A Dark and Magical Fairytale Starring Argentinian Travesti Sex Workers
Camila Sosa Villada's novel "Bad Girls" explores the lives of dazzling travestis as they meet the world’s unforgiving violence one stiletto at a time
“Far below, where the secret rivers of the world flow, appeared a word that stank of death, shit, semen prostitution, the night, the cold, bribery, blood and jail, of misery and neglect. A word sharp as a knife, grime-encrusted and wounded. A word that spoke not just of the creatures we were and are but also of our poverty, of the acts that made us legendary, of the courage with which we headed out to live among families and communities.”—From “Author’s Note: The Word Travesti” in Bad Girls
Profoundly influenced by science fiction, magical realism and the absurd, Bad Girls (published by Other Press and translated by Kit Maude) narrates the stories of a group of travestis working the night at the Sarmiento Park to earn their coins. After being rejected by her parents and barred from her small town, our narrator, Camila, arrives in Córdoba to study at a University. One night she shyly approaches the group of imposing travestis working the Sarmiento Park and is immediately welcomed to the herd of luminous night creatures.
Led by Tía Encarna—a spectacular Spanish travesti, 178 years old, who finds a baby in a ditch and immediately adopts him as her own singing lullabies and attaching him to her breasts—Bad Girls explores the lives of these herd of dazzling travestis as they meet the world’s unforgiving violence one stiletto at a time.
To say that I was obsessed with Bad Girls from day uno when I first read it back in 2021 in its original Spanish is a major understatement. As it is also an understatement to describe Sosa Villada’s prose as mesmerizing, raw and brilliant. The fierceness of this book is in its unapologetic embrace of travesti poetics. By which I mean, an aesthetic that drips of the oral rhythms swept up from the dark streets of Córdoba into perfect streams of poetic prose. Sosa Villada’s storytelling is guttural, tender, humorous and punk. It explores what she calls, “travesti grammar”: a crossing of tenses, a riveting self-absorption, a shift in point of view that falls into a fairytale voice.
Julián Delgado Lopera: In the author’s note that opens the book, which is also a gorgeous poetic rumination on the word “travesti,” you talk about how “travesti” has been stripped away from its chaos, “hygienized” with words like “trans woman.” How this imposing of Western queer theory has no relevance to poor Latin American travestis working the streets. The note which appears in the English translation doesn’t appear in the original book in Spanish. Why?
Camila Sosa Villada: Other Press specifically asked for that clarification. I guess because of the political correctness that exists in the U.S and the lack of knowledge about this word that sounds derogatory. Also, when editions of the book were published in other Latin American countries I was asked to change “travesti” for “trans.” So, from my illiteracy, I wrote a short note on what I think that word implies inside Bad Girls, but also during a time in which travestis are disappearing.
JDL: How did you feel about having to include the author note?
CSV: It gave me the opportunity to write something that I had already been saying in some interviews and that I had been clarifying to activists here in Argentina and in other places in the world. The fact that I think using the conjunction “trans-woman” says way less than the word “travesti” in economic and historic terms in Latin America.
JDL: Tía Encarna is really loved by readers and calls a lot of attention on the page. I love that she is this imposing matron beating up johns in stilettos, scolding the girls and teaching them the realness of being a travesti. Her house is this heaven to the travestis from the park. Can you talk about this “mother” trope of Tía Encarna in the book?
CSV: The narrator does say many times “our mother” referring to Tía Encarna. “Mother” is a word that activates something really quick in the reader’s imaginary. To call Tía Encarna “mother” and speak about a “travesti family” is something that triggers, que prende. It’s an easy answer to a very complex organization that these travestis have at this time, specially because most of them are orphans or are really far away from their own mothers. So yes, Tía Encarna works as a maternal anchor. Pero fíjate that when the baby arrives she distances herself from all the travestis and she wants to live solely for that kid.
That organization of travestis is more like the organization of a mafia cell joining forces when they have enemies in common after them: the police or violent clients or the freezing night or, in this case, the occasion of finding a lost baby in the Sarmiento park. Una alianza. A herd. I think the word “family” falls short because they can betray each other, they can leave, they can come back. Calling Tía Encarna a “mother” is to reduce her complexity because it is not with a motherly vocation that Tía Encarna helps other travestis that are in greater need that her… because it is not only mothers that are able to feel piety, generosity, when others have fallen in disgrace.
JDL: It is also an organization not formed through biological ties, which is usually how these strong “familial” connections happen, but attachments through a shared experience and the circumstances in which they find themselves.
CSV: It is something that also has to do with the time period in which the Tía Encarna’s story is being told, the year 2000. During this time, there was no other way of having attachments other than in that style of connection. All of the travestis I met didn’t have families. They were thrown out or banished from their homes, or their families were very far away in other countries or provinces, so it is the only possible connection that we had. We were all daughters of no one.
