In the dirty, crowded, and impoverished immigrant barrios of Buenos Aires of 1913, a 17-year-old girl arrives with little more than some clothes and her grandfather's violin.
Her name is Leda, and she's the character at the heart of Carolina de Robertis' third novel, The Gods of Tango.
Leda, an Italian girl, was sent for by her cousin-husband, but widowed before her ship even lands in South America. She soon finds comfort and excitement in a new kind of music that's filling the city's courtyards, bars and brothels: the tango.
"Many people in the United States think of the tango as a dance," de Robertis tells NPR's Eric Westervelt. "And it is a dance, it is a beautiful and erotic dance, but it is also a very rich historical and musical phenomenon."
In 1913, tango is new, it's vibrant; at first the domain of the poor and working classes, it's coming into its own and gaining an elite audience. The music entrances Leda. But to play the tango — and survive — she has to pass herself off as a man.
De Robertis tells Westervelt about her own immigrant background and why being queer means always coming out.
On the often-overlooked history of tango music
It includes people of African descent, immigrants from Russia, from Italy, from many parts of Europe who brought their instruments and their sounds and these sounds mixed in the cauldron of Buenos Aires to become a new music. So I wanted to explore the immigrant experience, and for a woman immigrant, the only way for her to fully access the underworld of the tango on her own terms without becoming a prostitute was to dress as a man.
On how tango expanded to gain an audience in Europe
The book opens in 1913; it's the year that the tango caught fire in Paris. And when it caught fire in Paris, then the elite of Buenos Aires began to pay attention and say, "Wow, we have this thing under out feet that we have disdained and Paris is listening. Maybe we should put it in our cabarets."
On whether, as an immigrant, she shared Leda's mix of fear and exhilaration
My parents left South America when my mother was pregnant with me, so I immigrated for the first time in the womb and I was born already an immigrant in England. And then my family moved to Switzerland when I was 5, and to California when I was 10, so I've had many layers of that experience of being an other, the loneliness that can arise from it, the sense of invisibility but also the potential for cultural freedom. When you're an outsider, it can give you room to shape your own relationship to culture on your own terms.
On how Leda's attraction to women factors into her choice to pass as a man
In the story, Leda is not conscious of that reason when she decides to start dressing as a man. She's thinking about her survival. And it's only later that this other piece rises into her conscious mind, and pretty soon she can't deny her attraction to women. She's spending all this time with these male tango musicians for whom it is normal to frequent brothels together that she really needs to figure out how she's going to engage with that.
On whether she based the character on Billy Tipton, the jazz musician who passed as a man
The idea for Leda arose before I encountered Billy Tipton's history, so finding the history was more of a beautiful confirmation of the work that I was doing and of the truth that women have passed as men to survive, to express their gender identity, to live more freely within their sexual identity and for many other reasons throughout history and that in fact there are silences around that history but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened.
On whether her own experiences inspired how she wrote about Leda's life
Certainly my personal experience doesn't exactly parallel the experience of Leda. But I am a queer woman, married to a woman and I think that all of us, as queers, have the experience of negotiating being out and not being out. As a queer person, you never finish coming out because you're always having new engagements with the world, and that's a constant negotiation that is part of the experience of being queer. ... one could see it as another beautiful and complex in-between.
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