A Conversation with Carolina De Robertis on Immigration, Sexuality, and the True Origins of the Tango




CAROLINA DE ROBERTIS is a Uruguayan-American author and has written three internationally best-selling novels — all set in the Río de la Plata region of South America.

Her first novel, Invisible Mountain, is set in Uruguay and is a stunning multigenerational tale of the lives of three mothers and daughters told over 90 years, starting in 1900. Perla, her second novel, is about a young Argentinian woman grappling with the history of her family’s connection with The Disappeared of Argentina, the people kidnapped and killed by the military government during the country’s “Dirty War” from 1974 to 1983.

And most recently, The Gods of Tango, a story of the origins of the tango in the early 20th century. In 1913, a young Italian girl named Leda migrates to Buenos Aires to start a life with her new husband. On arrival she learns that he has died and she steps off the boat a widow. First for survival, and later for other reasons, she takes on the persona of a man. One of the things this affords her is the ability to play the tango — something women were not allowed to do at the time.

De Robertis’s novels have been translated into 17 languages and have been named Best Books of the Year in publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Booklist. She is the recent recipient of a Stonewall Book Award. Other honors she has received are Italy’s Rhegium Julii Prize and a 2012 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition, she is a prizewinning translator of Latin American literature, including Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case and Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai, which has been made into a feature film. And, she is a documentary film producer.

De Robertis sat down to talk to me at UC Riverside during its annual Writers Week. We had time to cover most of her work, and what drives her to write about queer female characters living in Uruguay and Argentina.

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NATASSJA SCHIEL: Congratulations on winning a 2016 Stonewall Book Award — the longest running LGBTQ book award in the nation.

CAROLINA DE ROBERTIS: I am incredibly honored by the award, in part because it’s given by librarians — the American Library Association. I feel like librarians are people who truly read, really care about books and know what they are talking about. It’s also an honor because of the people who have received this award since 1971 — which started only two years after Stonewall. I can’t imagine the climate! What bravery it would take them to publicly honor a book of queer themes. Since 1971, some of the people who have won this award are people who have made profound contributions to literature — not just queer literature, but literature to the country as a whole. Like Audre Lorde, and Randy Shilts for And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. It’s an honor to see my book in that context and to receive that kind of recognition.

It’s well deserved — it’s an excellent book. As are Invisible Mountain and Perla. They all feature Uruguay and Argentina, and the Italian immigrants to those countries. So I wanted to ask you about the connection between Uruguay and Argentina and Italy.

Thank you! I primarily identify as a Uruguayan or as a US American-Uruguayan person and writer. I also have roots in Argentina, as do quite a few Uruguayans. Uruguay is a very small country sandwiched between two giants — Argentina and Brazil. So Uruguay’s national story and cultural story is entwined with its neighbors — especially Argentina because of how much the countries share as far as language and demographic composition. They both had a tremendous wave of Italian immigrants that arrived at the early 20th century — of which my ancestors were a part.

The histories of Argentina and Uruguay have always been interwoven. People have often sought refuge in one country from the dictatorships or political upheavals of the other. People have sought exile across the river many times, including my grandparents, who were Argentinians exiled under Peron in the 1940s and came to Uruguay. That is how my father became Uruguayan and grew up there. My writing takes me back to that region. I’ve noticed that so far I am not capable of writing a novel set in Uruguay that does not include Argentina. And vice versa. It’s almost like yin and yang. There has to be a spot of one in the other or else the portrait is not complete.

As with the tango, the portrait of the history of the tango is not complete without the Uruguayan contributions. In Uruguay the people are passionate about the fact that the tango is not Argentinian. Most people on this planet believe that the tango is Argentinian, but a Uruguayan will tell you “el tango is Rioplatense.” Rioplatense is a word that means “of the region of the River Plate” — Argentina and Uruguay, the two countries on the River Plate, the Río de Plata. What the word essentially means is Argentinian-Uruguayan. How I truly feel, how I truly identify is as a Rioplatense. It’s simple — in Spanish there is one word for it. But in English that word doesn’t exist. I have this cultural identity embracing both nations that doesn’t have a word in English.