JDL: Our narrator, Camila, sees the world’s dark secrets revealed by the night. You’ve spoken before about the “privilege” of Camila’s point of view, her eye on the world’s truth and nakedness. Can you talk about that specific point of view on the world that Camila has?
CSV: Something inherited from science-fiction. An intuitive power that Camila has that allows her to see people as they really are and that others don’t have so they get lost. I understood that the title “Bad Girls” left something very evident regarding a question I was always asking myself, “who are the bad girls?”
One day after three years of working very closely with a colleague at the Difunta Correa Cabaret, he distanced himself from me saying that I was “bad.” So while I was writing this book I kept coming back to this question, “what does it mean to be bad?” because I had heard that many times: travestis are bad. It is true that the travestis I met had less patience, were angry at times, held grudges that they couldn’t resolve, many were dangerous, of course, and you couldn’t get close to them. It reminded me when in science fiction movies people that tame the dragons need to understand the protocol to approach the dragon, where to look, the body language, what not to look, some of that was present when I was young and hanged around travestis on the street.
Travestis are seen in a very specific “bad girls” way but once you go into that travesti world you realize there’s abundance of gentleness, solidarity, complicity that “good people” don’t have. “Good people” are seen as those who get married, have families, and then you find out that 80% of abused children in Latin America are abused inside their homes. That the ones that are murdering their wives are married men with children, are the so called “good people”. Nobody would dare say that a man who wakes up at 6am to go work at a factory, a man that has a few drinks with his friends and comes home to his wife, nobody would dare say is a “bad person.” People say a “faggot” is a bad person. The faggot that wakes up at 3pm to go mess around and hook up with men at a dark park in the middle of the night. When I decided the title “Bad Girls” I needed to show what do these bad girls see? Why are they bad? Why are they stealing from their johns? Why are they fighting each other with so much violence? And this is the power that Camila, the narrator, has to undress those that are always perceived as the “good ones.” The good sons of good families that play sports every weekend, how can those good boys be bad?
JDL: Why does the book take place primarily at night?
CSV: It’s connected to Camila’s eye and her ability to see people as they are. The worse killings and hunting in nature happen at night. It is rare that killings happen during the day. These travestis are awake when everyone is asleep, so they see things, they see exactly how people are. Because most everyone is asleep and those who are out at night are in search of their preys. The day doesn’t admit those nightly creatures.
JDL: Throughout the novel we see a carousel of travestis entering the narrative for a brief moment, a few pages, and then disappearing. Like an archive of the Sarmiento park. A few characters remain with us from start to finish like Tía Encarna and María the Mute, the characters that are part of Tía Encarna’s house, but most of the characters are with us for only a brief period of a few pages.
CSV: I was very attentive to what I remember regarding the instability of travestis in the world: you could see her for a whole month every night and then boom she would disappear, and you’d find out that she was dead or was in Italy. From one day to the next. It was like that. There were some travestis that survived and were in the park for much longer. But the others would enter the park world with the logic of a show: perform their number as part of this travesti world. They would appear, would make a big mistake—beating someone up, stealing—and then they would disappear. I also do that: appear with the logic of a bank robbery or of a spontaneous choreography on the street.
JDL: How do you live writing?
CSV: With plenty of solitude. That is the reason why I have been living alone for the past 23 years. I don’t explain myself to no one. I can wake up at 3 am, make myself café con leche and start writing. I can write anywhere, I don’t have to be in a specific place. Writing is something you can’t share with anyone. Almost all professions serve to flirt, to meet people for a conversation in an airplane or a coffee shop or a date. But what are you going to say? “Oh I’m writing a story about a travesti that finds a baby in a ditch and she takes him to live with her in a house full of travestis”. Come on. Eso no se puede contar!
JDL: How do you feel about the book’s incredible success?
CSV: I feel great in economic terms. The success is economic. Specially for a girl like me, the success is always economic. I am not interested in the symbolic, all that can be lost in one moment. Money you can smell it, you can turn it into something else… there’s nothing more science fiction than money.
JDL: How has been the book received by other travestis?
CSV: With so much love and pride. It is deeply moving. They always have warm words for me and I really do not know how to give back all that love. They connect immediately and tell me, “it was exactly like that!” or “how lucky that there’s someone being able to speak it”. And I understand the deal about history always written by those who win, so that there is some peace that it is one of us, one of the travestis, who is writing about how we lived those 20 years ago. It also worries me. Because I have to be lucid when I talk, trying always to be clear about my position of privilege. There’s a sense of responsibility and I never wanted to be in this position of having to be “correct,” not politically correct, but correct with myself and the travestis. Specially with a particular type of travesti, not with the whole LGBT community, but with the travestis that I describe in the author’s note, with that type of travesti experience that has nothing to do with identity. It is not something that is built through language but that is constructed through experience. The travestis are always present when I have to respond.
