In "The Gods of Tango" (Alfred A. Knopf: 384 pp., $26.95), the third novel by Carolina de Robertis, a young girl named Leda takes a journey across the sea from the small Italian village of Alazzano to the pulsing city of Buenos Aires to marry her cousin, Dante. On hearing of her fiancé's death, Leda decides to distance herself from the restricted world of migrant women and dress as a man, seduced by the burgeoning tango scene.
As Leda, now known as Dante, joins a group of musicians playing the tango, her journey takes on a sensual turn. Filled with the visceral sights and sounds of 20th century Argentina, "The Gods of Tango" becomes a story about crossing gender, sexual and geographical borders while simultaneously tracing the origins of tango as it migrated into the Americas.
De Robertis, who spoke by phone from her home in Oakland, moved to Los Angeles from her native Uruguay when she was 10. While researching this novel she returned to Uruguay to learn the tango, but much of the novel was written in California. De Robertis has always felt "deeply at home" in the Golden State, crediting it for allowing her to pursue questions about "the nature of culture and sexuality and race and the path to getting free."
I grew up with a sort of creation story about my great-grandparents who migrated from a tiny Italian village when they were 17. Very quickly I also realized that this was going to be a book about the cultural phenomenon of the tango because it's the same period. The time of my great-grandparents' arrival was the 1910s. These waves of immigrants to Argentina and Uruguay were about the same time as the same populations came to the United States, was also the same period in which the tango arose in Buenos Aires.
That's not a coincidence — tango arose out of the cultural blending and encounters of poor immigrants and poor rural workers, people of African descent who are completely invisible in the history of Argentina and largely invisible in the history of Uruguay to this day. And so after I began to research this period of immigrants and the tango, it became clear to me that those two really meshed into the same story — that the story of the tango is the story of a tectonic social shift in Argentina and Uruguay.
And how did that develop into the story around Leda and her journey into passing as a man?
I really wanted to write a story that delved into the raw unvarnished world of the tango at the time. To this day if you go to Buenos Aires you will notice that almost all the waiters [in restaurants and cafes, where Leda initially hopes to work as a migrant woman to Buenos Aires] are men — the reason for that was that this was made law in the early 1910s because there was so much concern that women waiting tables were also turning tricks. So the only way for my protagonist to respond to her hunger for the tango was for her to take this journey to push the boundaries of gender.
There's no way you could have guessed how timely the topic would be.
You know, it's interesting because I started researching this book in 2010, when plunging into writing a novel about a woman in Latin America dressing as a man having a transgender relationship to her gender identity and being attracted to women felt like an incredibly risky move as an artist. There was no predicting that in five years that mainstream society would open up so much more space for dialogue about transgender experiences and same-sex attraction. Transgender people have always been a part of society, they've just been incredibly vulnerable, stigmatized and marginalized.
There's so much atmosphere and detail about Buenos Aires and the tango. What did you do to research that?
I of course listened to as much music as I could, from the early days of "El Chochlo" to the fusion works of Astor Piazzolla and the Gotan Project. I also studied the tango. In the United States it's perceived as the very narrow stereotype that we get from Hollywood — the woman with the red flower in her hair. It's a very gendered thing. And the tango absolutely is a dance, and it can be very romantic, but it is also so much more than that. It's not just about the dance moves, it's also about the way the music evolved, the way people lived and breathed it. That feel of it, that feeling of longing, of yearning — that comes from this sort of wave of immigrants who are missing their homelands and who couldn't go back.