Photo credit: Pamela Denise Harris
Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about refuge. Perhaps you can imagine why. Perhaps, dear reader, the subject has been on your mind as well.
As a writer, I’ve long held the following three words from the late, utterly peerless Toni Morrison as a beacon: novels are inquiries
. Novels arise from burning questions. They are born from an urgent need to explore what we want to know, and, if not to ever fully understand, at least to swim outward, beyond ourselves, for there is no other artistic genre more uniquely suited to transport us into the skin and consciousness of our fellow human beings, and this is one of the reasons novels have saved me, so many times, not only as a writer, but as a reader.
Burning questions: What does it mean to find refuge? How will we shape a culture where everyone can belong and be safe? How do we live fully — radiantly — when for too many of us the world seems bent on our erasure?
You may think these questions are related to our current times. And they absolutely are. But they also precede them. And although my new novel, Cantoras
, arises from these questions, and although I wrote most of it in the past three years, the seeds of the book were planted long before that. Eighteen years ago, to be precise.
is a portrait of five queer Uruguayan women who meet in 1976, during a brutal military dictatorship, and form bonds that carry them through the decades, as they love and dream and search for ways to survive. Although it’s a work of fiction, it’s inspired by the lives of real women, whom I met on a trip to Uruguay in 2001. I took that trip to connect to my country of origin on my own terms. I was newly in love with the woman of my dreams, the woman I’d one day marry, and my parents were in the process of disowning me, saying, among other things, that I could not be Uruguayan anymore because I was gay. Refuge was a question mark, already burning. If you’re an outsider in one country for being an immigrant, an outsider in another country for being gay, and an outsider in the very family where you were born, then where is the refuge? How to belong?
I believe in fiction’s power to address the gaps in formal histories, to fill silences with song.
In my suitcase, I brought the handwritten phone number of an acquaintance’s aunt, who was said to be a bona fide Uruguayan lesbian. (When your country of origin is small, and you run into a fellow member of the diaspora, these things can happen; one moment you’re mentioning where you’re from at a community organizing meeting in San Francisco’s Mission District, the next moment you’re swapping stories about aunts.) Once in Uruguay, at my grandmother’s house, I dialed that number with shaking hands. The woman on the other end of the line was warm and easygoing. I didn’t mention that I was gay or knew she was gay or anything about my fervent amorphous undercover quest, only that I’d met her niece in California. She said she’d be glad to meet, but alas, she was about to leave town for a beach called Cabo Polonio. It was up the coast, close to the Brazilian border. "Ah," I said. "All right." There was a pause.
Then she said, "Would you like to come?”
And so, the following night, I found myself far from my grandmother’s house, on an all-terrain truck open to the stars, crossing sand dunes alongside, yes, it’s true, bona fide Uruguayan lesbians. There are no roads into Cabo Polonio: it’s a small thumb of land surrounded by the ocean on three sides, a nature reserve with no running water or electricity. A single lighthouse towers over rocks where sea lions bask in the sun. I’d never seen — nor would I ever see — a place like it anywhere else in the world. Back then, in 2001, Cabo Polonio had not yet been profiled in The New York Times
Travel section, nor had it yet become fashionable among more well-heeled South American tourists. It was sleepy, rustic, bohemian. The edge of the world. I saw bars lit by dozens of candles; huts perched on rocks; waves crashing majestically against the sand; chickens and horses roaming free. But most of all, I saw women who’d quietly lived their lives under the radar, and found innovative and gorgeous ways to survive.
For, as it turned out, these women belonged to a circle of friends that had been taking refuge at this beach since the dictatorship era, when the nation lived in terror, and gay people all the more. I was stunned to have found them, to be welcomed in, allowed to listen. As we bathed in the ocean, stopped by the ramshackle store for basic supplies, hoisted water in buckets, and roasted freshly slaughtered sheep’s meat in the moonlight, we talked. I shared some stories — for example, I taught my new friends the word “dyke,” and reveled in the beautiful way they pronounced it, daik
; I told them my parents had insisted there were no gay people in Uruguay, and they cracked up and exclaimed, “then how come we call ourselves ‘Uru–gay’?” — but, mostly, I listened. And the listening transformed me.
They existed for themselves, as all people have the right to do; and yet, their existence also made me more possible, expanded the breathable terrain of the world. They taught me hidden truths of my root culture, and that even the simplest acts — hauling a bucket, saying a kind word — matter in the shaping of a refuge. They showed me that affirming your own truth from the margins can be an act of blazing courage that makes a shift, however tiny, in the foundations of a world in which it is your birthright to belong.
Eighteen years later, a few of these women have become beloved friends, part of my chosen family, tías to my children. And their wider circle has become the inspiration for a novel, Cantoras
, whose title means “female singers,” or “women who sing,” and was code for lesbians in their innovated slang of the dictatorship era. I burned to write that novel, to do my best to give their stories a fictionalized home, because I’d never seen their truths reflected in the official histories of Uruguay, let alone outside Uruguay — and I believe in fiction’s power to address the gaps in formal histories, to fill silences with song.
I also needed to write this novel because, in the past few years, those burning questions — about refuge, about belonging, about living radiantly against the odds — have fanned into a blaze. These are dangerous times. Hate crimes have spiked. So have fires and storms. Too many of us live in fear of attack. Immigrants, women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people are just some of those who are targets, fighting for room to breathe. And no matter which communities we’re part of, no matter who we are, we’re all affected. We all have a stake in the future we create, and yes, it will be us who create it, all of us, collectively, through actions large and small.
In that context, the story of queer women surviving a dictatorship in a distant little country might also be a story for all of us, for it is a story about refuge. And though this novel doesn’t so much answer the questions as explore them, as novels are meant to do, I’ve personally begun to wonder whether the only refuge we have left in our difficult, dazzling world is the refuge we create ourselves, and with each other, through the stories we tell, the truths we affirm, the bonds we forge, the change we make, the kindness and courage with which we live.
And such a refuge is not nothing. It matters. It radiates. It sings.
÷ ÷ ÷
Carolina De Robertis
is a writer of Uruguayan origins and the author of The Gods of Tango
, and the international bestseller The Invisible Mountain
. Her novels have been translated into 17 languages and have garnered a Stonewall Book Award, Italy's Rhegium Julii Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and numerous other honors. She is also a translator of Latin American and Spanish literature and editor of the anthology Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times
. In 2017, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts named De Robertis on its 100 List of "people, organizations, and movements that are shaping the future of culture." She teaches at San Francisco State University and lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and two children. Cantoras
is her newest book.