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Published January 22, 2020

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Cantoras
Cantoras
by Carolina De Robertis

Hardcover (3 Sep 2019), 336 pages.
(Due out in paperback Jun 2020)
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9780525521693
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From the highly acclaimed, award-winning author of The Gods of Tango, a revolutionary new novel about five wildly different women who, in the midst of the Uruguayan dictatorship, find one another as lovers, friends, and ultimately, family.

In 1977 Uruguay, a military government has crushed political dissent with ruthless force. In an environment where citizens are kidnapped, raped, and tortured, homosexuality is a dangerous transgression. And yet Romina, Flaca, Anita "La Venus," Paz, and Malena--five cantoras, women who "sing"--somehow, miraculously, find on another and then, together, discover an isolated, nearly uninhabited cape, Cabo Polonio, which they claim as their secret sanctuary. Over the next thirty-five years, their lives move back and forth between Cabo Polonio and Montevideo, the city they call home, as they return, sometimes together, sometimes in pairs, with lovers in tow, or alone. And throughout, again and again, the women will be tested--by their families, lovers, society, and one another--as they fight to live authentic lives.

     A genre-defining novel and De Robertis's masterpiece, Cantoras is a breathtaking portrait of queer love, community, forgotten history, and the strength of the human spirit. At once timeless and groundbreaking, Cantoras is a tale about the fire in all our souls and those who make it burn.

Excerpted from Part I

1977-1979
I
Escape

The first time—which would become legend among them—they entered in darkness. Night enfolded the sand dunes. Stars clamored around a meager slice of moon.

They would find nothing in Cabo Polonio, the cart driver said: no electricity, and no running water. The cart driver lived in a nearby village but made that trip twice a week to supply the little grocery store that served the lighthouse keeper and a few scattered fishermen. There was no road in; you had to know your way. It was lonely out there, he remarked, glancing at them sideways, smiling to bare his remaining teeth, hinting, though he stopped short of asking any questions about what they were doing, why they were traveling to this of all places, just the five of them, without a man, and it was just as well because they wouldn't have had a decent answer. The trees gradually receded, but clumps of brush still reared their tousled heads from the smooth slopes as if just being born. The horse-drawn cart moved slowly, methodically, creaking with the weight of them, hoofs muffled in the loose sand. They were stunned by the sand dunes, the vast life of them. Each traveler became lost in her own thoughts. Their five-hour bus ride down the highway already seemed a distant memory, dislodged from this place, like a dream from which they'd now awakened. The dunes rippled out around them, a spare landscape, the landscape of another planet, as if in leaving Montevideo they'd also managed to leave Earth, like that rocket that some years ago had taken men to the moon, only they were not men, and this was not the moon, it was something else, they were something else, uncharted by astronomers. The lighthouse rose before them, with its slowly circling light. They approached the cape along a beach, the ocean to their right, shimmering in the dark, in constant conversation with the sand. The cart passed a few small, boxlike huts, fishermen's huts, black against the black sky. They descended from the cart, paid the driver, and carried their packs stuffed with food and clothes and blankets as they wandered around, staring into the night. The ocean surrounded them on three sides of this cape, this almost-island, a thumb extending off the hand of the known world. At last they found the right place, or the closest thing to it, an abandoned house that could act as windbreak for their camp. It was half-built, with walls only partially constructed and no roof. Four unfinished walls and open sky. Inside, there was plenty of space for them; it would have been an ample house if it hadn't been left to be eaten by the elements. After they set up their things, they went outside and built a fire. A breeze rose. It cooled their skin as whiskey warmed it, flask moving from hand to hand. Cheese sandwiches and salami for dinner around the campfire. The thrill of lighting the wood, keeping it burning. Laughter spiked their conversation, and when it lulled, the silence had a glow to it, crackled by flames. They were happy. They were not used to being happy. The strange feeling kept them up too late together, giddy with victory and amazement. They had done it. They were out. They had shed the city like a hazardous garment and come to the edge of the world.

Finally they drifted to their blanket piles and slept to the gentle pulse of waves.

But deep in the night, Paz startled awake. The sky glittered. The moon was low, about to set. The ocean filled her ears and she took it as an invitation, impossible to resist. She slid out of her covers and walked down over the rocks, toward the shore. The ocean roared like a hunger, reaching for her feet.

