In her new book The Gods of Tango, bestselling author Carolina de Robertis weaves together a story addressing the issues of race, class, immigration, and sexuality as beautifully as the tango weaves together the music of Argentina’s many immigrant communities. In language musical and brutal by turns, de Robertis tells the story of Leda, a young Italian immigrant who passes as a man in order to pursue her dream of becoming a tango musician. Along the way, we learn the back stories of many other characters and the obstacles they overcome — or fail to overcome — as their lives intersect with Leda’s. de Robertis took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.
What inspired you to write this book and what sort of research did you need to do to write it?
I began with the seed of my own great-grandmother’s immigration experience, from Italy to Argentina. I quickly saw, however, that from that seed I wanted to grow a much larger story, not only about the great migration of that time to South America, but also about the rich cultural history of the tango’s origins, and about female transgression into an underworld of men.
I did a huge amount of research. I scoured libraries and bookstores, read piles of books in English, Spanish and Italian (badly), walked the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Naples and my ancestral village in Italy, took tango dance lessons and violin lessons, and consulted with all sorts of experts, from musicologists and musicians to friends on the transgender spectrum.
Tell me a little about the work you have done to hone your craft and who helped you along the way.
My first novel, The Invisible Mountain, took eight years to write. I worked on it in secret at first, after long days of rape crisis counseling; then with a writer’s group; and then, five years in, began an MFA program at Mills College. I was lucky to find a wonderful circle of peers and mentors at my MFA. As for my agent, she found me in her slush pile. It really can happen.
3) Leda/Dante — the main character of the book — often struggles to understand her own identity. The labels we might use today — transman, lesbian, butch, queer — wouldn’t necessarily be ones that she embraces herself. What do you think this means for modern queers trying to place themselves into a larger historical perspective?
We are so lucky, in our current times, to have a wealth of vocabulary at our fingertips to describe queer experience. The trans community, in particular, has simply exploded with linguistic creativity to reflect the dazzling range of the transgender spectrum. My protagonist’s experience is certainly on that spectrum (as well as in the queer woman/butch/lesbian realm), but she doesn’t have words for any of it. What was that like, to carry queerness inside of you with no reflection of it in your world? How did people fashion a genuine sanity, a sense of self? My hope for modern queer readers -— and for all readers who care about true cultural history -— is that this narrative might help fill in the blanks, help give voice to what’s been lost to silence.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?
I absolutely consider myself a feminist! I can’t imagine not doing so. It would essentially be a decision to consider myself less than human. As it happens, I was raised to believe that women and girls are inferior to their male counterparts. I was raised with the idea that I should obey my father until the day I obeyed my husband. That didn’t work out so well for my parents. I should clarify that this is not a Uruguayan cultural trait, but a particularity of my own family experience. In any case, in that context, finding feminism at the age of sixteen was life, breath, a window of escape into the light.
Issues of race, class, sexuality, gender, and immigration figure prominently in this book and often serve as tools to separate people who might be able to recognize their common experience of oppression. Do you think much has changed in this regard in the last 100 years?
Some of the dynamics continue. But there is much more consciousness, in our 21st century, about intersectional realities, that is, the fact that identities are not separate but live simultaneously in a single person’s skin. In some lives, like mine, there is no Latino versus female versus queer. They are threads of experience that weave together into a great tapestry of relationship to the world. Everybody has this inside of them, a textured self, whether they’ve explored it or not. In the early twentieth century, when The Gods of Tango is set, this was also true, of course, but people didn’t have the same kind of language with which to approach or understand it. It’s fascinating for me to write my way into these experiences of the world, in their raw state.
What words of advice do you have for aspiring queer writers?
I wish I could say that publishing has become a level playing field for writers of different races, genders, classes, and sexual identities — but it has not. There are struggles along the way. On the other hand, it’s worth calling up something a seasoned indie bookseller said to me one night when I felt down about the obstacles I’d experienced as a Latin American writer: “there’s never been a better time to be a writer of color in the United States.”
This shifted my paradigm completely. It applies to queer writers, too. Think of Baldwin. What he went through — and what he gave us. Yes, it’s still hard to get our voices out there, to find visibility and full respect, but if you’re a queer writer and you’re passionate about the written word, you’re not alone, there’s never been a better time, and we need your voice.