Argentine writer Camila Sosa Villada take us on a travestis journey through heaven and hell in Bad Girls.
Gritty and unflinching, yet also tender and fantastical, Bad Girls (SUR Ed. 2021, with the Italian translation by Giulia Zavagna) is a proudly hybrid novel as much as those who in the very basic and unsophisticated labelling (such as those to be found in public toilets) are neither male nor female; it is a crossbreed novel just as Argentine culture is, where “the massive and sensual blacks carried with them their suffering of the slaves. Small and elegant Asians brought their ancestral wisdom in the face of pain. The Headless Men queued on the streets…” (p. 192). The story spans between Spain or Italy and the new continent, “the happy and pornographic story of a country in which men worked the land well and the grandchildren of immigrants populated the homeland, and all of them together, gringos, blacks, Indians and mestizos, all those men would publicly be burned at the stake only for sleeping with a travesti” (p. 215). It is a novel, also from the literary point of view, crossing many subgenres, because it contaminates autofiction and epic narration, incorporating elements of magic realism, typical of Latin American.
Where the narrating self is a first singular person, the harshness of loneliness prevails: the non-coming-of-age novel of a poor boy, raised between a dominated and betrayed mother and a father perfectly adherent to Latin machismo, who comes and goes as he pleases and cheats and beats and threatens. He especially threatens his son for not being like him: a son who already hides his lipstick, women’s clothes and heels in a secret suburban den and then, once rejected, is condemned to prostitution in order to feel like a woman and to scrape out a living. So Camila lives in her own way, like so many trans, her unique and unrepeatable metamorphosis and lands in the fabled pink house of Auntie Encarna, a 168-year-old trans, the mater orphanorum of all the trans of the Sarmiento Park, venerable, magnificent, resolute, filthy and holy, fragile and strong as Ursula in One Hundred years of solitude by Marquez or Dona Flor and Teresa Batista in the homonymous novels by Amado.
Thus in this novel, from the very beginning, the”I” alternates with the “we”: the trans. In the “we” the reader is co-opted and called to integrate into the pack of the Bad Girls and to join the traveling fair on the streets teeming with their ambiguous flesh (shaved with stubbornness, inflated with silicone or motor fluid or even just with the sponge of fake breasts). Hence, those who read sympathize with the heartaches of each and every one, share the chronic melancholy of the other homeless outcast, rejoice for an unexpected Christmas lunch, in which the trans celebrate all together as a family, and each is given as a gift a napkin with their own embroidered initials: the female name they have chosen for themselves and not the male one forced on them at birth.
Those who read are moved by the fatigue of the more or less allegorical metamorphoses and retro-metamorphoses, because some turn into she-werewolves every night of full moon, while others discover bird feathers on their body until they shrink into a bird and shut themselves into a small cage; some kill themselves, and others become green and waist away dying of AIDS; there are some who are chameleons, male by day and travestis by night – for class opportunism , cowardice or social and family responsibilities -, while others simply can’t stand their erection or to see their hair balding: the sin of being born male and watching in the mirror the terrifying and censoring face of their own father. But the “we”, while alternating with the “I”, does not fully replace it because the loneliness of death gets menacingly closer, in the form of lampposts and policemen, chasing them out of darkness and forcing the Bad Girl to run away, in a definitive diaspora from the Sarmiento Park:
“We’re isolated. Our bond was strong thanks to our meeting often, but it weakens in the absence of a shared space. Society can’t see us together, so they kicked us out of the park. We are in the antechamber of death, on the banks of the river Lete, and we are already forced to take the first sip of those waters”(pp. 185-186).
And above all: every line of this work denounces the numbers of feminicides (the violent deaths of travestis must be counted as feminicides, if they themselves have wanted to be women). And every line also exposes the horrific, toxic and aberrant familism of seemingly perfect families with a mother and a father, where violence, stigmatization and self-fulfilling prophecies are consummated. On the other hand, each line invokes a utopia of affections: it legitimises, redeems and witnesses the birth of the many forms of surrogate parenthood or homo and single-parenthood, against which it is easy to point the finger in the name of an abstract and hypocritical concept of family.
Here is the most delicate and bitter-sweet core of this story: Auntie Encarna finds an abandoned newborn baby in the thorny branches, baptizes the child with the name “Twinkle in Her Eye”, raises him as her own, provides him with documents to keep him with her, enrols him in school, accompanies him to school dressing as a man, and the child calls her mother at home and father in public, without ever making a mistake, drawing himself between a mother and a father, Auntie Encarna as a man and Auntie Encarna as a woman.
“I thought about how love disintegrates in every family, but those two were not a family; the title of family was not enough for them. What connected them was a much greater love, it was all the understanding that a human being is capable of”(p. 189).
But also comedy represented in the most perfect and joyful way (“because the life of travestis is a party”, Sandra – one of them or indeed one of us – never stops repeating,) is brought to light and revealed by those who are only good at pointing their finger, convinced that others lead a more sordid life than their own:
“Childhood is not compatible with the trans women. For the rabble, the image of a travesti with a child in her arms is a capital sin”(p. 16).
This is Bad Girls, an almost autobiographical novel by Camila Sosa Villada (La Falda, 1982), who was a sex-worker and street vendor and who, after studying Communication and Theatre, managed to become an actress, singer, writer. Bad Girls is currently being translated in many countries and has been awarded the Sister Juana de la Cruz 2020 Prize, a prize named after a nun. And we like to think that Camila has also added Sister Juana to the Pantheon of saints and goddesses mentioned in the book (the Virgin Mary, the Deceased Correa, San Cayetano, the she-wolf of Romulus and Remus, witches and spirits invoked by the Paraguayan shaman Machi Trans). Causing no scandal nor sacrilege.