Sarah Booker reviews Sexographies by Gabriela Wiener

Translated from the Spanish by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock (Restless Books, 2018)

I first heard Gabriela Wiener’s work via Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language podcast dedicated to telling stories from Latin America. Wiener has collaborated with the program on several pieces, including one called “Fealdad,” or “On Ugliness,” about how she navigates her self-image as someone who does not conform to typical beauty standards. Before delving into a discussion of her own body image, she introduces herself in a straightforward yet playful, Peruvian-accented voice:

My name is Gabriela Wiener. I’m Peruvian, I’m a writer. I have a daughter and a baby boy. And I have two partners: a boyfriend and a girlfriend . . . And I have small eyes. I have the kind of mouth you see drawn in comics . . . And I have a bit of a belly, which I’ve always had, as if I were four months pregnant. I’m a little stocky, I think. And that’s it: I bite my nails and do those things.

The piece revolves around questions of weight and race as experienced in relationships and then moves on to address the Internet trolls that had used her physical appearance to attack her. I was drawn to how she wove together the personal and the social, the anecdotal and the analytical, as she related a singular experience by rooting it in a more universal one of identity.

Born and raised in Lima, Wiener has spent extensive time in Barcelona and Madrid, where she currently lives. Through writing and activism, she actively participates in a contemporary and radical feminist discourse. Known for literary essays that bring together journalism, creative nonfiction, and personal narrative, she often explores themes of sexuality, gender, and identity in books including Sexografías (2008), Nueve lunas (2010), Llamada Perdida (2014), and Dicen de mí (2017). Beautifully translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Adcock and Lucy Greaves and published by the admirable Restless Books, Sexographies, Wiener’s first book-length work to be translated into English, is a collection of personal essays that explores various aspects of sexuality and the body, covering topics that include polyamory, BDSM, maternity, and writing. It is a corpus that has the corpus at its center.

Wiener belongs to a constellation of young, female writers from Latin America paying particular attention to the female body. It is a group that includes Ariana Harwicz, Mónica Ojeda, Mariana Enríquez, Samanta Schweblin, Liliana Colanzi, and Fernanda Melchor. In an August 2017 piece highlighting the work of Wiener and these contemporaries, El País even identified a new Latin American boom that resembles the 1960s phenomenon that turned Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa into literary superstars. Like those forefathers—and it was, unfortunately, largely men—these innovative women tackle new questions and experiment with literary form. At the same time, the international circulation of their work is fueled by the publishing industry in Spain, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Several overlapping terms have been used to characterize Wiener’s particular form of writing, including Gonzo journalism and crónica. What these different genres try to capture is the way these essays speak from a personal and intimate position. While in translation her work is marketed as “Gonzo journalism” because its lack of objectivity, boldness, and focus on sexuality recall a tradition developed in the 1970s—again, primarily by male writers and epitomized by the figure of Hunter S. Thompson—the focus on female sexuality and the hybrid nature of this book make it wholly contemporary. In Latin America, her writing has most often been associated with the crónica, or chronicle. This genre’s long history on the continent begins with the Spanish conquest of the region, when Cortés, Columbus, and others wrote texts from a personal perspective, called crónicas, about exploring this new land. By the beginning of the twentieth century, writers such as José Martí and Rubén Darío chronicled the effects of modernity on the city and the profession of writing, and in the 1970s and 1980s Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska, among others, turned to the genre to examine increasingly globalized cities and questions of class disparity.

In the twenty-first century, the form has been taken seriously by academics and writers alike, with a corresponding proliferation of chronicles that cover everything from the contemporary political climate to state-sponsored violence to the intimate landscape of bodies. It is a kind of writing that brings together the perspective of personal experience with the objective eye of journalism and aims to appeal to a wide audience. As crónica scholar Viviane Mahieux suggests, the importance and relevance of the chronicle now “hinges on its inherent ability to capture urban life in all of its chaotic, fragmented, and often dysfunctional grandeur.” Wiener does explore twenty-first-century urban life, yet on a corporeal level that looks at the negotiation of bodies in the twenty-first century.

The publisher’s description of Sexographies suggests the narrative voice belongs to an “eagle-eyed voyeur.” While her observations are indeed incisive, Wiener is anything but a voyeur, which suggests an external observer. She instead commits to each and every one of her stories, immersing herself in the experience so as to reach a deeper level of understanding. This intimate relationship between writer and subject defines her approach, which she articulates in the footnote to an essay on swinger culture:

The only way to be loyal to the spirit of this story is to allow myself to be guided by chance rather than by facts, to go with the flow of situations and of people in a way that I wouldn’t be able to if I presented myself as a journalist. To expose the life and experience of swingers, I should first expose my own intimacy. To put into view, warts and all, not only my own nakedness, fears, complexes, and jealousy, but also my fantasies and my morbid curiosity. Let’s just say if I was going to get involved in their lives I had to follow it through to the end, so that everything I was going to say about swingers would also be true about myself.

This self-awareness, coupled with the penetrative nature of these pieces, makes this collection especially compelling.

The essays exhibit a discernible progression as they move from a focus on the stories of others—and relationships with them—to one that is more introspective and individualistic. The book opens with two pieces that address male sexuality and the masculine body. In “Guru & Family,” Wiener creates a fascinating portrait of an infamous Peruvian sex guru and his six wives, and in “In the Prison of Your Skin,” she explores prison tattoos. In many ways, these initial essays set up the personal yet shared nature of the ones that follow, which focus on sexuality more broadly and take the reader into not only a swingers’ club but also a BDSM performance, a transgender woman’s romantic relationships and work, the mysteries of female ejaculation, and a polyamorous relationship. The book then shifts to the female body, delving into questions of body image, female writers, ayahuasca, egg donation, conspiracy theories, maternity, migration, death, and abuse. While I doubt Wiener would ever frame the book as an all-inclusive exploration of the twenty-first-century corporeal landscape, she covers a wide range of experiences that give the reader a glimpse into her world.

