The Art of Queer Liberation: On the Enduring Power of Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”

November 9, 2021   •   By Carolina De Robertis

I.

CLASSICS ENDURE for many reasons. Some serve as eloquent time capsules, portraying a world now gone. Some offer aesthetic beauty and universal themes that transcend eras and cultures. And then there are seminal works that demand our ongoing attention because the full scope of their resonance, urgency, and vision is only visible once the world has started catching up to what the author bravely and brazenly immortalized on the page. Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Argentinean masterpiece, does each of these things, but, above all, it does the latter. When I consider its impact on literature and culture within and beyond Latin America, and on readers, including myself, I recall something a lesbian journalist once told me during an interview: I can only read your book with the body I have.

She was right. There is a subjectivity to reading that runs deep in our bones and can contribute to the depths of our knowing. And so, in defiance of the conventions of pre-feminist literary criticism, I will tell you a secret about my own Uruguayan, lesbian, and genderqueer body: the first time I read Kiss of the Spider Woman, years ago, I wept so hard that I could not breathe. That had never happened to me with a book before, nor has it happened since. I’d had an experience that, at the time, I could not yet put into words.

Novels can be entertainments, of course, but they can also be much more than that. They can hold new visions for humanity, deep underneath the narrative, hidden from view, like a woman smuggling subversive blueprints beneath her dress. What I hold to be true, in my body and mind, and what I wish to make visible and plain, is that a novel written against the grain of dominant society not only can bring a new voice into being but can also shift the future through the birthing of that voice. For novels wield power through the shaping of worlds. Today, in 2021, this remains true, all the more so for marginalized communities and the books that arise from them, that arise from us. It’s true about what we publish now, and also about the works that came before and made our moment possible, even if they’ve been forgotten or have been canonized in a manner that obscures their radical hearts.

That kind of obscuring has happened with Kiss of the Spider Woman’s legacy, in part because the book encountered commercial success, being adapted into a film and a Broadway musical, and in part because its enshrinement has mostly been framed by a heterosexual literary establishment. But I’m inviting us to look closer at this beloved classic, this gripping story, this aesthetically ingenious wonder, not only for the ways it confounds and delights but for the way it sings in defiance of heteronormativity, homophobia, transphobia, Latin American hegemonies, and anti-Latinx xenophobia, all at once. I’m inviting us to see, under its skirts, the makings of a true and urgent collective liberation. 

II.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is, among other things, a miracle of constraint. It takes place almost entirely in a single prison cell, where two people forge a complex, unlikely bond that tests and transforms them both. (This spare, potent structure has inspired many later writers, including me; I returned to Puig often while writing a novel set mainly in a jail cell, The President and the Frog.) Valentín is a heterosexual Marxist revolutionary and Molina is a gay, gender-nonconforming window dresser with a penchant for retelling movie plots at night, like a flaming Scheherazade. The novel is told mostly in dialogue, and even when this stylistic mode is broken, it is with the flair of innovation: stream-of-consciousness dives, surveillance reports, extended footnotes detailing psychological theories on sexuality and gender. The structure is clever and engaging, but it is also serves a narrative purpose: with no setting description and limited access to the characters’ thoughts or even their body language, we readers must tune our attention all the more sharply into what they say and do not say, the subtexts of the movies being retold, the subversions and twists in the telling, the implicit meanings beneath those stories, and, by association, the implicit meanings of the novel’s story.

Set in Buenos Aires in 1975, an era of rising government repression and deep political unrest, the novel was published in 1976, the same year Argentina fell prey to a brutal dictatorship that would lead to widespread terror and the disappearance of at least 30,000 citizens. Kiss of the Spider Woman provides, among other things, a deeply incisive rendering of the mechanics of surveillance and repression that gripped its author’s native country as well as many nations throughout Latin America in the late 20th century.

By the time he wrote this novel, Puig himself had directly felt the effects of political repression, as well as the lash of homophobia from an early age. Born in the small town of General Villegas in 1932 to a modestly middle-class family, he had found refuge in the local movie theater where his mother took him when he was a child, and where the larger-than-life glamour of Hollywood and other foreign film industries offered portals into a different world. Like his character Molina, Puig found, in the movies, a source of illicit fantasies and dreams. By the age of three, he was dressing up in his mother’s nightgown and high heels, attempting to emulate female stars from the silver screen. This continued throughout his childhood, despite his father’s violent blows and verbal abuse, including the threat of beating him to death. How Puig would have ultimately seen his own gender identity, in a freer world, is an open question. It’s possible that Puig spent his (or her or their) entire life as a closeted trans woman or gender-fluid person; we’ll never know conclusively. In this essay, I will continue to use he/him pronouns because it’s what he used, without intending to elide the open question of his gender. Puig came out as gay. Although later in life he would have many lovers, he would always remain single in the eyes of his immediate family, with whom he largely avoided the topic of his sexuality.

