AUGUST 29, 2018
LATIN AMERICA HAS a strong tradition of nonfiction, which has its origins in the writings of the Spanish explorers and conquerors, letters and memoirs chronicling their travels and travails in the lands they were “discovering.” As the first generations of mestizo Latin Americans began to carve out a new identity, they produced essays, memoirs, and histories heavily influenced by these early chronicles. Fiction was banned in Latin America during the Spanish Inquisition, but fictional elements sometimes slipped in, and the form — la crónica — had an important influence on Latin American literature.
In the 20th century, nonfictional cronistas focused on political and social issues, but with the waning of the late 20th-century wave of dictators, and with the opening up of new literary territory by post-Boom writers like Roberto Bolaño, a new generation of cronistas emerged. Their work drew on the innovations of the so-called New Journalists of the 1960s and 1970s — in particular, their immersive style, characterized by a distinctive narrative voice and the use of techniques borrowed from fiction.
Over the last two decades, these new cronistas have appeared in almost every country in Latin America, in the pages of publications like Etiqueta Negra in Peru, Gatopardo in Colombia and Mexico, and Anfibia in Argentina. In their essays, books, and long-form journalism, they cover a wide array of topics — drag queens in Chile, a suicide epidemic in Patagonia, a local soda that dared to challenge Coca-Cola in Peru. Lucky for us, some of this work is now being translated into English.
One of the most interesting writers of this generation is Gabriela Wiener, a Peruvian journalist best known for her high-spirited explorations of female sexuality. Wiener, who was born in 1975, came of age during the Fujimori dictatorship of 1990–2000; she has lived and worked in Spain since 2003. Although she has published a short memoir and a collection of poetry and was, until 2014, the editor of Marie Claire in Spain, she is primarily known for her gonzo-style journalism, which has appeared in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. Sexographies, her first book to appear in English courtesy of translators Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock, is a collection of 16 essays from three Spanish-language collections: Sexografías (2008), Llamada perdida (2015), and Dicen de mí (2017).
Wiener is often presented as a “sex” writer, and accounts of her sexual experiences, narrated with a bemused frankness, dominate the pages of this collection. She is, however, an adept chronicler of many subjects and a talented writer in a variety of tones — angry, critical, elegiac. In addition to the sex pieces, which include visits to a swingers’ club in Barcelona, lessons from a world-renowned dominatrix, and some well-earned thoughts on threesomes, Wiener explores a wide range of topics, from Peruvian prisons and the Amazonian hallucinogen ayahuasca to egg harvesting and the literary reputation of Isabel Allende. The essays are set in Latin America and Europe — mostly Spain and Peru. Like Bolaño, an obvious influence, she is “fluent” in both continents but not fully at home in either.
At her best, Wiener is witty and fast-paced; many of her experiences, sexual and otherwise, are hard-won, territories explored and sometimes conquered, despite her neurotic misgivings, with courage and aplomb. Part of her appeal lies in the fact that she sometimes writes about sexual topics that have not been well explored, especially by women, and a sense of incredulity is part of the pleasure of reading her work. “Is she really going to do that?” the reader wonders. “Is she really going to write (and so openly) about doing that?” And then she does, and there’s a slight but perceptible shift in the world because she did. Some of her best essays — “Three,” “On Motherliness,” and “Isabel Allende Will Keep Writing from the Afterlife” — have a warm, giddy energy that I can only describe as female.
Wiener is a talented writer with a gift for metaphor. The opening piece “Guru & Family,” about a night she spends with a polygamous sex guru named Badani and his wives, has a humor, drive, and narrative authority reminiscent of the New Journalists. It also resembles a Cortázar story:
If Badani were an electrical appliance, he would be one that chops, dices, and shreds his interlocutor at a thousand revolutions per second. When he speaks — or rather when he soliloquizes — he smooths out his mustache with a delicate movement of his thumb and index finger. Erecting an argument or even just assembling a phrase in his presence is impossible. Badani senses your intentions, anticipates your answers, reads your facial expressions, and is wary of your words. It would be foolish to expect any less from him — a man who is a polygamist, tech expert, zealous anti-Catholic, sexual erudite, and devotee of the concept of freedom, which he understands as the liberty to choose one’s own shackles. Badani is also addicted to etymology. “Family,” he says, “comes from the Latin famulus, which means ‘slave.’” He has six of them.
