push back against this idea that we Latin Americans are more backwards, right? And that the only way that we’ll get something like a gay rights movement is by importing it from somewhere else. That’s also a flattening of the story. That said, I do think that gay rights has always thrived on international exchange. So hearing about Stonewall in other countries has been really meaningful to movements and queer people on the ground. And I know that the legalization of gay marriage in Uruguay was, in part, very much fueled by watching what was happening in the US and other countries and drawing inspiration from the activists in other places. So that international cross-fertilization I wanted to also portray.
AP: So we haven’t talked yet about the five women who are at the heart of this story. It’s just incredible to me how different they are and how they’re five fully formed, completely wholly unique individuals. And Kendra and I were talking before we started recording about how rare it is to see that in a book where it’s like these beautiful, strong women are the center of the story, and they’re not like somebody’s sidekick or something like that. So what was it like to have the opportunity to write a book like this—that does center around five amazingly complex and deep queer women?
CDR: I’m so happy to hear this question and of course delighted to hear that they felt so real to you and so distinct and full-blooded to you as a reader. That means a great deal to me. Thank you. And I would say, of course, if we see a queer woman in literature and film and TV, we do often see her as a sidekick. Right? And even if she’s centered, and thank goodness we have more and more queer female protagonists, but I would say queer literature—gay and lesbian and bi—often we have the coming out story, and it’s sort of framed as one person’s individual journey. And I mean there are so many books, of course, that I love and admire and treasure from Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room to the work of Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson and Jewelle Gomez and the list goes on and on and on. Amazing people who’ve done amazing work bringing these things forward. And we don’t see as much of five people at the middle, showing all of their prismatic complexity and all of them also being queer. We have so much diversity within our communities. And wanting to be able to portray that was really important to me.
And also because just listening to these women’s stories, that’s where they drew their strength. That is exactly how they survived. They couldn’t come out at work. They couldn’t come out to their families. Or if they did, it was usually a very brutal experience. But they could come out to each other, and so they held each other and made a chosen family that held them and carried them through. And chosen family has been incredibly important for me as a queer woman.
So I was disowned by my parents in the process of, not so much coming out, but post-coming out, marrying my wife. You know for me, I just am very conscious of the way in which chosen family and the way that we weave these bonds and connections that become as meaningful as blood connections is one of the beautiful, dazzling, and powerful things about queerness and about culture. So that’s part of what I wanted to reflect in putting five protagonists at the center and having a fluid point of view. So the point of view really moves a lot between characters and breaks some of the rules of the more traditional ideas of fiction workshop where you’re supposed to only stay in one person’s head per chapter. That’s not necessary, and it didn’t feel true to the heart of this book. I really wanted to be able to kind of show the interconnections between them and bring each of their unique humanity.
KW: I appreciate you talking about chosen family and the dynamics of that. And when Autumn and I were talking about the book, I was thinking about the representation and how I hadn’t seen such nuanced dynamics between queer women before on the page. You get to see them and their opinions change, and they’re fully complex. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some maybe some of the things you learned on the ground when you were researching this book, or maybe in your own experience, the importance of chosen family and the things that you’ve learned and how that has really been a staple of queer culture for such a long time.
CDR: Yes, it has absolutely been a staple of queer culture, and it has been sort of how we have made our place in the world. It’s almost like we’ve woven a quilt out of these castoff pieces of fabric that other people didn’t want. We’re sort of the unwanted who could come together and make a beautiful patchwork. I use that word “unwanted” in a very conscious way because of course we are beloved. We are wanted. We are good. But it depends on the framing, right? Depends on the framing culture in which you sit. And familial homophobia is a really important topic. I tried to portray it in different ways in the characters’ lives, and not all of the characters are met with hostile homophobia in their families. But I wanted to make sure that I included that because I think there can often be a narrative of the parents will come around or at some point they’ll understand. And people can be well-intentioned in saying that to queer people, maybe because it’s what they want to believe or they’ve seen it before. But it’s really not that simple.