As a young man, Puig’s most treasured dream was the pursuit not of literature but of cinema to escape the patriarchal entrapment of his own culture. He earned a fellowship to Italy that opened the world to him but that ultimately ended in professional disappointment. A self-proclaimed failed filmmaker, he turned to writing. He drifted from country to country, scraping by as a translator, dishwasher, and airport receptionist, until the publication of his first novel, the autobiographical Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968). This was followed by the yet more successful Heartbreak Tango (1969), and then, in 1973, The Buenos Aires Affair, which was censored for its incendiary mix of sex and politics, and which ultimately led to death threats and to the author being tailed on the street. Unsafe in his own nation, he left Argentina in 1973 for two years in Mexico, and then for permanent exile in 1976. That same year, Kiss of the Spider Woman was immediately censored in Argentina, and would remain so until the return of democracy in 1983.

Puig remained in exile, in various countries, until his death in 1990 at the age of 57.

III.

On some levels, this novel can be seen as a crucial contribution to the Latin American Boom, that explosive literary renaissance of the 1960s and ’70s that catapulted the voices of a region into the global arena. Certainly, Kiss of the Spider Woman deserves such recognition, which would in some ways be long overdue. And yet, this novel also exists beyond and outside that movement, despite the temporal synchronicity.

Puig enjoyed many markers of external success in his lifetime: his novels sold many copies, and inspired screen and stage adaptations; he garnered a nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature. And yet, throughout his publishing career, Puig felt the condescension of the literary establishment, and of his peers. The Argentine novelist César Aira, a great admirer of Puig, would later say that, at the time of Kiss of the Spider Woman’s publication, Puig provoked “a tremendous anxiety, rejection, repulsion.” The homophobia did not always make itself explicit. At times, it came disguised under a thin veneer of disdain for his inclusion of characters who enjoy radio soap operas and romantic movies, elements of popular culture seen as “feminine” and lowbrow. (That this was a pioneering interrogation of what in North America was known as camp escaped these critics, though they might have repudiated it all the same.) As Suzanne Jill Levine details in her 2000 biography Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman: His Life and Fictions, some major literary voices even publicly dismissed Puig as frivolous, only to later imitate him and follow his lead, as did Julio Cortázar with We Love Glenda So Much (1980) and Mario Vargas Llosa with both Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) and The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984).

The Boom gave us so many things — brilliant creations, indelible genius, stories and prose beyond compare. Its groundbreaking accomplishments transcended borders and transformed literature — where would any of us be without One Hundred Years of Solitude? The Boom was also revolutionary, both aesthetically and politically, wielding fiction as a tool to illuminate injustice and speak truth to power. And yet, in these revolutionary works by prominent heterosexual male writers, toxic masculinity is often taken for granted. Depictions of women and gay or trans people are often flattened, if they appear at all (and a parallel problem often exists for Black or indigenous characters, a topic that deserves an essay all its own). This raises the question: Liberation for whom?

Kiss of the Spider Woman turns all of that inside out. It was the first Latin American novel to directly link political liberation with the dignity of queer love — to, in fact, place them in conversation. Two men in a room (if in fact they are both men; I’ll come back to that), talking to each other, becomes a microcosm of a dialogue that the culture desperately needs to have with itself, without which no one will be free.

The cell in the novel is an isolated space, a realm of entrapment, but it is also an oasis where the limits of reality can be reimagined. Stories spill forward, as do secrets. Flames are kindled, and burn bright. In the light of those flames, questions dance like shadows: How can a movement claim to be for the people if it leaves one or more marginalized groups behind? What would revolution look like if it could fully embrace — and love — the queer Molinas of the world? When we see the inner selves of those who’ve been spurned by society, what is transformed? What crumbles and collapses? What becomes possible?

IV.

