Breaking and Remaking the Trans Memoir: On Cecilia Gentili’s “Faltas”
By Hugh RyanDecember 15, 2022
Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist by Cecilia Gentili
In broad strokes, young Gentili’s life was a rough ride of poverty, transphobia, familial abandonment, and sexual abuse, set against the backdrop of the 1970s and 1980s in Gálvez, a small city near the Paraná River in Argentina. Today, Gentili is a leader in New York City’s trans and queer communities, the former director of policy at the GMHC (formerly known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis), and the director of the Transgender Equity Consulting firm she founded in 2019.
As the title suggests, Faltas is an epistolary memoir, told through eight letters addressed to significant people from Gentili’s childhood, including her mother, her best friend, a teacher who hated her, and the daughter of the man who repeatedly raped her throughout her youth, starting when she was just six years old. The letters progress roughly chronologically up to her late teenage years, in a meandering, conversational style that gives them an intimate and immediate feel, as though Gentili were sitting at a bar, whispering directly to you. The letters give voice to a collage of contradictory and difficult truths about growing up trans, poor, and determined to survive. Yet the unflappable nuance with which Gentili approaches everything and everyone in her story — herself, her town, her rape — gives Faltas a density and texture not often seen in works from the memoir genre, especially those saturated with tales of trauma, abuse, and survival. Discussing the pedophile who assaulted her, for instance, she writes:
I think he was very aware of the fact that Tito [Gentili’s father] was not present […] and there was one other thing he knew: I was a girl. He understood my femininity as normal, and he used that, too.
I remember the first time he laid eyes on me: I saw it, I saw he would give me that thing everyone else was denying me. […] He saw I was Cecilia. He saved my life and ruined it forever.
Gálvez is a small, poor city surrounded by eucalyptus forest. It was not a place with any significant, visible LGBTQ+ community where a trans girl like Gentili, growing up in government housing, with a large and complicated family, could find support. But one of the remarkable truths that Gentili reveals — a truth many queer people from similar places know all too well — is that Gálvez was only straight on the surface. All it takes is one person who can’t or won’t hide to draw that queerness out, whether in the form of abuse from closeted men who could not handle their desires, or from whispered acknowledgments of queer feelings from those who can hide. At first, Gentili is a lightning rod, the scapegoat for everyone else’s anxieties about sex and gender; later, she is the lightning itself, fighting back against the hypocrisy around her (as when she suggests to a particularly cruel teacher that her son might be one of the many men in town with whom Gentili has had sex).
By refusing to see her life as a shameful secret, Gentili explodes the doors of the closet, and in so doing, she reveals the ways in which queerness, transness, sexual abuse, and other marginalized experiences are often allowed to exist, so long as they do so through a lens of punishment, shame, and victim blaming. Again and again, her letters confront adults who knew what was being done to her but turned a blind eye. As she reflects towards the end of the book,
I know I am shaking the tree, challenging the fake reality where you all live at peace. This is what I was always doing, just by existing. I was always challenging that perfect picture you all thought you had. This book isn’t a book about my behavior. It is about unmasking the behavior of all those around me as a child.
In my work as a queer historian, I read a lot of memoirs by important, underrecognized LGBTQ+ figures. Many of these books would, with a few changes here and there, bear similarities to Gentili’s tale. But while the content of these memoirs is always fascinating, the writing — so often stilted, poorly constructed, or simply lacking the spark that would give their plodding prose some life — leaves much to be desired. But Gentili is a gifted writer, one who doesn’t rely singularly on the sensational aspects of her life to tell her story. Even in describing an everyday scene, her words bring her world to life through the deft use of well-wrought images. Take, for example, how deftly she conveys the best of childhood summer using only a few details:
During the day, when she was busy, Mom would sit me under the palm tree with a half watermelon and a spoon and the heat around me. I would eat so much that I would fall asleep with my legs open, holding in the middle the green bowl, now emptied of its rich pink insides. Eyes closed with the spoon still in my hand.
That same deft use of language is mirrored in Gentili’s seeming commitment to showing the pain and the joy of her experience. Critically, she isn’t a victim in Faltas; even though she is often assaulted, treated badly, or derided, she presents her story as one of strength and struggle. We see Gentili fight to survive, have fun, act cruelly, and hide her truths, just as much as we see her ignored, used, or abused.
In each letter, Gentili parses out her own motivations, neither hiding her faults nor wallowing in them. For instance, the third letter in Faltas is addressed to Alemana, a very poor but very beautiful young girl who showed up in Gálvez when Gentili was a preteen. Though young, Alemana has already gone through puberty by the time they meet, and Gentili describes her as looking like “a miniature of the models in the magazines.” Bound together as outcasts (and neighbors), Alemana and Gentili form a minor friendship. They are two poor, disreputable, and ultimately disposable children, a reality that lands them in similar dangers, but also keeps them so desperate to protect themselves, they have few resources to take care of each other.