In “#NotPee,” a short piece about Wiener’s foray into female ejaculation under the guidance of a sex therapist who dresses like a ninja, humor and dramatic tension vie for the upper hand. Is female ejaculation a myth? Will Wiener ejaculate? Isn’t it just pee? I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing what happens at the end — let’s just say the anti-climactic note she hits is exactly right. The unfortunately titled “From This Side and from That Side” (not the only awkward moment in a translation that is mostly smooth) is a lyrical meditation on Lima, on emigration and return, on the uneasy coexistence of anger and longing in Latin Americans who’ve left — or had to leave — for good. In the less satisfying but brave (I guess) Roxane Gay–like piece that ends the collection, Wiener takes on gender violence. And then there is “Three,” which begins, charmingly, “I never got the knack of fidelity.”
One of the characteristics of New Journalism is the creation of a narrating persona whose idiosyncrasies influence our perception of the experience the author is writing about. Wiener does this in a strong and compelling way: she’s lazy, brave, anxious, an exhibitionist with a surface frivolity and an underlying seriousness. Above all, she tackles her subjects with a self-deprecating humor that mitigates what could come across as awkward or ridiculous. “I’m drier than the Atacama Desert,” she says in “#NotPee” as she and the sex therapist get to work. “It’s a hassle,” she laments at the end of “Planet Swingers,” after exploring the sex clubs of Barcelona with her husband, “this business of discovering new pleasures. One always wants more of them.” And in “On Motherliness,” a wide-ranging riff on the joys and madness of mothering, her young daughter refuses to sleep on her own, and a sleep-deprived Wiener is at her side. “Every night I curled up in a fetal position,” she says, “my back breaking on the edge of her cute little Ikea bed.”
As Phillip Lopate, guru of literary nonfiction in the English-speaking world, says, “The art of characterization comes down to establishing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and introducing variations into the system. In this respect, building a character is a pedagogic model, because you are teaching the reader what to expect.” One of the problems with Sexographies is that the essays are not well arranged, so we don’t always know, per Lopate, what to expect. “Guru & Family” is a great essay, but we haven’t been introduced to Wiener or her interests yet, so we scramble to understand who she is and why she’s there. “Three” offers the best introduction to Wiener and her sexual history, but this piece doesn’t appear until halfway through the collection. Nor is there always a sufficient introduction to place, especially Peru. In “In the Prison of Your Skin,” for instance, we are dropped into a setting common across Latin America — a prison that operates like a small city, where people work, shop, drink, and entertain women. Wiener provides no explanation of this context for the non–Latin American reader; as a result, the first few pages are hard to follow. Reordering the essays and making minor edits could have resolved these problems — a prologue or introduction would certainly have helped.
Not only are people, places, and topics sometimes poorly introduced; a few of the pieces feel rushed or are plagued with poor transitions, which makes them feel like hastily written articles, not crónicas. In several of the essays, including “In the Prison of Your Skin” and “Advice from an Unyielding Dominatrix to a Bewildered Disciple,” Wiener can’t seem to decide if she wants to talk about herself or the subject she’s immersed in, and the resulting confusion weakens the overall effect.
More worrisome for a writer as talented as Wiener, important parts of the story are sometimes left unexplored. In “#NotPee,” for instance, she mentions that the United Kingdom has banned porn with female ejaculation, resulting in the “#NotPee” movement that gives her essay its title. One wonders why such a ban should exist, but she never explains it or connects it to her story. The best of the old cronistas and New Journalists used interviews, research, and personal immersion in their stories to give us an exhaustive look at their subjects. Readers not only got the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll (or the massacre or the “discovery”). They also got a more profound understanding of why these stories were important. Think of Joan Didion on Haight-Ashbury or Gay Talese on swingers — we know what’s at stake, not just for the authors but for all of us. Wiener, who sometimes does her research on Wikipedia, doesn’t always do her homework. When this happens, her energy feels frenetic, and her charms wear thin.
A few months ago, I heard Argentinian film director Lucrecia Martel speaking at the Los Angeles premiere of her (crazy good) new film Zama. A droll woman a decade or so older than Wiener, amusing and astute in the Argentinian style, Martel is almost as interesting to listen to as her films are to watch. When someone asked her what she’d been doing since her last film came out in 2008, she had a great reply. “People do too many things these days,” she said. “You don’t have to do so much.” Wiener, whose ambitions sometimes get in the way of the quality of her writing, could take a page from Martel.
Whatever you want to call it — la crónica, New Journalism, el gonzo — the translation of Latin American cronistas like Gabriela Wiener is a cause for celebration. Talented and innovative, with a seemingly endless supply of stories, their work reveals more commonalities between the Latin American and Anglo-American experience than our respective fictions do. Given the current political climate — and the underexplored connections between the literary traditions of the Americas — this can only be for the good. I hope to see more such translations in the future.
Lisa Fetchko has published essays, fiction, reviews, and translations in a variety of publications including Ploughshares, n+1, and Bookforum. She teaches at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles.