Title: The Queens of Sarmiento Park
Author: Camila Sosa Villada, translated by Kit Maude
Publisher: Hachette UK/Virago Press; RRP $29.99
There are three distinct themes and voices in The Queens of Sarmiento Park, all set within a narrative construct interweaving pure fiction with biographical details of the author’s life, and the realities of being transgender in a world that has always denied them validity.
Sarmiento Park is as an actual park in Argentina. In this work the author often refers to her characters by the Latin American term travesti, referring to the word ‘transgender’ as a construct of Northern academia. Travesti, she states in the author notes at the beginning, is an ancient word that speaks more honestly of how transgender people are viewed by society generally and one, though an insult, Latin American travesti claim as their own.
In real life, Camila Sosa Villada started to dress as a girl at the age of fifteen. At eighteen she left home to study but, without income and unable to find employment to pay for food and a roof over her head because her ID identified her as male, turned to prostitution. She also continued to write while attending the National University studying theatre. Las Malas (‘Bad Girls‘, published by Virago as The Queens of Sarmiento Park), her first novel, was published in Spanish in 2019 and was a major success. It has been translated into a number of languages and won international awards. These include the Premio Sor Juana de la Cruz (Mexico), the Grand Prix de l’Héroïne-Madame Figaro (France) and the Premio València de Narrativa en Castellano (Spain). It also won the Guadalajara International Book Fair Award for Spanish literature written for women.
Initially struggling to find where it fits in literary nomenclature, I found a number of references to it as a work of auto-fiction. Auto-fiction is defined as a work of fiction where the narrator or main character is understood to be the author, and which explores the author’s real-life story using technical and fictional devices. It especially serves as providing a space about sensitive personal experiences which might otherwise expose them to abuse, making it a literary device of particular value to those who are marginalised.
Events, circumstances, characters and experiences described in two of the three distinct and separate themes are held together by the third: the biographical contentment which acts like string, binding all three separate components into an internally consistent whole.
The biographical component includes early years as a confused and guilty boy concealing his growing awareness of his true self, violently disapproving parents and their own highly dysfunctional relationship. It continues to when he finally leaves his home to continue his studying, which involves leading a double life with the group of girls he studies with up till where prostitution became necessary for survival.
The second theme is the world of the travesti when his older travesti self has accepted this is who he is and what it is to live the full travesti life, and including the realities of what that life is, from how to hide the inevitable four o’clock shadow to sex transplants, the loneliness of being disowned by family and the daily dangers encountered simply walking down the street. It also includes the growing realisation that the only real source of income for all travesti is by prostitution. This is shown mixing both fictional and non-fictional elements.
The third theme is the subject of prostitution itself. This includes what it is to live fully as both prostitute and specifically as transgender. Woven into these sections are details about the double standards transgender prostitutes encounter in their work through the type of clients they meet, and the violence they regularly encounter from the public and the police.
The plot, which ties fictional and non-fictional elements with a dash of the fantastical, is centred around a newborn baby boy found dumped in a Sarmiento Park ditch and taken home by Encarna, a 178-year-old travesti, to a fabulous pink house she rents which provides shelter to a cast of fictional characters through which the reality of being transgender in a world that rejects them is enacted.
This reality is conveyed in the grim humour in the following line:
‘Oh, to truly know fear you need to be a travesti carrying a blood-soaked baby newborn in a purse.’ (p6)
This follows on immediately from a reference to the ‘cloak of invisibility’ the travesti must don every time they walk out their front door. The difference in the likely responses by others to this is immediately apparent.
I found the mix of fiction aimed to entertain and inform on transexuality and prostitution particularly, and the non-fictional elements of the author’s inner life and outer experiences as lived totally absorbing. Nothing is glorified but nor is it tailored to suit an audience that might otherwise judge. Though heavily based in a fictional framework, it also manages to do what any good autobiography does, which is to enable the reader, as much as is possible with written text, to get a sense of getting under the skin of another who is very different to themselves.
The language is blunt, sometimes quite crude, but there are also elements of magic realism, like Maria the Mute (a ‘flea-ridden waif’ rescued by Encarna) who slowly mutates into a bird, and Natalia, who as the seventh male daughter of her family, turned into a she-wolf when the moon was full. And then there is the unbreakable bond that develops between the dumped baby – Twinkle In Her Eye – and the 178-year-old Encarna, culminating in a devastating conclusion to their relationship years later which is both deeply moving and, in this world, inevitable.
Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell
Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group
Review copy provided by the publisher