'Cantoras’: A portrait of queer love, community and forgotten history
In her acclaimed fourth novel, Carolina de Robertis writes the story of five queer women and their friendship as they live under a dictatorship in Uruguay
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In 2019, Carolina De Robertis, an American author of Uruguayan heritage who immigrated to the United States from England at the age of 10, published a novel that catapulted her to international acclaim. Cantoras is the story of five queer women and their friendship as they live under the dictatorship in Uruguay.
The book, winner of a Stonewall Book Award and a Reading Women Award, is set in 1977 in Uruguay, where a military government crushed political dissent with ruthless force. In this environment, where the everyday rights of people are under attack, homosexuality is a dangerous transgression to be punished. And yet Romina, Flaca, Anita 'La Venus,' Paz, and Malena —five cantoras, women who "sing" and the secret name lesbians used to hide from repression — somehow, miraculously, find one another.
“With Cantoras, my fourth novel, I tried to think and understand a little bit more about how it was to be gay, lesbian or queer during the Uruguayan dictatorship, how people survived that silence and that fear to create an authentic existence,” the author told Letra urbana, an online outlet focused on books and literature.
Together, the five women discover an isolated, nearly uninhabited cape, Cabo Polonio, which they claim as their secret sanctuary. Over the next 35 years, the lives of these women 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. Again and again, the women will be tested — by their families, lovers, society, and one another — as they fight to live authentic lives.
“Having five main characters in my novel allowed me to show variety within a community,” she told Letra urbana.
The author interviewed these women for over a decade and listened to their stories of gay women from an older generation.
“When I write I, of course, give the characters parts of myself, and it is sometimes a surprise to see where in those protagonists those parts live. Sometimes I don't see this until after I finish the book,” she added.
Described as 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.
De Robertis currently lives in Oakland, California, with her wife and two children. She teaches Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.