One day, Alemana comes running into a crowded street, yelling that one of the town’s upstanding men tried to rape her. (He is the same man who had been assaulting Gentili for years.) While Gentili’s initial inclination is to tell the townspeople what had been done to her, as she opens her mouth to speak, the people in the town square turn on Alemana, decrying her (true) allegations as the ravings of a “damaged girl” and “insignificant whore”; Gentili falls silent.
Reflecting on why she stayed silent that day, Gentili writes:
Back then, everything was about me, and what I wanted to learn from other people’s experience. I knew I had to prepare for a hard life, and that the person I had to care for the most was myself, and maybe a small circle around me, and you were not part of that circle […] [I]t’s funny, I just realized that I have always seen you as a woman and never as a girl […] And, of course, it was not only me who saw you as a woman. I am sure you noticed the way men looked at you, without seeing any innocence. You and I shared that experience, of not receiving respect or care, but instead being laid open to dirty thoughts. We were both disposable. For different reasons. I was a little faggot, and you were a little whore. That’s why I’m writing to you, Alemana. Because such different-looking girls sometimes have such similar experiences.
Moments like this are likely to get Gentili’s memoir called “raw,” because of their sheer power and honesty, and because of her identity as a trans woman of color without a degree from a fancy writing program. All too often, memoirs from writers like Gentili are derisively treated as a kind of trauma dump, a place where the (sometimes exploitative) focus is on just laying down the awful events of the narrator’s life, and the craft of the memoir is understood to be secondary. But Gentili’s work offers an important rebuttal to such expectations. Faltas is a beautifully crafted narrative about difficult experiences, not an unprocessed litany of violence or tragedy porn. It is a careful examination of the moments that made Gentili into the woman she is, for better and worse.
Reading Faltas, I was reminded not so much of the other queer memoirs I’ve read, but of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th-century nobleman and philosopher at the heart of the French Renaissance. His collection Essais is widely considered one of modern creative nonfiction’s earliest progenitors. As he wrote in the introduction,
If I had written to seek the world’s favor, I should have bedecked myself better, and should present myself in a studied posture. I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. […] Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.
The humor, the honesty, the personal address to an imagined reader — all these and more formally connect Montaigne’s and Gentili’s writing. Even their titles echo one another. The title of Montaigne’s collection translates to “Attempts,” Gentili’s Faltas to “Errors.” Both words capture a sense of effort, of trying to understand, to convey, to be, to become. The only difference between an attempt and an error, in the end, is how the world judges you for shooting your shot.
And just as Essais made way for modern nonfiction, so too does Faltas mark an important beginning. Its publisher, LittlePuss Press, is a new independent house founded by poet Cat Fitzpatrick and novelist Casey Plett with a commitment to publishing unique, difficult, and labor-intensive trans and queer works that larger houses are unable to or uninterested in supporting. Fitzpatrick and Plett describe LittlePuss as “a feminist press run by two trans women,” by which they indicate the trans, intersectional feminist lens that defines the press’s perspective, even if its authors will represent a broad range of identifications. They hope to find books that wouldn’t have a home elsewhere, titles that are too weird (in form or content), or which — like Gentili’s Faltas — can benefit from their unique editorial vision.
While Faltas will be the press’s first book, LittlePuss isn’t Plett and Fitzpatrick’s first time at the indie trans publishing rodeo (an event I would totally attend). In 2017, both authors worked with the now-defunct Topside Press to edit the award-winning collection Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers. When they learned the publisher wasn’t going to do additional print runs, and that used copies were selling for over $200 on eBay, Plett and Fitzpatrick realized there was an audience as hungry to read these stories as they were to publish them. Since Meanwhile, Elsewhere was published under a Creative Commons license, the editors decided to produce a new, small print run of about 1,000 copies. As a proof of concept, it was a success, selling out in under a year. (For those who are still hunting for a copy, it’s back in stock on LittlePuss’s website.)
For their next act, LittlePuss set its sights on publishing a memoir by Gentili, an effort that had been on Fitzpatrick’s mind for years. After hearing Gentili share her work at several storytelling events around New York City, Fitzpatrick said, she realized that “this person is a genius.” That admiration carried through the experience working with Gentili on Faltas, which Fitzpatrick describes as “just a fucking brilliant process.” Gentili “has one of the strongest senses of narrative structure of anyone I’ve ever met,” Fitzpatrick told me. “She always knows the exact dramatic arc.”
While Fitzpatrick and Plett aren’t ready to reveal the books currently queued up in the LittlePuss pipeline, they promise a series of forthcoming titles that they hope will establish the press as a unique home for otherwise neglected stories and experiences. Plett joked that LittlePuss would only accept unagented submissions, encouraging work from people so far outside the ken of mainstream publishing, for myriad reasons, that they would never be on the radar of even other indie publishers. They hope to track down those “eminent geniuses kind of just wandering around town” and help them put out the book they’ve always had inside them. And if Faltas is any indication, that means a bold start with many great things to come.
Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator in Brooklyn, New York. More at hughryan.org / @hugh_ryan.
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