Carolina de Robertis writes novels that have a deep impact on the readers. The translation of her work into 17 languages and awards she has received show her distinction. Carolina is a writer not only likable for her literary style but also for her book’s impact in shaping the prevailing culture.
Born in Uruguay and raised in England and Switzerland, Carolina currently lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and two children. She teaches Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Her students never expect to come across her post-fashion appearance, as Carolina calls it, and are always surprised when they find a stricter professor than they expect. However, with the same strictness, she urges her students to look for the spark that moves them when reading a book, to find what inspires each one of them.
Carolina knows that literature is not just a source of pleasure, but a way of opening oneself to the world. In the written word she sees pioneers, people who dare to do something new, who transform culture. This is why, when Carolina writes, she is free to show her own vision of reality, the things that she considers the world should know a more about. This is how she chooses her themes, how she develops her characters.
Cantoras is the title of her new novel, translated to Spanish this year, and the secret name lesbians used some decades ago, in a certain Latin American country. It is a story based on true events: five female main characters in which fiction opens the doors to their world to show a certain minority’s reality during the Uruguayan dictatorship. Furthermore, the book is a testimony that reminds us that it is always possible to create a life based on an authentic identity, and that friendships last because a friend is someone who teaches something new about oneself.
Your novels have reached many cities across the world. How do you develop the singularity of a character and the aspects that resonate with all humanity?
At least for me, the role of a writer, especially a novelist, is to explore the urgent questions within oneself and trust that if we have an urgent personal matter to express, to discover humanity´s possibilities, it will resonate with others in some way as well. So first, I think we need to really trust that sense of personal urgency. For me, for example, with Cantoras, this fourth novel, I tried to think and understand a little bit more about how it was to be gay, lesbian or queer during the Uruguayan dictatorship, how people survived that silence and that fear to create an authentic existence. That was a personal urgency of mine, but while I was in the process of revising the novel, I found another point of view. Like an eagle, that looks with hunger and urgency for something to eat, then is goes down and sees the squirrels; but then it looks further and is able to see the whole landscape, the whole picture. When looking at the novel from further away, I was able to see the ways in which this picture could be important to other people as well. It is universal, a metaphor.
Now that you have mentioned that personal urgency, what place does your true self have when writing? How do you understand the literature of self?
Well, we can think about the literature of self as a point of view, as a protagonist sort of self, whether different or similar to the author, or specifically as autobiographical fiction.
I believe that every type of literature is valuable. We need every kind of story, every kind of narrative, those that talk about history or that are written from different points of view, like A hundred years of solitude that has so many characters, like a mural of people. Then there is the literature that is like an intimate portrait of an individual conscience, which could be very close to the author’s. Both have value. I do not think one is superior or inferior. The literature of self holds a particular value to the marginalized communities and identities, like gay people or people of color, who have had less presence or voice in their own cultures. Here in the United States or in Latin America it is very important to address that self that has been missing from the dominant culture. I also think that there has been a place where that self has been considered less important, like an inferior art form, which is problematic when talking about marginalized identities.
Somebody sent me a photo of a library in Oklahoma where you could see a little recommendation sign next to the book Cantoras that said, “The best portrait of a chosen family I´ve ever seen in literature”. That really moved me, because it is a compliment to that possibility we create inside a culture.
Regarding the separation of the person who writes and the character, the protagonist and the author, when I create protagonists, I always try to show a bit of my own soul but this does not mean it is autobiographical; it isn´t me. With Cantoras, for example, it was like knitting a narrative with five yarn threads because there are five protagonists. In some way, that freed me. If I had written a novel telling the story of only one lesbian as a main character who maybe had many lovers, people would probably think that this is how all lesbians are. Even if the author of the story did not mean to say that all women are like that character, representation could sometimes become a way of oppression. Having five main characters in my novel allowed me to show variety within a community. In this particular case, I had a lot of resources because I interviewed these women for over a decade. I listened to their stories of gay women from an older generation who were young during the Uruguayan dictatorship. So, I had many life examples, different personalities, and ways of being. When I write I, of course, give the characters parts of myself, and it is sometimes a surprise to see where in those protagonists those parts live. Sometimes I don´t see this until after I finish the book.
They are five different women that, at one point, you describe as the women who “had to be saved from the horrors of normalcy, the cage of not-being”…
Yes, they are very different, and there is a lot of diversity between them. But that is something that they all have in common, getting out of that cage of not-being, not existing.
In almost all the stories, the protagonists ‘families appear. Parents that didn´t want to see their daughters, didn´t want to get to know them. What do you have to say about that?
I think it is important to mention this and thank you so much for your comments, because these are things that happen with homophobia, especially with “familial homophobia.” This concept invented by Sara Schulman, writer of Ties that bind: familial homophobia and its consequences. I believe that is the name in English, where she talks about how familial homophobia creates particular and intimate traumas. Many of us experience that oppression, it is very common in our world. For gay people, it is quite common to experience this oppression form parents, who are not gay and do not accept their kid´s humanity. Often, we are raised by people who do not recognize our humanity; that is a deep scar, a particular sca
r that I personally live with. That is why I want to portray this road of society´s rejection, and also of rejection inside your own home, your own origin. I need to tell how the road that goes from that point to creating a community is towards love, connection, dignity, and freedom.
Could we say that this is a road towards the building of an identity?
Yes, because in some way, identity is broken when one has to face oneself and decide between accepting oneself the way one is or keep the love, care, and respect of family. For many people it is impossible to have both. Society is now changing, which is good, but that effect still exists.
Another aspect of what is denied and what is visible is seen in the social context of Cantoras. You didn´t live in Uruguay during the dictatorship. But why were you interested in differentiating between dictatorship and process?