Homophobia is in some ways unique among oppressions in that most gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, plus people are not raised by people who share that culture with them. So most, not all, but most children of color are raised by people of color. And there can be an enormous amount of hostility and bigotry and racism that that child is going to grow into and learn to deal with in society. And, of course, internalized racism exists. But most of the time, they have at least some mirror or some pathway for how to feel loved within their home culture as they then navigate the greater culture and the ways that it won’t see them.
Whereas queer children are often born to straight parents. It’s very common. And sometimes those people can be embracing, but sometimes those parents are not actually equipped. The culture into which the queer person is born is not equipped to actually recognize that child and then that person’s full humanity. And so I think that’s one of the reasons that chosen family has become such an essential part of queer culture. It’s evidenced even in the lives of these women, the cantoras that I met in Uruguay and who became who became the inspiration for this novel. In fact, I reached out to one of them on Facebook of course as I was renaming the book Cantoras to say, you know, I just wanna make sure I get the research right. How widespread was this term? Did everybody use it? Did your circle of friends make it up? I’m not quite clear. And she said, “I think my friend Isabel made it up. She’s older than all of us, and she’d been around longer. But she might have gotten it from a prior generation. But I can’t ask her because she just had a stroke.” And she was in her 80s now. This Isabel who probably coined the word “cantoras.” She said that because Isabel is queer, they were all—all the friends—were taking turns coming to the hospital and taking care of her and showing up for her because they are her family. And I never got a chance to get my question asked to Isabel because she passed away just before the book came out.
AP: That’s such a beautiful story about chosen families, and I think that you really see that in this. Not wanting to give any spoilers here. But you know, there’s lots of things that happen to each of the women in the book that are hard for them or decisions that they have to make or even at the very beginning of the book, they decide to come together and buy this house. And you know, at the end, we learn the sacrifices certain of the characters made for them to have that place for them. And it is just so hopeful for me about society as a whole about having these chosen families. But even with these women, like all the things they go through and the different ways that they support each other, it’s just really beautiful.
CDR: I’m so grateful to hear that, and I hope that there’s room in literary culture, in books and novels and fiction, to write about tenderness and to write about joy and to let that be part of the stories that we weave out of our understanding of the world and out of culture and without taking away from all of the harsh realities that people face and not necessarily in a Pollyanna way. I mean sometimes we might want to read a sunshine and rainbows Pollyanna book and that’s fabulous. Right? But we can also have depth and write about joy. But that doesn’t have to be an either/or. I mean even in these circumstances and in terms of living through a dictatorship and very repressive times, these women were able to find joy in simple things and making a meal together and being honest with each other and saying, hey, let’s buy a shack together if we can and just make it a place where we can actually be honest with ourselves and each other and make joy.
And especially writing about queer stories, I think, writing about joy alongside all of the other realities and challenges is something that’s really important to me and was definitely gratifying along the way to include in their narratives and in the journeys that they take.
And they do all takes such very different journeys and disagree with each other roundly and lots of different ways because there simply is not one way to be queer. There is many ways to be queer as there are queer people just like there are as many ways to be Latino as there are Latino people.
KW: That’s one of the things that I absolutely adored about your novel. I remember reading about one of the women, and I don’t want to be spoilers, but one of the women was like, Oh, I do like men sometimes, and I also now like women, and that’s fine, and maybe that time that I enjoyed men is over. Maybe it’s not. Who knows. It doesn’t matter. And I really appreciated the nuance that each of the characters has with her own queer identity, and it just varies. And that variation in degree of diversity was just a joy to read. And I think so often when we read, especially early queer fiction here in America, it’s all very sad. And things don’t end well because of course they can’t because you know queer women, they can’t have happy endings. Right. And which is really problematic.
CDR: That’s the narrative, yeah.
KW: I’m so glad that this book, while it does talk about the challenges and the difficult things these women faced, it still has that feeling of joy and vibrancy in their own identities that I feel like we’ve just needed in queer literature for so long. And they kind of take joy in their identity as opposed to feeling like it’s just a weight that they’re carrying.
