Cecilia Gentili on Growing Up Trans in 1970s Argentina (and Discovering How to Write About It)
The Author of Faltas Talks to LittlePuss Press Editor Cat Fitzpatrick
Cecilia Gentili, storyteller and trans/sex work/immigrant advocate extraordinaire, is a phenomenon and a whirlwind. Over the last year, I have been lucky enough to be her editor as she wrote her brilliant memoir Faltas: Letters to Everyone in my Hometown Who Isn’t my Rapist, about growing up as a trans kid in Argentina in the 1970s.
Her book is the first new title for LittlePuss Press, a new feminist publishing house run by trans women which I operate with Casey Plett. Faltas is like no other memoir we’ve read, and is in many ways representative of the work we hope to achieve with this new press.
In September, Cecilia invited me to lunch at her house in South Brooklyn (she made an excellent frittata) and we had the following conversation.
Cat Fitzpatrick: Tell us about where you come from.
Cecilia Gentili: I was born on an incredibly hot, cruel, devastating summer day. In January, because in Argentina, summer is in January. My mom was in labor for two days. Our relationship started badly. I was born in Galvez in the province of Santa Fe, in ’72, before the dictatorship. The dictatorship started in ’76.
CF: So this is a book about small-town Argentina under the dictatorship.
CG: There was an explosion of freedom in ’84 when I was twelve. That’s when I came out as gay. The dictatorship ended and I learned about gays. The politics of the country dictated a lot of my life.
CF: This is your first book, but you had a career as a storyteller. How did that start?
CG: I didn’t know storytelling was a thing, right? After I got asylum in this country, in 2012, I went to change my name with the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. One of the lawyers there, Noah Lewis, did my name change. We talked a lot. And he was like, “I’m putting together this storytelling event to fundraise. You should tell a story.”
I was like, “What story??” He said, “Whatever you want!” I started writing, but I couldn’t write it. So I did bullet points: I’m gonna say this, and then I’m gonna say this. It was the story about when my brother convinced me I was an alien. Which is in the book.
So. I went to the storytelling event. And Janet Mock was telling a story! About how everyone thinks she doesn’t have tattoos but she actually does have tattoos on her eyebrows. Because somebody plucked her eyebrows and they didn’t grow back. It was a good story.The dictatorship ended and I learned about gays. The politics of the country dictated a lot of my life.
I thought, “How am I gonna go after this goddess of storytelling. She is famous, she’s on TV, I’m going to bomb!” But I went up and I don’t know what possessed me but I killed it. I killed it! People loved it.
CF: So what does it take to be a good storyteller? What’s your secret, Cecilia?
CG: My secret is I never know what story I’m gonna tell until I go on. Every time, I change something. It’s totally unpredictable and spontaneous. And I’m also an attention whore.
CF: You are quite charismatic.
CG: I love the attention.
CF: The thing about your stories is—this goes with the bullet points—you have an incredible sense of dramatic structure. All of your stories have a challenge. And they have drama. And then they have a resolution.
CG: Thank you!
CF: So you can embroider on the frame, because the frame is so strong.
CF: I love that. So yeah, I started telling stories. Then Elle from Dixon Place gave me a commission, to do a show called “The Knife Cuts Both Ways“. It was an hour, unscripted, just me talking.
It was also about balancing my immigration process. You have to tell a lot of stories of your misery to officials, to lawyers. Lawyers don’t have time for you to grieve. They’re like, “okay, you were raped. How many times? How many people were raping you?”
All these narratives were about misery and pain. And I wanted to show that misery and pain were part of my story, but there was also beauty and fun and crazy things, and those two things could live together. That was the essence of my show. And that I hope is the essence of my book.
CF: And so how did you go from that to writing a book? How did that happen?
CF: You! You annoying little aspirational one, you, having faith in people!
CG: You were like, “you should write this” and I was like “I don’t know, I don’t know.” The stories are beautiful because they’re spontaneous. And you lose that in a book. So that’s why I took time to make the decision.And I wanted to show that misery and pain were part of my story, but there was also beauty and fun and crazy things, and those two things could live together.
CF: I’ve never asked you, actually—why did you say yes? What changed?
CG: I was bored. I needed something new. And a book was new. But I was worried about writing.
CF: I came to this thinking we’d basically transcribe the stories, and put them in a book. And you came back and said, “That is not what I want to do.”
CG: Yeah. *laughs* At the time, my friends Cyd and Torrey were getting together and helping each other with writing. Torrey was starting to write Detransition, Baby. We were playing and showing each other things. And I realized the best way to tell these stories was in letters to people who were remarkable in my life.
CF: Storytelling has an audience, right? So if you’re writing, who’s the audience?
CG: The audience was one person each time. The audience was, my mom, my abuela, Ines, Alemana. I had a lot to say, but I couldn’t just say it to the air. It was important to say it to somebody. So I did, and then, I thought, “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I’m gonna pay attention to this crazy lady and write a book for her.”
