With candor and levity, Carolina De Robertis explores the sociopolitical transformations of Uruguay, the place she calls her root country, in The President and the Frog.
“I know what it feels like to carry one country inside your skin and a very different country outside,” says Carolina De Robertis, speaking from her backyard writing cottage in Oakland, California, as sun pours through the glass door onto the expansive bookshelf behind her. De Robertis’ family left Uruguay when her mother was pregnant with her, and the future author lived in the U.K. and Switzerland before settling in the U.S. at age 10. But fascination and longing are constantly pulling her to understand Uruguay better.
De Robertis acknowledges that for many American readers, her novels have put Uruguay on the map. “For years, it was almost as if it was an invisible country,” she says. “I’ve had people confuse it with Uganda.” In her epic Stonewall Award-winning 2019 novel, Cantoras, she explored the nature of desire amid the overwhelming oppression of late-1970s Uruguay’s totalitarian military government through the stories of five queer women. She continues her investigation into Uruguayan history in her sixth book, The President and the Frog, which centers on a fictionalized version of former Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica.
“You can tap the vein of humor at the same time you tap the vein of deeply serious topics.”
Throughout his remarkable life, Pepe Mujica has been an impoverished flower farmer, a guerrilla fighter in the 1960s left-wing Tupamaro movement and a political prisoner. He was sequestered in solitary confinement for over a decade—two years of which were spent in a grate-covered hole in the ground—and he was frequently subjected to torture. After his release, he served as a moderate progressive president from 2010 to 2015. He is also a celebrated champion of gay rights, and the nation’s equal marriage law was passed during his presidency in 2013.
This last fact is significant to De Robertis on a personal level; her parents disowned her for her sexuality. “They told me I couldn’t be both Uruguayan and gay,” she says. “Coming from this experience of being cut off from my roots by being cut off from my family of origin, I wanted to shatter the idea that I couldn’t be all of these things.”
In 2012, De Robertis moved with her wife to Uruguay, where they stayed for two years. “There was this feeling of progressive renewal there,” she says. “To live through the time in which gay marriage was legalized there, before the United States—to have my marriage be seen with dignity by the law of the land—was a very profound experience.”
The President and the Frog, set shortly after the 2016 U.S. election, takes the form of an interview between a Norwegian journalist and the former Uruguayan president (whom De Robertis never outright names as Mujica in the novel). Throughout their conversation, the president reveals himself to be a garrulous old man who is game to talk about anything—except for how he stayed sane while in prison.
It is in this dark psychological space that De Robertis raises profound questions about the human spirit's capacity for hope, with help from a bit of whimsy. In chapters that flash back to those difficult days in prison, we learn that the president survives his long imprisonment by carrying on conversations with a frog that visits his wretched hole in the ground. These scenes are surreal, and the frog is a brash and often laughable companion. “You can tap the vein of humor at the same time you tap the vein of deeply serious topics,” De Robertis says. One might say that doing so is a matter of survival.
“The river that is our reading lives can always sustain us.”
Along with solidifying Uruguay’s presence in readers’ minds, The President and the Frog also decenters the United States in the context of global, political and even spiritual questions. Throughout the novel, the journalist and the president discuss and draw comparisons between events in Uruguayan history and contemporary American politics, but the U.S. is only referred to as “the North.”
“When I was writing during the Trump years, I had a different sense of the potential to connect the raw material of this book to the urgency of what was happening in the United States,” De Robertis says. “Not just the United States, but globally. When Trump was elected in 2016, my Uruguayan friends stayed up all night to see the results. U.S. elections can have a devastating effect on people’s lives in other parts of the world—and positive ones as well.”
De Robertis drew thematic and formal inspiration for The President and the Frog from Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel, The Kiss of the Spider Woman, a story told in conversation between cellmates in an Argentine prison. De Robertis believes that Puig’s consideration of Latin American political revolution and queer liberation was groundbreaking. Beyond Puig, De Robertis returns to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison for inspiration. “The river that is our reading lives can always sustain us in the river that is our writing lives,” she says.
Along with being a writer, De Robertis is also a spouse, mother, translator and full-time creative writing professor at San Francisco State University. “I am not an adherent to the notion that a real writer writes every day,” she says. “I think that notion makes assumptions about how the writer’s life is set up. I have a fancy room to write in now, but my first novel was written at a kitchen table.”
There is a tentative knock at the door of the writing cottage, and a figure appears in the frame’s crack. Sunlight blots out any defining characteristics of the visitor.
“Happy anniversary!” the glowing figure yells. “Happy anniversary!”
“It’s our 21st anniversary,” De Robertis says, her eyes shining as her wife, Pamela, retreats from the frame. “Nineteen years married.”