So the origins of the tango — they are also African, right? Can you talk about that history, which seems to be a little bit lost?

The tango owes a tremendous debt to people of African descent and of Afro-Argentinian contributions. The earliest tango included drums in the early 1880-’90s and those fell away as the European immigrants began to flood Buenos Aires and bring other instruments and musical sensibilities. It continued to evolve. Few people know that at the turn of the 20th century, Buenos Aires was one-third black. It’s quite shocking when you consider the overwhelmingly Anglo, European descent of people that currently live there. In Uruguay the population is still eight to ten percent black, depending on which statistics you believe. That’s a significant portion of the culture. In Argentina the black population is somewhere around one to two percent. Afro-Argentinians still exist but their stories are invisible.

Their contributions to the tango continue to be denied by tango scholars in Argentina, the United States, France, and elsewhere. The three countries I named have the most robust tango scholarship. I think that people often wish to romanticize the origins of the tango because there is little documentation of its early days. People often fill that void with what they would like to believe. The history of Argentina has been whitewashed. I’m using that term rather intentionally.

As a Rioplatense person of European decent, I feel strongly about the urgency of retelling the stories of our nation’s histories, the Argentinian and Uruguayan national stories and cultural stories, in ways that fully recognize the presence of black people. Which is a huge part of the greater story of the Americas as well. You cannot tell the story of the Americas without the story of black people and the transatlantic slave trade — that mass atrocity. Alongside, of course, the genocide of indigenous people. And also the cultural richness and artistic production and stories of resilience and power that, too, come out of those harsh realities that are at the origin of the Americas.

The Gods of Tango is set in 1913 and it’s about an Italian woman coming to Argentina, and is set in the dance halls and brothels — is it documented that tango came from less affluent backgrounds and seedier places?

Yes, overall that is still part of tango’s creation story. The part that people sometimes get wrong is that tango started in brothels. That’s something you hear a lot. The reason it seems like tango started in brothels, from an upper-class perspective, is because that’s where the upper class interacted with the poor in their own environments — not with their maid — but you know, in their own tenement. And that is the only reason the wealthy in that period would go to San Telmo, La Boca, San Cristobal — these neighborhoods of Southern Buenos Aires, and that is where they heard the music. The tango was certainly danced and played at that time in brothels, but it didn’t start there. It started in the tenements, that’s where the music arose. In these overcrowded conventillos — that’s the Rioplatense word for tenements. It arose out of these places where 60 people are sharing a kitchen, sharing a bathroom — two bathrooms, maybe. Whole families to a room and eight bachelors in another room. Bachelors doing hard labor all day. They come from different countries. They have different home languages. Some of them have been there for a few generations, but they were descended from enslaved people and so they were marginalized as well. These people were sharing meals, sharing common space, waiting in line for the bathroom together. And, also finding ways for their souls to survive. One of the ways to do that is to make music together on Sunday. It’s from that beautiful nexus that the tango was truly born.

The main character Leda comes to Argentina only to learn that she is a widow right off the boat. Her father has left her a violin — which he says is for her new husband — but she wonders if it was actually for her. She adopts a male persona in order to play in a tango band. I wanted to know if the jazz musician Billy Tipton, who posed as a man, was inspiration or if you used his life in anyway to inform writing Leda/Dante?

I was already working on this book when I found out about Billy Tipton. I had been writing about Leda and her transformation to Dante for over a year when a colleague — another writer — said, of course you’ve read the biography of Billy Tipton? I said, no, but I will immediately!