She was the youngest in the group, sixteen years old. She'd lived under the dictatorship since she was twelve. She hadn't known air could taste like this, so wide, so open. Her body a welcome. Skin awake. The world was more than she had known, even if only for this instant, even if only in this place. She let her lips part and the breeze glided into her mouth, fresh on her tongue, full of stars. How did so much brightness fit in the night sky? How could so much ocean fit inside her? Who was she in this place? Standing on that shore, staring out at the Atlantic, with those women who were not like other women sleeping a few meters away, she felt a sensation so foreign that she almost collapsed under its spell. She felt free.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis. Copyright © 2019 by Carolina De Robertis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Examine the symbolism of the Prow. Why do you think they choose to name it as they do? In what way is life at the Prow the antithesis of life in Montevideo? How does each woman use the house and Cabo Polonio to heal and expand? In what ways do the beach and the shack fulfill a different need for each woman while still proving their common need to be themselves?
  2. Discuss Paz's first sexual encounter with Puma. Why does she insist that they cannot understand when she recounts the story to her friends? Are the other women right to judge and label the encounter? How does Paz come to view this early experience when she is older? What does she mean when she thinks to herself, while working in La Piedrita, "What I can't give to Puma I will give to the Pumas of the world" (246)?
  3. Explore the linguistic and syntactic decisions De Robertis makes as she narrates instances of actions of the oppressive authority. Why do you think she opts for fragmented, stream-of-consciousness sentences? Consider the similarities and differences in the recounting of Paz, Romina and Malena's experiences.
  4. If you could go back in time and visit one of the women, who would you like to have lunch with? And why?
  5. Examine the theme of identity as it is portrayed in the novel. How are names used as a vehicle of identity, both for and against the women? Think about Malena's assigned number in the clinic, the renaming of Anita (La Venus), and the end of the novel when the women discuss the variety of names they now have to describe their sexualities. What power is there in a name, a label? Who gives it power?
  6. On page 115, while discussing Flaca and La Venus's relationship, Romina tells Paz, "We don't have lasting things." Who is the "we" she is referring to? What sort of "things" don't last for them, and why? For something to be a "lasting thing," must it never experience change? Do you believe by the end of the novel that Romina would still believe this to be true?
  7. Explore La Venus's relationship with Ariella. What does La Venus find so alluring about her new lover? What parts of herself is she able to explore in this relationship that she could not with Flaca? Why do you think La Venus doesn't tell Ariella her given name? How does this relationship—and its eventual dissolution—change the course of La Venus's life? As you answer this question, consider La Venus's decision to leave her husband; her relationship with Mario; and her eventual career as an artist.
  8. Jacqueline Woodson had this say about Cantoras: '"a stunning lullaby to a revolution." What do you think she means by this ? What would you say to Ms. Woodson to continue the conversation?
  9. Discuss Romina's commitment to the resistance. What fuels it? What form does it take, and how does it interact with her trauma over time? Consider, as you answer this question, Romina's relationship with Felipe and with her parents; her family's history; her job as a history teacher; and the specter of the Only Three.
  10. When the dictatorship ends, both Paz and Flaca experience a kind of sadness, in conjunction with relief. Discuss this sadness. From what does it originate in both women? What is the novel suggesting about time lost to silence and suppression?
  11. On page 182, Romina tells La Venus, "How do we restore what's broken? If you shatter a plate, it's never whole again." What does the novel suggest about the possibility of repair after enormous trauma? What is necessary for individuals—and entire countries—to recover?
  12. Examine each woman's relationship with her parents. Which characters' parents give them strength? Does familial rejection hold them back or propel them forward to create "found family"? How does each woman's relationship with her parents affect the ways in which she understands and interacts with both the dictatorship and her own identities?
  13. In this novel, silence is both a way of safeguarding and hurting oneself. How does your view of Malena change from her mysterious introduction to her tragic ending? Did Malena only have herself to blame for suffering in silence, or did her friends take Malena's unwavering presence and quiet but powerful support, for granted? Do you agree with Paz that "silence killed her" (313)? Why or why not?
  14. Discuss the conclusion of the novel, paying close attention to the theme of belonging. What kind of belonging did the characters crave as young women living under the dictatorship? What kind of belonging did they rebel against? Do they feel, at the end of the novel, that they belong? Why or why not?
  15. How do you feel about the time gap at the end of the novel? Are you surprised by any of the characters and what they are doing now?  How do you deal with the reality that the horrors recounted here are not pure fiction, they existed within the lifetimes of those alive today and for some are still occurring?