CDR: Right. There are people who are actually delighted to be clear. I mean, I think Flaca as a character loves being queer. You know she loves being gay. She loves having sex with women. She loves having new lovers and seduction. She’s kind of has a masculine center as a person, without necessarily putting a particular label on that, but that’s absolutely her experience of the world. And she really enjoys having many different lovers and a kind of unabashed, unapologetic promiscuity. She doesn’t like having more oppression heaped on her because she’s gay. But she loves being gay. She can be promiscuous, but that doesn’t mean that Romina wants to be promiscuous. Right? That’s not her path. She’s somebody who wants to connect with someone emotionally and have a long-term relationship if she’s going to have sexual expression within that relationship.
And then the character, as you mentioned, who is bisexual. I think in today’s terms, she would call herself bisexual, and she’s also part of this tribe and part of this group of women. And bisexuality has always been with us you know. Right?Within our community as well, of course.
AP: Thinking about these women and how different they are, to kind of bring this conversation full circle, like Cantoras is really like such a beautiful title for this. And I love Jacqueline Woodson’s blurb on your book. She calls it a stunning lullaby to revolution, and each woman in this novel sings it with a deep ferocity. And she calls it a song of a story. And I’m like, that’s so true. I’m thinking about, now that I finished, at the beginning of the book there’s definitely certain themes and built and built and built and built to the resolution of the end. This is just more of an ad to say, Everyone please go read this book because it is beautiful. And I’m just in awe of your skill in crafting a story like that because it was a beautiful experience to read it. And now I’m just repeating myself over and over and over.
CDR: Thank you, I’m so honored. And you know my hope is that it resonates for people on whatever level it makes sense for them as readers. Because writing a book, you know, for me at least, I write the book that I feel wants to be written or needs to be written through me. And I come at the work of writing a novel, always the late great Toni Morrison’s words in my mind, novels are inquiries. They start with a burning question, something that we want to know. And we might never get the question answered, but we explore the question by writing the story. And among the questions that fueled this book are, “How do we create refuge for ourselves and each other? And how do we live radiantly when the world around us seems bent on our erasure?” And that may be a question for a difficult time in Uruguayan history and for queer women in that history or for queer women. But it’s also a question that’s a human question. Right? And how do we live radiantly in difficult times is hopefully something that we all have to be thinking about. But hopefully there’s something there that resonates for people in whatever way.
KW: It’s incredibly beautiful. I just keep thinking about the book and how for us on Reading Women, we read a lot of books by women and women’s experiences, but so few of them focus on love between women, whether that be friendship love or romantic love. It’s usually there’s some sort of man involved in the woman’s life. And while men are incredibly important to many women, there’s also chosen families that are just women. And that’s in a wide range of different relationships. And that’s fine. And that’s why one of the first conversations Autumn and I had about this book was that it was such a breath of fresh air in that it was so woman focused. And even for us who read lots of things by women, we generally adored it.
CDR: Thank you so much. My eyes are stinging. Thank you. That means so much to me. I’m so glad.
AP: Before we let you go, we always like to ask the guests we have on the podcast for book recommendations. So what are some books by queer women or queer Latino authors or Latino authors or just books that you’ve really enjoyed lately that you would like to share with our listeners?
CDR: Oh yes great. So I’ve just started reading Dominicana by Angie Cruz, which just came out on the same day as my book did. So it’s very recent, and the prose is just absolutely gorgeous. And it’s based on her mother’s life. She was basically promised to a man in the Dominican Republic at the age of 11, and then married him at 15 to come to the United States. And her family had her do it so that they could one day immigrate to the United States through her. And you know, what a journey. And it just has so much to say about migration and children and the cost of an immigrant life and also what happens in women’s lives. And it’s just so beautifully written. So I’m incredibly excited about that book.
And then there’s a short story collection that just came out this week by Nancy Au. And it’s called Spider Love Song and Other Stories, and it is just absolutely delightful. They’re just absolutely fascinating, insightful, resonant, quirky, strange stories about living and being your full self within Chinese immigrant community and as women, as young women, old women, queer women, straight women. It’s just a really lovely prismatic collection. But I’m so delighted it’s in the world.
KW: Well, Dominicana just showed up at my doorstep, so that makes finding that one easier.