The biography Suits Me by Diane Middlebrook is brilliant, thorough, and full of interviews with people who knew Billy. He passed as a man for over 50 years and died at the age of 72 and only then was discovered to be biologically female. One of the people present for the discovery was his child — a person in his 40s who had no idea. An adopted child, but still, Billy had a family life raising children who didn’t know.

His first wife is clear in the fact that she didn’t know. She told the biographer years later, I had pregnancy scares when we were together because I didn’t want to have children. I had absolutely no idea. That piece of information blew my mind because I realized that I had been too careful and timid up until that point.

They say truth is stranger than fiction and when we write fiction we can think, is this going to be over the top? But then you look at something like the fact that Donald Trump exists and people listen to him and you realize — wow, take that to a creative writing workshop and see if people say it’s realistic.

So I started to think it through — how would Billy Tipton have persuaded his wife that he was biologically male in the bedroom? Why on earth not? Especially in a context in which people had little sexual information, and women were socially conditioned to be extremely passive during sex. So that made me think about where the relationship with Alma was going.

Also, there were many other details in the book about how Tipton negotiated things like when to use the bathroom, pretending to drink beer so that he wouldn’t have to pee, and these things that were great details to build into the book to the point of ferocity. Certainly there have been many women that have passed as men throughout time for many reasons — including economic advantage, unlike the transition from male to female. There are so many stories lost in time, so fiction can play a valuable role in refilling that void.

Rosa is, in some ways, a mirror to Leda/Dante, except she was unrelentingly feminine. Even though tango was for men to play, she stood her ground and auditioned, became a singer, was successful.

Rosa was a character born out of my research. With Dante I decided: I’m going to roll the dice and make this character and later I got some evidence through Billy Tipton and others to support his existence. Rosa was born directly out of what I learned from my research about the groundbreaking, gender-bending women of the early days of the tango. What’s incredible is that I had been researching the tango in an in-depth way for a year and a half before I came across this information. It was one small two-page description in a book written by a woman about women in tango — and yet only two pages were dedicated to the fact that women in the early 1920s wanted to sing tangos on stage. It was the time of the rise of tango singer as a kind of star of the cabarets. And the women were told that they couldn’t sing because all the lyrics were from the male point of view. They were about male swagger and being in love with a woman and “I am so powerful with my gaucho knife” — women were told there was nothing for them to sing. But there were women, including the singer Azucena Maizani, who responded to this by putting on a fedora and a suit, standing on stage with the mascara and lipstick — not trying to pass as a man at all, but sort of donning the drag of masculinity and singing these songs. It became a major part of how tango was performed in the early 1920s. These women were gender-bending pioneers. I find it fascinating as well as disturbing that those stories have been dismissed by tango scholars when telling the tale of the tango.

I didn’t know that.

It’s been more dismissed than the African roots of the tango. Much more, in fact. There is almost nothing written. It seems to me like there should be several books about Azucena Maizani and her gender-bending. She did this for decades. Later in her career, she also sang in women’s clothes, after there were more tangos written from other points of view. Tango is a phenomenon that evolved with every decade. It shifted and engaged new faces, but in the early 1920s, that was the only way that she performed. I have reason to believe, studying her life, that she was queer — but I have no solid evidence. The only evidence I have is a one-and-a-half-minute clip on YouTube that makes it hard to believe that she’s 100 percent straight.

What’s the clip?

It’s called “Milonga Del 900” and it’s this old grainy video. You can see her swagger and she makes flirty looks talking about her woman. Certainly she could have been a straight woman and played with those roles as a sendup of masculinity — kind of exploded those boundaries. She could have done that and been straight, but the people that push those edges often have something within them that has made them push.

Mamita is unlike the other prostitutes depicted in the book — she is not destroyed by her work and in fact she seems to like it. She has this caring, therapeutic way about her which I often don’t think gets represented when people talk about sex work. She doesn’t come across at all like a victim.