CF: Did you send any of the letters?
CG: No! I’m secretly terrified about these people reading them. Imagine somebody comes to you and says, “Your father raped me.” What gives me the right to ruin the life of this girl who didn’t do anything to me?
But at the same time, why do I have to keep this to myself? If you didn’t do anything, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. But you need to know this father you love was a monster. Also none of these folks read English.
CF: You have to hope nobody buys translation rights!
CG: If they’re gonna give me money, I don’t care. They should know.
CF: You didn’t send the letter to Juan Pablo? Your friend who became a famous actor?
CF: Do you think he will read the book?
CG: Juan Pablo is dying to read the book. But he doesn’t read English. So he’ll have to wait. I’m like, “Dude, I love you. But I’m not gonna translate this for you.” *laughs*
CF: Who would you hope does read the book?I secretly want cis people and non-queer people to read it, and learn about the reality of a trans child in the ’70s.
CG: Because I’m trans and have a certain presence in the trans community, I know a lot of trans people will read it. That makes me really happy. But I secretly want cis people and non-queer people to read it, and learn about the reality of a trans child in the ’70s.
CF: I mean, this book is literally addressed to cis people!
CF: You wanted to talk, as a storyteller, about the zaniness and joy around you. But this book gets into murder, fraud, childhood sexual abuse. And it continues to be extremely funny. What does it mean to you to make jokes about terrible events?
CG: Juan Pablo and I learned to cope through trauma by laughing, right? One thing I didn’t put in the book because I couldn’t find the grace to translate it in a funny way: my Nonna Emma, my evil grandmother, would kill kittens. She had a kitty, and when she had babies, she put them in a bag and beat them to death.
CF: Oh my God, Cecilia. Did you see this happen?
CG: Yeah. She was just hitting this bag, like a pillow case. And Juan Pablo was like, “What are you doing?” And she looked at us and said, “I’m killing cats,” smiling. Smiling! We laughed at that for many years as if it was funny, which was the only way that we could deal with it.
It could have been a book of terrible stories. Or it could have been a book of funny stories. And instead it’s both. Those two things weave consistently throughout my childhood. That’s what I wanted to portray. I think my objective was to show something raw and that I was complicit in a lot of shit. I’d like people to see me as a victim who was also very manipulative.
CF: A lot of people write memoirs where they come off as a good person.
CG: That was not my objective.
CF: I think the reader falls in love with the character of you, but you don’t think this kid is like, nice. You think she’s amazing.
CG: Exactly! I wanted people to say this kid is amazing, but also complicated. Which kind of forgives my mother, right?
CF: There’s a lot of forgiveness in this book.
CG: It was hard to be my mom! My mom was not meant to be a mother—and she got this super-complicated kid, who was witty, fast, quick, and revengeful and manipulative. It was difficult for her.
CF: There’s a line where you say, “Does this make me a bad person? Of course it does! I am not writing this letter to you to justify my actions.” One of the beautiful things about this book is: it’s not self-justification. It’s an attempt to understand.This is a book about a child that doesn’t know that somebody else is like them, about a child who is the only person they know like them.
CG: When I finished the book, I stopped therapy sessions. It was a process of forgiveness to myself. I always felt like I had some kind of responsibility over the rape I suffered: that I looked for it, that I wanted it. It took me ten years of therapy and this book to realize that nobody looks for things like that.
CF: In relation to the trans memoir, it’s distinctive that Faltas is all about childhood. Childhood is usually more of a prelude in trans memoirs. Like that scene in Conundrum, where Jan Morris is under a piano listening to her mother play and then she’s like, “I’m a girl.” But your book has no interest in, like, transition.
CG: I didn’t know being trans was a thing throughout the events in this book. This is a book about a child that doesn’t know that somebody else is like them, about a child who is the only person they know like them.
CF: I think that takes maybe having a trans publisher for that to happen? If you had a cis editor, they might have wanted you to talk about transition more…
CG: It would have been a really weird process. Also you were very generous with my demands, like: “Don’t send me edits, I want to talk to you in-person.”
CF: You always cooked me lunch!
CG: I love being able to do in-person, live edits. You’d tell me, “you could say this differently,” and I’d agree, and we’d change it together. And I think it’s important that we can relate about a lot of things, even if our lives may be different. It also was very empowering to be able to say, “No, I’m not going to change that part,” and you would say “OK!”
CF: Are you going to write any more books?
CG: I have already started! The next book is about my ten years in Rosario when I met the first trans person in my life. Faltas is about the impact of cis people in my life. The next book is about the impact of queer and trans people in my life.
CF: Those crazy bitches.
CG: Yes! And they’re not letters. It’s organized by the geography of the city, and for each street there is an incredible emotional story.
CF: We’re gonna need a map.
CG: Yeah, you’ll need to do a lot of Google Earth.
Faltas by Cecilia Gentili is available from LittlePuss Press.