“It’s possible to write about this without minimizing the horrors, not to airbrush reality, but to create a fully human story.”
In Cantoras, Carolina De Robertis has crafted a masterful novel about the meaning of desire in an age of repression. In a narrative that spans many decades and features five central characters, the author explores trauma, passion, memory and the fragile places where all three intersect. We asked her about some of the decisions that went into the construction of the novel.
Cantoras—both the word itself and its meaning within the story—is a beautiful title. How—and when in the writing process—did it come to you?
Thanks for saying that; I’m so glad it speaks to you. In fact, the title for this book came at the very end. I’d had a long string of other working titles along the way. Cantoras means “female singers” or “women who sing,” and was used by the real-life women who inspired this book as code for lesbians. There are so many layers to this notion of what it means to “sing”—from sexual pleasure to having a voice to the idea that fashioning a queer life might be a kind of artistry. And of course the containing of “female” and “singer” in a single word is untranslatable.
There are some devastating depictions of emotional, physical and psychological abuse in this novel. These depictions are not untethered from the historical record. How difficult was it to write these sections, knowing people have suffered—and in some places, continue to suffer—similar violence?
Two things propelled me through this: first, the knowledge that I was drawing from real histories, and that they deserve to be brought into the light. Writing can be a way of honoring those who’ve suffered real traumas and often surmounted them. And when a story has not yet been fully reflected in formal histories, the telling has a purpose, or so we hope.
Second: My early years as a rape crisis counselor taught me not only about the vast spectrum of human pain but also of our equally vast capacity for resilience. It’s possible to write about this without minimizing the horrors, not to airbrush reality, but to create a fully human story. Toni Morrison said she believes all her novels have not only happy endings, but “splendid endings,” in which the characters in some way arrive at power inside themselves. I had the incredibly good fortune to hear her say this live onstage. Her interviewer was shocked. “Even Beloved?” he said. “Of course Beloved,” she replied. I think about this all the time.
The story of Cantoras spans more than 35 years. Did you know at the beginning of the project exactly what time frame you wanted, or did the chronological boundaries of the story change as you were working on it?
I don’t always know, when I start writing a novel, whether my initial vision for the structure will hold or transform along the way. But the idea of spanning 35 years was present from the beginning, the urge to somehow weave the narrative forward to 2013, when gay marriage became legal in Uruguay. I don’t mean to suggest, at all, that same-sex marriage is the endpoint of queer liberation. But it has been a milestone.
I was living in Uruguay when the law was passed, and attended the wedding of two men who’d been together for 35 years, whose couplehood had traveled through the silences of a dictatorship to this, as had the lives of the women whose stories I’d been listening to for years. I hoped to capture this greater narrative arc of the culture along with the characters’ own inner and outer journeys.
You mention in the acknowledgements section that your first trip to Cabo Polonio—perhaps the central location in which the novel is set—took place in 2001, when you were “a young queer woman from the diaspora seeking my own connection to Uruguay.” If you could go back and give this novel to that young woman, what do you think her reaction to it would be?
I think she’d keel over in shock, and that’s the truth. I think she needed this book. The young woman I was then had been told by her parents that she couldn’t be both Uruguayan and gay, right as they were in the process of disowning her. (And no, they have not “come around.”) It was a raw and vulnerable time for me, but also a time of blasting open and finding my voice. Those things aren’t separate. As Jeanette Winterson puts it, “What we notice in stories is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”
One of the most striking themes of the book is the obliteration of stories—the reality that for every tale of injustice told, there are countless others that are forever forgotten. How did you approach a storytelling challenge such as this, where you’re putting together a narrative anchored to history, but a history whose memory hole is so gaping?
I did a great deal of listening. One of the characters in this book is based on one of my closest friends in Uruguay, and other characters are inspired by friends of hers who generously shared their stories and gave me their blessing to blend them into fiction. That was toward the end; the initial gathering started 18 years ago. I’m also drawing on more formal research, in scholarly and historical text—but you’re right to point out that there are many unrecorded histories, and even the gathering of oral history will only take you so far. At some point, the novelist has to leap head first into the pool of imagination in order to more freely explore the truth.
“At some point, the novelist has to leap head first into the pool of imagination in order to more freely explore the truth.”
Cantoras is one of the most exquisite books I’ve ever read about desire—its many meanings, its subversive power, its capacity to at once imprison and liberate. Did your own feelings about the nature of desire change as you were writing the novel?
That’s very beautiful to hear, thank you. I don’t know that my relationship to the nature of desire changed, exactly, but it certainly deepened and expanded from spending time with these characters, and from striving to bring them to life. That’s one of the incredible things about being a novelist: constant discovery, constant learning. And desire, in particular, is one of the most complex and mysterious phenomena in our human lives—don’t you think?
This book is being published in a moment when totalitarianism appears, on so many fronts, to be resurgent. What do you hope readers take from this novel about the nature of oppression and the ways in which it can infect every facet of life?
While this book is set in a particular place and time, it’s also absolutely my hope that readers will find resonance for our current world. So many of us are grappling with the cost of authoritarianism and various forms of bigotry, from national to intimate spheres. We’re asking ourselves big questions about what it means to resist, to belong in the face of systemic hostility and to shape the culture we long for. If my book can provide a drop of fuel or inspiration even for a single reader, I’d be honored and very glad.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Cantoras.
Author photo by Pamela Denise Harris