JDL: I want to go back to this idea of the “hygienization” of trans representation in all the media, including literature. You and I have talked extensively about the stripping away of the chaos, the grime, stripping away a very specific experiential story from the “travesti” and the “trans” and homogenizing it, packaging it in a way that’s more palatable. I know you really love movies like “Tangerine” and T.V. shows like “La Veneno” precisely because that travesti chaos is embraced but they remain a niche and not the generally “accepted” trans narrative. Why?
CSV: There’s something that I still don’t understand: travestis were here before. We were here before the Spanish conquest. I don’t understand why now we have to ask for permission to exist, to name our truth, to go into a restaurant, a library, a movie theatre. When did travestis lose our sense of ancestry? In my newly published short story collection “Soy Una Tonta Por Quererte” (I’m a Fool to Want You) there’s a story about Cotita de la Encarnación which we’re told is one of the first travestis burned at the stake by the Spanish inquisition in Mexico. So I’m in awe that we still have to be asking for permission to talk about ourselves however we want when we have the proof of our existence written in the Treaty of the Indies. It really blows my mind. We were here before.
JDL: Why do you think that most of the English coverage of your book has centered around “Trans activism”, the contribution of the book to the “trans movement” instead of focusing on the literary quality, the storytelling masterpiece, you have created?
CSV: With my very limited English I could tell that’s how people in the U.S. have been covering Bad Girls. It speaks to the transphobia of an entire society. Not providing a space to the writing of a travesti. As if my obligation is limited to giving testimony and militant activism. It’s a price that I am not here to pay. While the money is coming in they can say whatever they want but people cannot forget that there is an internalized transphobia in the entire society, in all the structures of U.S culture, that presupposes that travestis can only give testimony of our experience, that we don’t have the right to write fiction.
JDL: A few times in the novel Camila points us to the unknown saying things like “that which cannot be explained’ in reference to the travesti existence. Can you speak to this unknown and “that which cannot be explained”?
CSV: There’s no language to explain the travesti experience. The white and European queer theorists have created this “trans” language, but it is something that cannot be explained. How can we discuss an experience? To explain what a travesti is we would have to tell the story of every single travesti born in this world throughout time. Because there is no other way of explaining it but through experience. What it meant to live in a country in which you were perceived as a very dangerous man dressed as a woman, a vector of sexually transmitted diseases, earning your coin in exchange for sex. The only way to explain this is through story. And then million other words appear around this experience such as class, skin color, what does each travesti have to lose, what things did I have to lose. It is rare that travestis have something to earn, we didn’t have anything to win back then. It was all loss. We left our homes, we didn’t see our parents, our parents hated us, we weren’t allowed in certain places, we walked the streets in fear, we were constantly arrested, etc, etc, what did we gain in all that? Nothing. All of that cannot be explained. The only way of explaining it is by telling the story. It wasn’t an issue of identity. I think “identity” is such a overused topic.
In the cover of the Spanish version of Bad Girls two travestis ride a horse. That photo belongs to the archive of trans memory here in Argentina. That archive of trans memory collects photos of travestis since the beginning of photography until today. I believe that it is one of the most stunning visual projects at this time. During an exhibition the folks from the trans archives said, the photos that appear inside of homes were taken in Argentina. The ones in plazas, in beaches, in forests are in Europe because here in Argentina travestis couldn’t be outside during the daytime. Inevitably after hearing something like this you start building a story in your head, one that is not narrated by a queer theorist. You are not thinking, trans are those who do this and that… one that is not comfortable with their gender, etc, etc.. That is a total oversimplification of a much more complex equation that does not admit language. That is why it has been so challenging for political and cultural forces to grapple with us, understand us. Until they didn’t succeed in this hygienization of our experience calling us “trans women” they couldn’t do much else with us but consume our bodies. We are a dimension that does not participate in language, that is deprived of language in the way that we understand language. So I can write a story, but that writing has to be understood as a narration of experience not of identity.
There are not a lot of travestis left, the older ones are dying. I am part of the generation that had to go through that awful world, a world without a god. Which is why in Bad Girls I vindicate that it is fiction and that it is my right to speak using the terms I use. I write fiction because there is no other way to speak about the travesti experience. There’s this María Felix quote that goes something like this “you cannot investigate an actress, you invent an actress, an actress is a dream” and that is how travestis are: travestis are not be theorized about or investigated, travestis are to be invented, dreamed of.