There are a thousand reasons to read this book today, in the United States in particular. In the US, depictions of Latinidad often flatten us into tired patriarchal stereotypes of a supposedly backward people, sexist out of ignorance or stupidity, in need of enlightenment of an Anglicized kind. These depictions do not exist because they are true; they exist because they serve a purpose, rooted in xenophobia and racism. Recent years have exposed the hypocrisy of such finger-pointing and cultural condescension, as the US’s own bigotry, systemic misogyny, and political chaos have been laid bare. This period has been painful, to say the least, for millions of people of all backgrounds who long for a better incarnation of the country they call home. In light of this, Kiss of the Spider Woman becomes timely all over again, a window into a social climate that may now seem less “foreign” to North American readers, offering solace and a relevant parable of love in a time of unrest.

Meanwhile, the stereotypes are actually dead wrong. Latin American and US Latinx cultures are not immune to homophobic attitudes, as Puig’s experiences make vividly clear. In recent years, however, Latinidad has also been a crucible of sumptuous cultural innovation and queer visibility. In South America, two countries, Argentina and Uruguay, legalized same-sex marriage before the United States. Within the US, the vibrant beauty of queer Latinidad is everywhere, so much so that a 2018 study found that 22 percent of Latinx millennials identified as LGBTQ+, more than any other ethnic category and far more than the overall rate of 14 percent.

Perhaps the most potent evidence lies in the meteoric rise of the inclusive “x” and “e,” which can be used to gender-neutralize any word in the Spanish language and are most well known for reshaping our evolving names for ourselves — as “Latinx,” used primarily in a US or English-language context, and “Latine” (or “latine”), which is more commonly favored in Latin America and in Spanish-language modes. Some of us prefer the “x,” some the “e”; many of us cheerfully mix them together or code-switch depending on the context, while the more reactionary among us chafe and fuss over a linguistic movement that won’t be stopped. This movement, largely led by younger generations, women, and LGBTQ+ people, and evident in contemporary literary works such as Achy Obejas’s Boomerang / Bumerán (2021), pushes both language and consciousness toward greater inclusion and recognition of gender equity, gay truths, and nonbinary and transgender people’s manifold realities. Not only are we Latine and Latinx folks not as backward as the stereotypes claim; we are, in fact, communities at the radiant vanguard of an intersectional, inclusive movement poised to open a brighter future for us all, one word at a time.

In this context, what a joy it is to return to Puig as an early trailblazer, far ahead of his time, like a grandfather who will never see his beloved progeny grow tall. Kiss of the Spider Woman ripples with challenges to the gender binary, in its heady, searching footnotes as well as in Molina’s flesh-and-blood experience of a complex, richly queer longing for a freer relationship to gender. Our expanding lexicon offers new words for what Molina may have been: gay, yes, perhaps; a drag queen, perhaps; but also, very possibly trans, a transwoman, or nonbinary, gender fluid, or genderqueer. He refers to himself, or to herself or themself, as “una loca”; makes clear his desire to be a woman within romantic and sexual interactions; bends language by using feminized adjectives in self-referencing; and joyfully plays linguistic games with his — or her or their — fellow “locas” in which they call each other a litany of women’s names. This is the person that Valentín, ambassador for the revolution, is challenged to see, to love, to incorporate into his mind and heart.

Without the loving of Molina, there is no liberation. No one is free until queerness is free, until we all are free. Latin American political fiction was incomplete without this vision, and the world is incomplete without it, too. Puig was not free, and he knew it. His struggle toward freedom was not completed, except on the page, where he wove a tale that railed against the prisons that hold us even as he filled them with astounding, brazen, prescient signs of queer life.

V.

At the end of the day, novels are prismatic, and the best novels are infinitely so. There is no one way to read Kiss of the Spider Woman. We can approach it as a potent, complex portrait of 1970s Latin America. We can relish the universal nature of its themes, such as trust and betrayal, love and hunger, the lure of fantasy, and the courage it takes to be seen. We can embrace it as a good story, full of drama fit for the silver screen. And we can also read it as a visionary work that breathed life into certain dimensions of human possibility long before society at large was prepared to imagine them.

I invite you to consider the book this way, as a portal of queer prophecy and world-shaping, as a secret road map toward a more intersectionally liberated future. But the truth is, I can’t tell you which layers will feel most alive for you in this book. I can’t tell you what will happen for you if you choose to take the Spider Woman’s outstretched hand. For only you will know what it is to read this novel with the body you have.

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Acknowledgment: This essay was adapted from a foreword, in Spanish, to a new edition of El beso de la mujer araña by Manuel Puig, published by Vintage Español Clásicos.

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Carolina De Robertis is a writer of Uruguayan origin. She is the author of five novels, most recently The President and the Frog. She teaches at San Francisco State University, and lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and two children.