Two Books by Bay Area Authors Present Women with Chutzpah in Spades

We’re living in a moment in which women are beginning to be taken seriously. Finally. When we’re not treated fairly — at work, at home, in the bedroom, at a bar — more and more of us are finding the courage to speak out and demand the consideration and respect we deserve.

But, as the protagonists in two upcoming books by Bay Area authors discover, the journey toward recognition and self-actualization is anything but easy. Though ultimately rewarding in the end, big gains nearly always come at a cost for many women.

In Carolina De Robertis’ sweeping and utterly breathtaking novel, Cantoras, five queer women in their late teens and early 20s — Flaca, Romina, Anita (“La Venus”), Malena and Paz — take a weeklong trip to Cabo Polonio, a tiny remote village on the eastern coast of Uruguay.

It’s 1977, and the country is in the midst of civic upheaval after a military coup rocked the government four years earlier. The women flee to the seaside hideaway to escape the mounting horrors at home in Montevideo — rations and other repressive restrictions, nightly curfews, and the raping, jailing and forced disappearances of dissidents, including gay people.

For 16-year-old Paz, the youngest of the group, being among such enlightened, strong-willed women — especially so far away from the capital, which was “not a place to be curious, but a place to shrink into yourself and mind your own business” — is a physical and spiritual awakening. “She felt a sensation so foreign that she almost collapsed under its spell. She felt free.”

Over the next three decades, Paz, Flaca, Romina and the others fall in and out of love, endure arrests by the police, and weather varying degrees of judgment from their loved ones (or refuse to come out about their sexuality altogether), until they eventually live to see their country change for the better. Throughout all the turmoil, the makeshift family repeatedly returns to the sandy sanctuary where they first felt bold enough to embrace their truest selves. They even buy and fix up a ramshackle cottage near the ocean, which they affectionately call La Proa, or The Prow.

Aside from the consistently engrossing narrative that effortlessly interweaves the story of each woman’s personal successes and setbacks with Uruguay’s complicated struggle to come into its own as a democratic republic, De Robertis’ writing is reason alone to read this book. Like her fierce characters, her words pry and pull at the essence of not only what it feels like to be thwarted, condemned or quarantined because of your beliefs and identity, but also what it means to be a vulnerable yet empowered, infinitely beautiful and fully alive woman. Often, these sentences hit their target so directly and eloquently that they practically sing.

Perhaps these lines in the Acknowledgments section sum up De Robertis’ intentions for the novel best: “To anyone reading this who’s struggled through a chrysalis to become her or his or their authentic self: I see you, I thank you, I’m glad you’re here. This book is yours as well.”

For an entirely different take on feminism and women’s lib, Anita Felicelli’s debut novel, Chimerica, stars Maya Ramesh, a down-on-her-luck Tamil American lawyer living in Oakland. She’s been fired from her job because of “unethical” infractions, according to her boss. To make matters worse, Maya’s husband left her — and has taken the kids with him.

Then, there’s the matter of the affair with Nick Evers, a former partner at Maya’s firm with a shadowy past, also recently canned. And lest we forget Maya’s mysterious doppelgänger or the giant lemur that appears in her backyard, asking for help to return to Madagascar — the same creature that escaped from a mural by an artist whose case Maya was working on when she was fired.

Did I mention that the lemur swears like a sailor, has a soft spot for playing video games and talks?

In its simplest form, Chimerica is a zany, often disjointed mashup of courtroom thriller, artistic discourse and magical realism run amok, with some wine-guzzling and relationship drama thrown in for good measure. (Felicelli’s previous short-story collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent, is chock full of talking animals. She also has a background in art and law.)

Does it succeed as a feminist work? Well, sort of. Sure, Maya uses her brawn and brains to win her case, eventually salvages what’s left of her marriage, and brings attention to the lemur’s plight. By the end of the novel, she no longer feels “like a puzzle with certain irregular shapes missing.” That is, until everything backfires. (Again.)

In Chimerica, Maya’s dogged quest for validation propels the novel forward, but it also makes for frustrating reading. If the chase always overshadows the win — especially at the expense of others (including a loquacious lemur) — then was the fight really worth it after all?

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 3, 2019)

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