The process is part of how the dictatorship worked and the psychological and cultural effects it had. Denying the possibility of giving voice to the people, incarcerating the subversive, are some of the dictatorship consequences. The word process was part of the regimen´s vocabulary. They called it “the process”. It´s a way of creating words that make visible but at the same time denies the implied psychological violence.
You gave literary life to five women who support each other to reach a destiny quite different from the one society and most of their families imposed. What is your idea of friendship?
What a great idea to talk about that! Something very important to me that I wanted to portray was the idea of the chosen family. It´s not the biological family. It´s the one we create, the LGBT people, the queer people when our families reject us. This is something very common in the gay communities and, I believe, something very innovative, something queer people bring to today´s cultures. For many of us, friendship can become family. Maybe we have biological siblings, but we can´t openly talk to them. They´ll never fully understand us. So, we have those friends, women, men, and non-binary.
Personally, I choose what the Real Academia Española says and use the generic use of the masculine form, which doesn´t have a discriminatory connotation. It is just easier.
Yes, let´s see how long it takes for the Real Academia Española to change that, it may be a long time still! But, going back to the topic, friendships within the queer community can have that intimacy and importance that is associated with that biological family or the family-in-law created with marriage in the heterosexual world. This happens especially in those contexts where same sex marriage is not possible for gay people.
. I think this happens as well with gay men, but it´s not as common. I don´t know the reason why. We could develop theories, analyze it. All I can say is that both in the community in Uruguay from another generation and in my own generation in the United States, I have witnessed these dynamics.
I have received so many letters, tweets, messages from readers, not just Uruguayan or Latin American, but lesbians and queer people from all over the world, telling me, in different languages, that this is the most moving portrait of a chosen family they have seen. Somebody sent me a photo of a library in Oklahoma where you could see a little recommendation sign next to the book Cantoras that said, “The best portrait of a chosen family I´ve ever seen in literature”. That really moved me, because it is a compliment to that possibility we create inside a culture.
I remember how much that moved me in the show, that you probably know, Tales of the City…
Yes exactly, the show is based on a series of books by Armistead Maupin, which depict what happens in the city in the 60s. Later in the 80s we see the time of AIDS and the trauma it brought because it was a time when many people rejected members of their own families because they were sick, and the queer community was the only one who took care of them. Many times, it was the lesbians who took care of the gay men, something rarely recognized, women, taking care of men when they were the ones most affected by this illness. The women in Uruguay who inspired the book Cantoras, are like a family, like sisters, they live completely chosen lives.
The stories in Cantoras are full of emotion. Sometimes friendship and love are mixed in this group of friends, and sometimes the erotic and the friendship are not separated. The book has to be read, but what role do you think that the Eros and the fondness they shared played on these relationships for them to continue today?I just talked about friendship, and I am not saying that a profound friendship is not possible in a heterosexual context, just that it is much more explicit in our community. In a heterosexual context, it is more common that when a person breaks up with another, or there is a divorce involving children, the man supports the kids; if there are no children, then each one goes their own way and don´t see each other ever again. It is also very common for a boyfriend to get jealous when they see their girlfriend´s ex. It’s a different ethic and dynamic. Between gay people, especially in a community as small as that in Uruguay in the 70s and 80s, if you stopped talking to all your ex-lovers, you´d end up without a community, that is part of how the dynamic works.
My wife and I have been together for 20 years, 18 years married. We were married for the first time in 2002, when it wasn´t legal in any part of the United States, then we were married again in San Francisco, when the mayor started handing out licenses. But the Supreme Court of California annulled it, so we married again in 2008, with all the social changes. But it was in 2002 that we had our first wedding. My mother-in-law hand-sewed our beautiful white dresses, and my wife´s ex-girlfriend was the maid of honor, that special friend who is at your side when you get married. One of my school friends was with me and my wife´s ex-girlfriend was with her! As I´m a very simple person, I didn´t know how to do make-up, so I let her ex do it for me. People said, ´will you really let her do your make-up? She´s going to wrong you! That´s what heterosexual people said.
So, in queer communities, that dynamic of going from love to hate or indifference so quickly doesn´t exist.
In heterosexual culture, there is like a curtain between genders regarding friendship and intimacy. You can see your friends outside of your marriage, but in a lesbian relationship, your friends become your partner´s friends too. This means that when the break-up is hard, and you don´t want to see that person any longer because it hurts too much, that decision can impact your close friendships. I had that experience, not personally, but with a close friend, and the community around that relationship had to choose sides. When you lose close friendships this way, you can feel very isolated; it really hurts. I think that the fact of not having a gender separation within the community changes the friendship dynamics. There is this stereotype between queer women that we keep being friends with our ex-girlfriends, and that ex-girlfriend is now with your girlfriend´s ex-girlfriend, for example. I think this happens as well with gay men, but it´s not as common. I don´t know the reason why. We could develop theories, analyze it. All I can say is that both in the community in Uruguay from another generation and in my own generation in the United States, I have witnessed these dynamics.
Time is also interesting, the many years that the cantoras in your novel share. Many meetings, disagreements, losses, and achievements take place, but friends are always there.
Yes, through time. Many people think that friendships at a young age are very important but then you go on with your life, get married, and friendships are not as important as before. But that is not how life works. The book goes on for 35 years, and those bonds are always as important. As I said, the women who inspired this novel, my friends, and their friends, are now retired. They no longer have that little house in Cabo Polonio (they sold it, and it was very sad for me because I would have liked to have bought it). But they sold what was their paradise, their shelter during the dictatorship, to buy land in the city where they are building their own little houses. Each of them has their own house, their independent lives but always enjoying each other’s company. At five in the afternoon, mate time in any of the homes is the mandatory meeting point, every day.