Suggested Reading
Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Passion According to Carmela by Marcos Aguinis
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Knopf. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A sobering exploration of life under authoritarian rule, an unabashed celebration of queer sexuality and a generous work of historical fiction.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis follows five characters who share a house, troubles, joys and parts of their lives over the course of three decades. They also share the secret of being "cantoras," women who are attracted to women. The Spanish word "cantora" refers to a woman singer or, as one of the characters suggestively puts it, "a woman who sings."

The novel opens under the Uruguayan military dictatorship in the late 1970s (see Beyond the Book), as four young women and one teenage girl make their way to Cabo Polonio, a remote area on the country's eastern coast. The gathering has been orchestrated by Flaca and Romina, former lovers who have remained friends. Flaca has brought her new girlfriend Anita, a woman trapped in a miserable marriage who the others soon dub "La Venus" due to her stunning beauty, and Paz, a 15-year-old Flaca met at her parents butcher shop who reminded her of her younger self. Romina has invited Malena, a taciturn and mysterious office worker who Romina assures Flaca is "one of us."

This first Cabo Polonio meeting proves to be one of many. The women are painfully aware of the potential consequences of both homosexuality and unauthorized gatherings under the dictatorship, including torture and indefinite imprisonment. Nevertheless, after tasting the freedom of the isolated coastline, where they bask in a sense of community away from the heavily surveilled streets of Montevideo, they decide to buy and fix up an old house in the area to share as a refuge between the five of them. In the following years, as they all struggle with life under authoritarianism, their meetings in Cabo Polonio are irregular and their makeshift paradise often seems like more trouble than it's worth. Still, the women maintain their shared space both literally and figuratively.

While the novel contains disturbing subject matter that some prospective readers may wish to avoid altogether (chiefly rape and conversion therapy), it delivers pleasure in equal measures. Along with tender and often intense sex scenes, it revels in the good humor and genuine delight the women find in one another's company. Surrounding both pleasure and pain, however, is the grim monotony of their everyday lives in a military state, which challenges each character in her attempts to preserve a sense of self. By focusing on the everyday while also stretching the novel out over a longer period, De Robertis is able to show the persistent and complex psychological processes that trauma, grief and love put into action.

The passage of time is a general theme in the book, and De Robertis also includes subtle and direct nods to another novel in the queer canon that does the same: Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. La Venus at one point proclaims the classic work to be her "Bible" and Woolf's character Lily Briscoe "the only Jesus I need," a playful declaration that marks a moment of happiness and stability for La Venus. Not every character finds the same degree of peace and resilience. For all, however, time remains a palpable presence in the book, one that enables them to process their experiences for better or worse.

Cantoras is a self-assured masterpiece that despite its anxious moments proceeds at the unworried pace of a leisurely seaside stroll. At times the complicated multi-character plot feels fragmented, like several broken pieces piled on top of one another, but this fragmentation eventually resolves into a whole, resulting in a sensation like waves moving over one another. Reading it, you may become invested in a particular love story before it ends. You may take for granted the dictatorship and its role in the book before it, too, begins to undergo shifts and changes. But what most significantly endures is the small pocket of humanity, however imperfect, that the women have created for themselves.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Cook

Publishers Weekly
De Robertis does a fine job of probing the harsh realities of what it takes to carve out a life of freedom under an oppressive government.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Rich and luscious, De Robertis' writing feels like a living thing, lapping over the reader like the ocean...A stunning novel about queer love, womanhood, and personal and political revolution.

Author Blurb Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award winner and author of Red at the Bone
Carolina's writing, as always, blew me away. Cantoras is a stunning lullaby to revolution—and each woman in this novel sings it with a deep ferocity. Again and again, I was lifted, then gently set down again—either through tears, rage, or laughter. Days later, I am still inside this song of a story.

Author Blurb R. O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries
Cantoras is a wise, brilliantly compassionate, wide-ranging novel about women in Uruguay, and about the power and realities of love. Carolina De Robertis is a force: prepare to be astonished.