I knew that in order to tell the story of the tango’s origins and the cauldron from which it was born, I was going to have to include the stories of sex workers because in the seedier side of town — where the earlier tango was rising — those were the women that witnessed the first tango performances. And some of those pioneer musicians who were developing this music, which is now heard all over the world, were playing where some of the only women hearing it were the sex workers. They were part of the landscape and so even though they weren’t the ones playing the instruments, they mattered to the landscape. And sex trafficking was part of that time and environment, especially women from Poland and Russia — especially Jewish girls. I do have a portion, very briefly, from the point of view of a girl that was sex trafficked and who is suffering and deadened inside from that experience. It was important to recognize the reality of that brutality.

Exactly, which goes back to the dichotomy of empowerment and disempowerment. It’s both.

Yes, and it’s showing the entire spectrum. Mamita has had her struggles and she reveals that to us. But it was important to give space and voice to women and girls who went through these exploitative and brutal experiences. At the same time, I would not have been happy with that being the only portrayal of sex work or prostitution at that time. Because there was a spectrum of experiences that people had, and throughout time and history, women have found different ways to be resilient and alive inside. It was also important to have this character Mamita who is over the age of 30 — we never find out exactly how old she is — which is for a prostitute at that time a vulnerable age. And she’s made it work by playing out this maternal sex fantasy for men.

She is very much alive inside. And in her way, in the confines of the options available to her at that time and place, she is in her power. She becomes a sexual teacher to Dante, which is a real gift to a young woman passing as a man who wants to explore what to do with the ladies. He was behind on that — being raised as a girl. It was important to have other points of view. And structurally in this novel, I knew that it was going to be from the point of view of Leda, but because I wanted to open to this greater portrait of the tango’s origins, it wouldn’t have felt complete unless I included the points of views of others, like mosaic pieces that give us the greater whole of the tango’s story — just like the violin, the bandoneón, and the other instruments of a tango orchestra, each of which provide a voice that together weave a song.

That was my hope. So structurally, in each chapter, I have one moment in the point of view of another person. Having a piece from Santiago’s point of view was important because I wanted a chance, however briefly, for Afro-Argentinians to speak, and for him to tell the story of his uncle who was a black musician that took part in the early tango — even if Leda never knows about that or sees it. And I knew that the sex workers needed to speak for themselves as well. It couldn’t just be one because it wouldn’t be a full spectrum. That’s why there are two different prostitutes with very different experiences whose point of view we hear.

Obviously you write strong female characters and that’s important — especially female characters that aren’t the typical straight white American female characters that we often see, and characters that are oppressed. You worked for women’s rights organizations for 10 years. How has that informed the writing of these characters?

We do our characters a disservice by allowing them to be flat. Our role as novelists is to do our best to portray the nuance of a whole range of life experiences. It’s one of the things that fiction is uniquely positioned to do, to bring the reader into the interior life of people’s experiences that are wildly different than our own. Non-narrative forms of art are beautiful — painting, music, and so forth. But they don’t have that quality. Even film, where we can tell a story, doesn’t plunge us into the interior life or the consciousness of people. And so it’s been important to me as a novelist to strive to bring the full complexity of women’s inner worlds and women’s consciousness to life as best as possible. In literature we don’t get enough of that. Women are often the window dressing to male protagonists or to male experiences.

And that reflects life as well. Women are often in the listening role and men are in the talking role. And not just women and men, but boys and girls. As a mother I see it, not in my own kids, but in children, who are already learning and absorbing, including movies made for children where the boys are the protagonists and have the interesting parts and the interesting lines. It’s important to upend that.

When I was a rape crisis counselor for five years I listened to the stories of over a thousand sexual assault survivors. Some of them were hotline calls and some of them were ongoing counseling relationships, but those stories are full of suffering and pain. But they are also full of resilience, ingenuity, and strength. I got to bear witness to that resilience of the human soul, and though not all of my clients were women, most of them were. That experience of bearing witness to those stories is like a big well into which I continue to dip, gratefully, as a writer.

