Interview with Carolina De Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

If you’ve missed out on Carolina De Robertis’ books before, you need to check out Perla, which was one of my favorites. She has a new book due out in July, The Gods of Tango.

About the Book from GoodReads:

February 1913: seventeen-year-old Leda, carrying only a small trunk and her father’s cherished violin, leaves her Italian village for a new home, and a new husband, in Argentina. Arriving in Buenos Aires, she discovers that he has been killed, but she remains: living in a tenement, without friends or family, on the brink of destitution. Still, she is seduced by the music that underscores life in the city: tango, born from lower-class immigrant voices, now the illicit, scandalous dance of brothels and cabarets. Leda eventually acts on a long-held desire to master the violin, knowing that she can never play in public as a woman. She cuts off her hair, binds her breasts, and becomes “Dante,” a young man who joins a troupe of tango musicians bent on conquering the salons of high society. Now, gradually, the lines between Leda and Dante begin to blur, and feelings that she has long kept suppressed reveal themselves, jeopardizing not only her musical career, but her life.

Please give Carolina De Robertis a warm welcome.

1. In addition to writing your own fiction, you also translate books. Could you explain a little bit about the process of translating books and share what languages you translate?

I translate Latin American writing from Spanish into English—and I’m incredibly passionate about the world of translation, not only because it’s crucial to ensuring access to international literatures, but also because I find it to be an exhilarating process. There is nothing quite like taking a beautiful piece of writing and striving to render it in a different language. For me, it’s a bit like transposing a piece of music from one instrument to the other, like taking a work written for piano, say, and adapting it for the violin. There are things that the piano can do that the violin can’t do, and vice versa. The same is true for English, Spanish, and the other languages I speak (though not so well!). You have to be true to the original, and yet limber enough to ensure that the piece’s soul will sing out on your new instrument.

2. In The Gods of Tango, Leda finds herself alone in an unfamiliar country, Argentina, did you draw on any of your own personal experiences to flesh out the challenges she faced?

I feel deeply at home in writing the experiences of immigrants, even when their circumstances differ from the ones I’ve known. The way I see it, I was born an immigrant; I left South America in my mother’s womb, and then grew up in three different countries. I have always been an “other;” I don’t know any other way of moving through the world.

When I made my first extended trip to Uruguay and Argentina, my nations of origin, I was sixteen years old, and the experience was a dizzying blend of intense familiarity and desire for something that had long felt far away. And so, I am perennially drawn to writing stories of crossing borders, of belonging and not-belonging, of what it means to hold multiple cultures in your skin.

3. Tango is a very sensual and rhythmic dance, how did that music and dance inspire your writing for the book? And did you listen to such music while writing?

Absolutely! Once I knew that this novel was going to portray the early years of the tango’s evolution, and explore the communities that gave birth to it, it was obvious that I’d have to empaparme del tango, as we’d say in Uruguayan Spanish—drench myself in it. The tango had always been familiar to me, of course; I come from the land of tango, my own grandfather was a tango composer, and the music was present in my childhood home, from tape recordings to my parents’ absent singing to themselves.

In the research for this book, I took private dance lessons with an incredible teacher in Uruguay; studied the violin with a professional tango musician; interviewed tango musicians and dancers about their intimate relationships with the art form; studied a mountain of scholarly texts; and, of course, listened and listened to the music. All of it, from classic giants such as De Caro and Canaro to Piazzolla’s bold innovations, from the immortal Carlos Gardel to the twenty-first century fusions of Gotan Project. Happily, I am listening to tango as I write these very words.

4. Women dressing as men to live the lives they want is a theme in many historical fiction works and there are women in history who have done such things. What about this life inspired your story and how did it take on a life of its own when writing the novel?

I knew that I wanted to write about the wave of migrants that came to Buenos Aires in the early twentieth century, mainly from Europe, and the tremendous impact they had on the culture in their quest to survive. My great-grandmother was part of that wave, leaving her tiny Italian village alone, at the age of 17, to go marry her cousin.

But I also knew that I wanted this book to dive right into the heart of the birth of the tango, which was happening in those very tenements where those immigrants landed, a music born from poor people, working people, blending their cultures and sounds. The tango world was extremely gendered in the 1910s. It was a seedy underworld, the domain of men, where the only women welcome were prostitutes. How would a female character be able to penetrate that world on her own terms?

There was only one answer. An answer that many women have found throughout history—far more women than recorded history shows. Though I can’t prove it, I am absolutely positive that there were plenty of real women in 1910s Buenos Aires doing exactly what Leda did. Sadly, their histories have been lost. That’s what we need fiction for: to dramatically repair the silences of history.

5. Do you tango? And who are your favorite tango dancers?

As I mentioned, the tango is in my culture and in my skin, and I have danced at Buenos Aires milongas with my relatives, and studied the dance. But I’m not much of a natural dancer, myself. What I do have is something of a musician’s ear so I relate to it that way—and, like many ríoplatenses (people from Argentina and Uruguay), I don’t think of the tango as just a dance, but as much more than that: as a music, as a culture, as a way of relating to the world. This is a lens that is missing in the U.S. and beyond; I hope to offer it to readers.

That said, there are many marvelous tango performers, both dancers and musicians, here in the U.S., and I am in awe of what they do.

6. How important do you think it is to highlight the history of Latin American nations both good and bad, and what pieces of that history do you think should be told that haven’t?

Just as with any region of the world, I think it’s crucial to tell the whole truth, however complex or potentially uncomfortable. In The Gods of Tango, I strove to portray both the harsh and beautiful aspects of early tango culture.

There are so very, very many threads of Latin American history that are still undertold, and these, not surprisingly, are the narratives of those whose stories have been historically marginalized, including women, queers, and people of African descent. Very few people know that the tango has African as well as European roots, and that, at the turn of the twentieth century, Buenos Aires was one-third black. It was very important to me to include those voices in this novel. That said, there is still so much more tremendously rich Afro-Argentinean and Afro-Uruguayan history to be told.

7. Finally, how has your journey as an author evolved? Any tricks or tips you’d like to share?

Now that I’m working on my fourth novel, the arc of the whole experience is more familiar, so that, when I feel like I’m walking right into a moonless night without a flashlight and I can’t tell where I’m going next, it’s easier to stay calm and think, oh, look, here’s the part where I’m lost in the dark, that must be progress. There’s no trick, really, except this one open secret: persist, persist, persist.

  • Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

    Fantastic interview! I really need to read her books.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    She sounds fascinating! I imagine translating a book is almost as hard as writing one.