'Sexographies' by Gabriela Wiener

Review #121

This intense and fascinating collection of essays and first-person reportage by Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener is not for the prudish or easily scandalized. Even I was taken aback (in a good way) by ‘Sexographies’:

Wiener examines and participates in the lives of those who ‘live on the fringe of convention,’ as she writes in the opening piece where she spends the night in the harem of an outspoken polygamist who fled persecution in Chile to settle in Peru. Many of her stories involve sex, as the book’s title suggests; sometimes she observes and sometimes she partakes. For example, she tries out a Barcelona swingers club with her boyfriend, gets hands-on sexual instruction from a therapist who dresses like a ninja and receives advice (and pain) from a dominatrix. But she also takes us on journeys into dark worlds we probably wouldn’t otherwise see. In one story, she ventures through a Dante’s ‘Inferno’-esque prison in Lima to interview tattoo artists. In another she follows transgender Peruvian immigrants living in Paris. Many of them resort to prostitution in the Bois de Boulogne park to survive. And there were also interesting pieces about motherhood, death, trying ayahuasca (which sounds awful) and the literary legacy of Isabel Allende (whose books I should read). With every piece, I was like:

The most provocative thing about Wiener’s work is how she eschews the typical journalist-as-observer approach to reporting and immerses herself physically, emotionally and spiritually into her stories. I agree with what Janna from the Strand Book Store’s marketing department wrote about the book on the staff recommendation shelf: Wiener ‘refuses to examine others’ lives in a removed or self-superior way, causing her own life to be transformed through her interactions.’ In doing this, Wiener dispels a great deal of taboo surrounding sex work, gender and sexuality. She also becomes a proxy for the reader, standing in for us in places and situations we might never experience and forcing us to ask ourselves:

It’s fascinating work from which I think American journalists could learn a lot. And normal people, too. If the subject matter doesn’t scare you off, you should read this book.

How it begins:

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.

Since his life came into the public eye, Ricardo Badani has elicited the hatred of many. He’s been denounced as a misogynist and a homophobe, with good reason: his archaic worldview advocates for a return to the time of alpha males and female acolytes. He hasn’t varied or nuanced his discourse in the slightest throughout the years. I, on the other hand, have become more radical, especially when it comes to feminism. I’ve never ceased to disagree with him—not back then, and definitely not now.

But his story continues to fascinate me for many reasons; not the least of them being his defiant choice to live on the fringe of convention, always challenging any sort of restraint.

My rating:

‘Sexographies’ (Sexografías) by Gabriela Wiener was published by Restless Books in 2018. Translated from the Spanish by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock. 226 pages. $16.19 at Strand Book Store.

More things worth your time:

  • Read this: My reading list has expanded after NBC News published a roundup of ‘The best Latino books, according to Latinx writers.’ Tons of great looking novels, memoirs and poetry collections here. I’m most looking forward to reading Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir ‘In the Dream House’ (I reviewed her short story collection ‘Her Body And Other Parties’ last year), Angie Cruz’s novel ‘Dominicana’ and Jennine Capó Crucet’s essay collection ‘My Time Among the Whites.’

  • Read this, too: ‘Italy always had great women writers,’ author Nadia Terranova says in this piece in The New York Times. ‘The truly new thing is that, for the first time, they’re getting recognition.’ The success of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels has elevated other contemporary Italian women authors, as well as those of the past such as Natalia Ginzburg (I reviewed ‘The Dry Heart’ last month), in what the article calls ‘The Ferrante Effect.’ Many books listed here are being added to my list, including Ginzburg’s ‘Family Lexicon’ (a classic) and ‘The Girl With the Leica’ by Helena Janeczek (the first woman to win Italy’s top literary prize in 15 years).

  • Also, read this: The Guardian’s piece ‘Without women the novel would die: discuss’ examines how the act of a woman reading fiction in public, or at all, still somehow engenders criticism and disdain. This, despite the fact that women ‘account for 80% of sales in the UK, US and Canadian fiction markets – far more women than men are literary festivalgoers, library members, audio book readers, literary bloggers, and members of literary societies and evening classes.’

  • Lastly, read this: If you read anything about ‘Star Wars’ this week (other than my reviews of ‘Ahsoka’ and ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’), be sure to check out this story in The Wall Street Journal that takes you inside the marriage of Disney and Lucasfilm. The two bits that struck me: 1) Russian internet trolls have weaponized angry fanboys, and 2) The story arc between ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Last Jedi’ was disjointed because the companies never mapped out where the final trilogy in the so-called ‘Skywalker Saga’ would go.

Thanks for the shoutout!

In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘The Heart’ by Maylis de Kerangal. Also in the queue are ‘The Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann, ‘Evicted’ by Matthew Desmond and ‘The Great Believers’ by Rebecca Makkai, among others.

In case you missed it: The last edition of Books on GIF featured ‘8 Novels to Give as Holiday Gifts This Year.’

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!

Until next time,


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