Author Blurb Cristina García, author of Here in Berlin
A lyrical, richly sensory novel about a group of renegade cantoras—slang for queer women—who claim a beach refuge during the worst years of the dictatorship in Uruguay, and beyond. Together they steal time from oppression of all kinds, unspooling the infinity of themselves. Pointedly relevant to our own dangerous age, Carolina De Robertis has gifted us a majestic work of song and imagination, a handbook to survival for us all.

Print Article Publisher's View  

The Uruguayan Military Dictatorship (1973-1985)

Juan Maria BordaberryThe small country of Uruguay (about the size of Missouri) is bordered by Argentina to the west, Brazil to the north, and the Atlantic to the south and east. Military rule began there in 1973 following a coup conducted in cooperation with then-president Juan María Bordaberry (1928-2011), and lasted for the following 12 years. During this time, the Uruguayan military committed numerous human rights abuses, and at one point held the largest percentage of political prisoners in the world.

The years leading up to 1973 set the stage for the events that produced the military regime. In the late '60s, the Tupamaros, a leftist revolutionary group, gained influence in Uruguay during a time of poor economic conditions and public unrest. Jorge Pacheco Areco, who came to power from the vice presidency when the newly elected president died in 1967, outlawed leftist news sources and political parties, and requested assistance in suppressing the Tupamaros from the American government. (At the time, the U.S. was concerned about communism spreading in Latin America, and worked to exercise influence over countries it viewed as potentially sympathetic to U.S. interests, such as Uruguay and Brazil.) Tensions continued to increase, with the Tupamaros going so far as to kidnap Uruguayan and American government officials, and the Uruguayan government depending on the military to maintain control.

In 1971, citizens cast their votes in the next presidential election, and Bordaberry, the candidate for the incumbent Colorado party, won. Members of the Frente Amplio, the united leftist party, claimed their campaign had been the target of harassment. Declassified documents from the Nixon administration suggest that Brazil may have worked to rig the election against the Frente Amplio with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. government.

In February 1973, Bordaberry agreed to give the military an advisory role in the government as part of the National Security Council. He went on to dissolve the General Assembly, Uruguay's bicameral legislative branch, allowing the military to take control of the state. The new government sought to publicly align itself with Western capitalist powers, continuing to enforce an anti-communist ideology.

The military regime was ruthless in silencing citizens who opposed it, jailing thousands for political crimes, and implementing torture as standard practice. Among the imprisoned were not only Tupameros, but people associated with anti-government activity for any number of reasons, including those belonging to unions, the banned socialist and communist parties, and other organizations military members perceived as subversive.

As Carolina De Robertis shows in Cantoras, which follows the lives of five queer women throughout the middle and later years of the military regime, homosexuality was not illegal at the time, but sexual orientations and gender presentations perceived to differ from the norm were not well tolerated. The government banned those with "open sexual deviations" from serving in the military, and it wasn't uncommon for transgender people to suffer abuse.

In 1976, Bordaberry attempted to eliminate political parties in Uruguay and appoint himself permanent dictator. The military subsequently made him resign, and in the following years took steps toward reforming the government, including creating a new constitution. However, 57% of voters rejected the new constitution in 1980. As a result, the government was forced to take measures to move the nation back toward democracy. In 1984, the public elected Julio María Sanguinetti to the presidency. Sanguinetti took office in 1985, and Uruguay began its return to civilian rule.

In 2010, shortly before his death, Bordaberry received a 31-year sentence for his part in the 1973 coup, as well as crimes against humanity. Despite Bordaberry's conviction, many feel that the Uruguayan government has not sufficiently accounted for human rights violations during the dictatorship, including the disappearance of many citizens that have never been found. Some activists were especially disappointed in President José Mujica, a former member of the Tupamaros who held office from 2010 to 2015, for his failure to challenge the widespread amnesty for members of the military that Sanguinetti established following his own election.

At the same time, Uruguay is now often considered to be the most progressive country in Latin America, as well as the most socially inclusive and LGBT+-friendly. It struck down the dictatorship's anti-homosexual military ban in 2009 and legalized gay marriage in 2013 through a 23-8 Senate vote, becoming the second Latin American country to do so after Argentina. It also passed a 2018 law expanding transgender rights, which among other reforms makes it possible for trans people who were persecuted under the military regime to receive compensation.

Uruguayan dictator Juan María Bordaberry

By Elisabeth Cook

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