Book review: The Queens of Sarmiento Park by Camila Sosa Villada

(courtesy Virago Books)

If you are part of a marginalised community, any marginalised community, you will all too painfully how much the mainstream abhors non-adherence to orthodoxy.

People who simply want to be authentically and honestly themselves are treated like some of personal abomination, an affront to some weirdly collective idea of what is good, proper and normal, and those locked solidly in the mainstream, or think that’s where they sit (they’re even scarier in their devotion to group “truth”), set about making sure, in ways cruel and unrelenting, that the marginalised know how much of an abrogation of the acceptable norm they are.

It’s exhaustingly nasty and unnecessary, and speaks to more about how insecure these people are in their dogged enforcement of perceived normality than anything else, but their broken humanity aside, their actions create real world pain and hurt for those caught in their crossfire.

People like Camila, a travesti – a term commonly used in South America to, and I quote Wikipedia here, “to designate people who were assigned male at birth, but develop a gender identity according to different expressions of femininity” – who lives in Córdoba, Argentina, and who is the protagonist and persistently sorrowful heartbeat of Camila Sosa Villada’s mesmerisingly affecting novel, The Queens of Sarmiento Park.

After fleeing an alcoholic father and an inertly ineffectual mother in hardscrabble rural Argentina where his femininity was a source of incessantly cruel ridicule by his father, family and villagers alike, Camila ends up in the bohemian chaos of Auntie Encarna’s boarding house, a queer refuge for travestis mainly which finally gives them a place they can be wholly themselves.

Travestis and children don’t go together. The very sight of a travesti carrying a baby was a sin to the people. The bastards preferred to hide them from their children, to shield them from the degeneracy of which man is capable. But even though they were well aware of all this, the travestis supported Autnie Encarna in her crazy endeavor. It was the orphans’ code. (P. 7)

The world outside may be violent in its unthinking opposition to their very existence, letting them know that in a variety of ways as the travesti, pushed to the very margins of society by bigotry and prejudice, are then further sanctioned when the only money earning options left to them are prostitution and drug dealing.

In other words, they are bullied to the point where options to support themselves are next to non-existent and then further attacked for doing the only things left to them; damned if you do, damned if you don’t, a terrible hypocrisy that scars every single one of the people in a story which seems to offer hope until, time and again, it doesn’t.

The rawness of The Queens of Sarmiento Park is evident in every single page and even when good and wonderful things happen such as a special Christmas lunch, where the highlight is eating rich food and holding poverty at bay for a few precious hours, or when Camila meets someone wonderful who seems to treat less as an object and more as a person, often fail to really last the distance, succumbing one after the other, to a grinding bleakness that is near impossible to escape.

It can mean that The Queens of Sarmiento Park is tough reading much of the time because just as you think something enduringly good is on the horizon, it collapses in on itself, either from outside pressure or inside sabotage, and fails to live up to the potential.

(courtesy Goodreads)

Take, for instance, when Auntie Encarna finds an abandoned baby boy in a ditch in the titular park where they often hide form police raids; by any measure, this should be a good and perfect thing, and in many ways it is, but even this most wondrous of additions to their ragtag household fails to reshape reality into the warm and welcoming every single boarding house resident wishes it was.

If this all sounds unremittingly and unyielding bleak to the point of unreadability, rest assured that there are moments of rare and precious joy, times when poverty or bigotry are temporarily forgotten, when the threat of sexual or gang violence recedes away and people like Camila and Sandra and Maria the Mute who, like a number of the characters suffers what can only be described as a magically real fate, can finally feel safe or even fleetingly joyful in who they are, and can rest from the hyper vigilance that defines every waking moment of their lives.

It’s these moments of happiness or contentment of belonging, of camaraderie with those teetering on the sharply unforgiving cusp of society’s margin, that give the book a vibrant hopefulness which, while not able to see the unbending cruelty of a world dedicated to obliterating them from the face of the earth, nevertheless validates that whatever Camila may have suffered for their authentic self, that they were right to seek to live it out.

You could argue that they had no real choice but as Camila archly observes, many of them, she included, often have to revert to their male identity for a variety of pressing reasons, but even so, still daily choose to be their own, true selves, even with the great cost that brings.

When I left the house a little while later I thought to myself that I couldn’t do what Auntie Encarna did: give all of myself. Sacrifice everything for someone. I didn’t understand what kind of love that was, all I knew was that I wasn’t capable of it. The boy was right: love wouldn’t come because it knew that I couldn’t accept it with good grace. (P. 176)

It is a brave decision, even if they can no sooner deny the expression of who they really are than breathe, and the sheer inevitability of being this true to yourself is in every word and every page and scene of a novels that might resonate with sorrow but which also sings of the power of the truth to see you free.

Not completely, of course, and certainly not in the way that people like Camila want or need, but there is a liberating power to owning who you are that is sustained and survives no matter how terribly the world might treat you.

The story of Camila, and countless travesti like her, lives in the place in-between this joyful self acceptance and expression, and the cruel treatment meted out by those who bow to the authoritarian whims of the damning mainstream, and it fills The Queens of Sarmiento Park with a raw, movingly intense sensibility that never goes where you think it will.

We have been conditioned by all kinds of wholeheartedly or hesitantly hopeful novels to expect stories like that of The Queens of Sarmiento Park to lead to uplifting good and better places, but the truth is, life doesn’t often play to Hollywood rules, and while there might be peaks of contentment, happiness and community, they often don’t best the world around them.

But nevertheless they are there, and they matter, and they imbue this most wondrously funny yet heartbreakingly honest of novels, with a searing truthfulness which while it may not come with the kind of ending we’ve been conditioned to expect, reassures us that even among the shitstorm that is life and what it feels like to be a marginal being in a mainstream world, that you have community, self-acceptance and the joy of being yourself, and while that might not win the war, it goes a long way to at least some of life’s battles, even if many more remain to be fought.

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