Internationally bestselling novelist Carolina De Robertis is one of the winners of the 2016 Stonewall Book Awards, which were announced earlier this month by the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) of the American Library Association (ALA). The Stonewall Book Awards are given annually to works of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience. The Gods of Tango received the Stonewall Book Award - Barbara Gittings Award for Fiction, which is the only award for fiction for adults.
Queer Uruguayan-American writer Carolina De Robertis has a track record of historical novels that tackle politics in Latin America--revolution, coups, dictatorships, and armed resistance. Her first novel, The Invisible Mountain was a sprawling, intergenerational Latin American saga, spanning over a hundred years of political history in South America. Her second book Perla, was a novel of magical realism, a haunting tale of the disappeared in Argentina. While The Invisible Mountain included queer characters, as any multi-generational saga realistically would do, they were part of a large ensemble cast.
Her third and Stonewall-winning novel, The Gods of Tango, brings queer stories center stage. It is both a continuation and a departure of her previous work: the coming of age/coming out story of an immigrant to Argentina at the turn of the 20th century. A sizzling tale of sexual awakening and gender rebellion.
The Gods of Tango is set in 1913. Seventeen-year-old Leda, carrying only a small trunk and her father's cherished violin, leaves her Italian village for a new home in Argentina. In Buenos Aires, she finds herself stranded and alone, yet seduced by the music that underscores life in the city: tango, born from lower-class immigrant voices, now the illicit, scandalous dance of brothels and cabarets. To survive, Leda cuts off her hair, binds her breasts, and becomes "Dante," a young man who joins a troupe of tango musicians bent on conquering the salons of high society. Gradually, the lines between Leda and Dante begin to blur, and the queer erotic desires she's long suppressed reveal themselves, jeopardizing not only her musical career, but also her life.
Carolina De Robertis is no stranger to the risk of coming out. She was born to parents who not only thought her attraction to women was wrong, but that it negated her Uruguayan heritage. When her father initially disowned her at age 20, he acted as if he were speaking not only for her male-dominated family, but for all of South America.
Starting in her 20s, Carolina embarked on a series of visits to her family's homeland that challenged her father's bigoted declarations. On the first of these visits, Carolina discovered Uruguay's queer community.
Carolina explains that the seed for Tango was planted when she lay on a remote beach that had become a refuge for queer Uruguayans. She was reading the brilliant British lesbian historical novel Tipping the Velvet. She was so absorbed in the story that she got a terrible sunburn. Her Uruguayan friends--none of whom could read English--all wanted to know what was so compelling that she didn't even notice her own skin burning. Carolina did her best to explain the delicious juxtaposition of such an explicit lesbian sexual awakening, against the historical backdrop of stuffy post-Victorian era Britain. As she sat with her newfound queer Uruguayan community, she thought to herself: "someone needs to write a book like this about South America." A decade and a half later, that someone would be her.
Tango is a profound departure for Carolina, who until now has been known--and celebrated--as a contemporary Latin American novelist in the tradition of heterosexual writers Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. However, in many ways, she has been gearing up to write this book all her life. And the book, in turn, gains vibrancy and power from her personal experience with adversity.
Overall, there's a depth to Carolina's rendering of female sexuality. Carolina worked as a rape crisis counselor, and also participated in the Bay Area's queer, sex-positive community in her 20s, among pioneers such as Carol Queen and others who were pushing the envelope of erotic expression and gender liberation. In Carolina's rendering of women's sexual expression in the book, we can feel her breadth of experience from counseling survivors of sexual trauma to her own experiences in erotic play. She reveals both the brilliance and shadow of female sexuality, creating a depth and richness that is well-earned. Leda/Dante's sexual awakening feels grounded, powerful, risky, and real.
But beyond the bedroom, Leda/Dante is a powerful character in his/her experience of gender fluidity. Carolina's play with pronouns throughout the book is fascinating. Leda doesn't begin with an internal sense of herself as male, rather, she begins with a yearning to do what only men are allowed to do. Through living as a man, Leda begins transforming her internal sense of gender through her experience.
Just as Leda passes as a man in public, she learns to pass as a man in bed. Some critics in heterosexual publications found the sexual content unbelievable. Such critics either insisted or implied that a woman having sex with other women a hundred years ago would never have convinced them that she was a man with a penis. And that is where they are wrong. Carolina did extensive research about how a woman might succeed in this charade a hundred years ago.
In this way, the Stonewall award is a wonderful vindication for the book. It flies in the face of the critics who had deeply limited understanding of both the histories and the possibilities of sexuality. But above all, it flies in the face of the rejection Carolina faced from her parents. Not only has she fully embraced herself as a queer woman, but she gets to be celebrated by her larger community for reclaiming queer stories throughout history.