At its core, this is a book about how the human body determines our lived experiences, how it tells our stories, and how we modify it. These questions lie at the heart of “In the Prison of Your Skin,” in which Wiener visits the notorious Lurigancho Prison in Lima to talk to a famous tattoo artist and considers the ways that prisoners use this ink to narrate their experiences. They modify their bodies to create or erase memories, and she reads skin as if it were a book: “I put my glasses on to better read the hieroglyphics of their scars. I riffle through skin after skin, letting the ugliness of their unwashed bodies speak to me.” Etched onto this surface is a sense of reconciliation with the past and an acknowledgement of the stories we choose to tell and those we choose to conceal:

They all miss someone, they’re all prisoners of someone’s love, they all reminisce on their happy days, and recall their childhood idylls. Then their film darkens and they see themselves turning to alcohol, drugs, and crime. The marks on their skin are meant to transport them to better times, to a mother with open arms or a girlfriend waiting for them outside.

In one of her more introspective essays, “The Greater the Beauty, the More it is Befouled,” Wiener addresses her own body dysmorphia disorder. “I think very few people are attracted to me at first sight,” she explains. “So few, that I’m always surprised when it happens.” The gaze shifts from an external observer to an internal one, and it stands out from the others because of its heavy use of theoretical sources (Freud, Nietzsche, Bataille), perhaps in the hope of a deeper sense of self-knowledge via an objective, external perspective.

Addressing similar questions in “Trans,” one of her more outward-looking pieces, Wiener best expresses the frustrations with her body’s needs, with the ways that bodies often dictate actions. When traveling without her child while nursing, Wiener is forced to empty her breasts: “I milk myself over Vanesa’s bathtub using my hands, because I can’t get the pump to work. Right now, I’d give anything for a pair of silicone tits, anything to be free from my female condition. I wonder if this antagonism is akin to how trans people feel about their own bodies.” 

Yet beyond focusing on the individual experience of the body, Wiener also carefully explores sexual and romantic relationships, especially those that fall outside heterosexual norms. In “Three,” a thoughtful examination of her own relationship, Wiener works through simultaneous desires for monogamy and infidelity, as she explains in the opening lines: “How could I enjoy unfaithfulness without sacrificing Sunday movie nights and breakfasts in bed? How could I savor the excitement of a secret rendezvous but still cuddle with someone who loved and protected me?” As she and her partner, Jaime, contemplate bringing a third person into their relationship, she reminisces about the particular emotions involved in a threesome: “At the moment of tripartite lovemaking, jealousy and desire competed with equal ferocity, and the pleasure of exclusivity was replaced by the pleasure of being one among many.”

Motherhood and procreation emerge in the final third of the book as Wiener draws once more from her experiences and relationships. “Goodbye, Little Egg, Goodbye” looks at the reproductive tourism in Spain that has been created by the legalization and anonymity of egg donation there. In large part inspired by the altruistic and monetary opportunities it offered, Wiener decides to make a donation. Her initial experience with the process highlights the racist tendencies of an industry that relies on Latin American migrants but that caters to a largely white clientele as she is rejected by the first clinic due to her dark features. Wiener’s response is particularly telling: “I couldn’t help but think that my future offspring were facing racial discrimination before they’d even been born.” This piece poses questions about what it means to bring a child into this world where parental protection can only go so far.

“On Motherliness” raises similar issues, but this time in the context of Wiener’s daughter learning to read:

Each day she and I laugh at the adventures of Captain Arsenio, we fly with Watanabe’s painted bird, we run around with Pippi Longstocking, or we disappear under Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. It’s not always easy. I find it very hard to make her understand that stories are not just a bedtime toy, I find it hard to peel her away from the TV, I struggle to get her to understand that a book can contain a different story each time we reread it. But I am optimistic. I want to believe that time and patience will lead her to her own revelation.

Wiener articulates a desire to protect and nurture but acknowledges the ways that children will sooner or later be exposed to a world outside of the intimate family sphere. And storytelling—including everything from children’s tales of fighting evil to narratives of sexual desire—is a means of navigating that world, of not only learning about it but also contributing to it.

Wiener’s sincere, funny voice comes through clearly in Greaves and Adcock’s translation. They employ clever tricks to add information in order to include a culturally specific term, such as with the inclusion of the Spanish Nocilla, a term that has both a culinary and cultural context: “Agustín Fernández Mallo, a man who turned Nocilla (think Nutella) into a literary project emblematic of a generation of Spanish writers.” The references and imagery that have been so elegantly rendered in the translation also distinctly locate the narratives in Lima, Barcelona, and Madrid. For example, Wiener returns to Lima, describing the beach through both sensory experience and history:

We’d forgotten that La Herradura no longer has a beach; the turncoat sea swept away all the sand that had been brought in by the truckload under orders of the first woman elected mayor of Lima. La Herradura no longer has a shore or its chromatic yachts. The sea, smelling of all the dead bodies in the history of the world, makes us want to drink.

With Sexographies, Wiener does something truly unique by writing so honestly and openly about contemporary body politics and even insisting that politics is always embodied. At the same time, though, in a book made up of sex-writings, many readers will find ways to identify with this text—inhabit it—and pose similar questions. Ultimately, then, it’s a collection that emphasizes not just one but both senses of intercourse.