In Invisible Mountain, the character Eva suffers a horrifying child sexual assault and as the story continues, it seems like Eva might be suffering from PTSD, but it never gets named.

It’s amazing to hear that you recognized it on that level — it was my intention. I wrote those sections of Invisible Mountain, Eva’s life, while I was a rape crisis counselor. It came out of my feeling that I had a grandmother who was a clinical hypochondriac and bohemian and poet. Everyone said she was crazy because she was in a wheelchair and then a doctor gave her placebos and she could walk. She ended up marrying her doctor — he was my grandfather. It’s a strange creation story for my family. Sometimes she would get depressed and she couldn’t get out of bed even though she had children to take care of. It was when I was a rape crisis counselor that I said to myself, my grandmother’s dead — I’ll never know exactly what happened, but all this craziness makes complete sense if this person was a child sexual abuse survivor. I mean, you know how common that is and how silent it is. So I was exploring this “what if?” question of this woman who has been called crazy and who I heard growing up was crazy. Plus, she was a poet so I’m also absorbing, as a child, that female writers are crazy.

There is a personal urgency for me in exploring what is underneath that supposed craziness and finding my way to the wound and the potential for power: writing that isn’t strictly about one’s own life can be extremely personal, and personally urgent. And that’s how it was for me.

In all of your novels there are glimmers of queerness. In Invisible Mountain there is the transgender character Zola who becomes Eva’s lover. In Tango, there is Leda/Dante and then the love interest Rosa. I wasn’t sure if I was stretching but I wondered about Perla.

No, you weren’t stretching. You just have a good queer eye — queer readers are more likely to catch the whole Romina thing. Am I right? Because of Romina? From that little thing with Romina and then later she’s with a guy?

Yes! Perla just seems too interested in Romina’s breasts. When I was growing up, I was obsessed with girls growing breasts. Then I grew up and I was like, oh wow I really love women. I wasn’t sure if I read Perla correctly because as a bisexual woman I’m always looking for bisexual narratives.

So, you googled me thoroughly, did you find that I’m bisexual?

I didn’t. Are you bisexual?

I am bisexual. I have said so in interviews. It’s something important to name. It’s important naming it and opening space. People don’t question my queerness as much now because I’m married to a woman, so that’s nice, that’s refreshing.

When I was first coming out, people were like, no you’re just curious.

And you were like, no, actually I know who I am.

It took a while because of the idea that bisexuality isn’t a real sexuality.

Yes, it’s everywhere. It’s getting a little better. The first time I had a woman tell me that she was a bisexual lesbian I almost fell over. I almost couldn’t breath. I was like, you get to help yourself to both of those! I didn’t know I could do that! And she is a butch woman that is kind of a public figure in the Bay Area. She was like, yes, I am a butch woman and a bisexual lesbian. That’s when I realized that you can’t wait for other people to grant you permission to be who you are or claim your identity. If you wait for other people to say, yeah I’ll give you this card, sure you’re really queer, you’ll wait forever. So you have to claim it.

Exactly. One last question and you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but I know that you’re working on your next novel — can you tell us what it’s about?

It’s been an interesting journey and I’ve been secretive about this one. More than the others. My next book is set in Uruguay again. My next two books, and probably three, will be set in Uruguay. I lived there for a year and a half while working on The Gods of Tango so it gathered urgency. I have been working for the last four years or so on a documentary with my wife, Pamela Harris, who is a documentary filmmaker, on a documentary about black people in Uruguay. We spent a year and a half — I did a lot of the interviewing — because she is the one with the documentary skills so she did the camera work and the direction, and I got to sit and listen to many peoples’ stories about the history of black Uruguay and people of African descent and their experiences. And we went through many archives.

We’re continuing to work on the film itself, but I’m currently writing a novel that comes up out of all of that gathering.

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Natassja Schiel is currently an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside. She is writing a memoir about working as an exotic dancer in Guam.


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