Earlier this year, I heard Cecilia Gentili read aloud from her forthcoming book, hypnotizing a rapt room of rowdy writers and poets sipping on wine. Gentili’s ability to tell captivating stories live is unparalleled, featuring a striking mix of bawdiness and cutting insight. Now she’s turned many of these tales into her debut book, Faltas, a series of unsent letters to women and men from her childhood who had a profound effect on her formation. The memoir, subtitled Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist, powerfully glides through abuse, sex work, forgiveness, friendship and class mobility.
The memoir, out Oct. 4, chronicles Gentili’s childhood growing up in Gálvez, Argentina, a small city about 430 kilometres inland from Buenos Aires. Gentili eventually moved to Rosario, a larger city, and began to transition during her 10 years living there. She then spent time in Brazil and says she was banned from the country (she won’t divulge why). Gentili eventually moved to Miami, but decided to leave when a woman hit her with a bat. “I fell and she went away on Rollerblades. I saw the Rollerblades as I was on the floor.” Gentili says she later learned that the woman was her boyfriend’s wife—the woman threatened to call immigration on Gentili. Finally, Gentili landed in New York, where she’s lived for the past decade.
Gentili is known in New York for her organizing and advocacy around sex work, including her work to help repeal the Walking While Trans bans. She’s starred in fashion campaigns for Gogo Graham, acted in the TV show Pose, performed at alternative cabaret Dixon Place and worked at the legendary Apicha Community Health Center, where many trans people in New York first begin undergoing hormone replacement therapy.
Even before its release, Faltas has attracted a slew of celebrity admirers, including Janet Mock, Torrey Peters, McKenzie Wark and Morgan M Page. Gentili’s oral storytelling translates seamlessly into a little earthquake of a book, letting the reader in on accusations (“Was my father a good fuck?”), wisdom (“As if loving art made you less of a faggot”), confessions (“Sometimes I can’t deal with them calling me Mom”) and détentes (“You needed me to be bad so you could feel good”).
With a storied career and life, characteristic humour and an eye for a witty barb, Gentili has crafted a warm, thoughtful, piercing book. (People love to use a lot of adjectives for books that are full of life.) Xtra recently spoke with Gentili in Fort Greene Park.
Can you talk about the process of translating oral stories into writing?
It sucks. When I tell stories, I have people laughing at it. My desire is to make people laugh, or cringe at times, but mostly laugh. When I started telling stories at Dixon Place. Elle [Covan] from Dixon Place approached me and asked me if I wanted to try stories, and then Elle would commission a show for me. But I had to try stories first at the bar. I was telling stories, we were taping it and I would see what worked and didn’t work.
My stories mostly had, at that time, a goal of making you laugh. Most of those stories came after I won my asylum in this country. An asylum project is really difficult. It’s really focused on your misery and pain. I had to use all that misery and pain to get asylum. It was terrible. I was talking about my misery for a long time, so I wanted to talk about how happy I was as a child at times, and how I was able to navigate terrible situations gracefully. I wanted to say that many things were horrible, but many things were not, and those two things can live together.
When I started writing the book, I also found the beauty of putting down the horrible things. I love the idea of creating a narrative that is “la la la and UFOs—your father raped me.” It creates that kind of abruptness, I love that. I wanted to create some shocking moments.
You’ve told this story before, both in the book and elsewhere, but can you talk about when you thought you were an extraterrestrial as a kid?
My grandmother was the only person who truly was open to a conversation about gender. She was just open. If you think about my grandmother, she was a woman who didn’t go to school, who didn’t know how to read or write, who grew up in the countryside, living from farm to farm, working for rich people. A woman who was Indigenous and living with mostly white immigrants. So, it was not that I would have expected her to have that kind of openness. She was very open to talk about things, about events, about identities and about things like race. My grandma was always aware that the land we were in, it was hers to begin with, and it was appropriated. She was a woman, in Spanish they call it “de armas tomar.” “De armas tomar” means she who takes arms, she who fights. She was the person that I knew I could go to and tell this insane story that I came up with about me being an extraterrestrial, and I knew that she would be open to this conversation.
We lived in an area that was known for UFO activities. I was just made aware of body parts and I feel like a girl, but I don’t have the body parts of a girl. It made sense. I think it was also a desire. That somebody would come and take me out of this misery. I’m just here investigating how life is on this planet, but I’m gonna be extracted and brought back to my people and my grandmother said, “That makes sense. You have a point. Maybe this is what it is.” Everything I said to her she would have entertained.
Can you talk to me about your grandmother?
She went to a Baptist church and then her son died. Her most precious son died of cancer. That was the first time I encountered death, in that I actually saw a dead body and I remember they made me kiss him. I just said it and I felt this thing going through my body. It was traumatic for me. Argentinian funerals and wakes are very dramatic. That’s the Italian influence: people cry, and there are lloronas who cry at funerals. If you don’t have llonaras, it looks like a person was not really loved. I guess it was dramatic to make me kiss the face of my uncle who was also my godfather. She was in the Baptist church at the time, and she started having issues with the Baptist church not allowing her to be upset. I think the Baptist church idea was she should be happy that he went with God. They told her, “God chooses the most beautiful flowers for his garden.” But she said, “I wanted that flower with me. That was my flower. I didn’t want him to take my flower.” She was upset with God.
She left the church. But she always kept reading the Bible. The Bible can be interpreted in many oppressive ways, but she never did.
The thing is that churches in small places, churches are not just the church. They’re the whole social understanding of life. The people from church were the people who were gonna help her build a new garden. They were the ones who celebrated the birthdays, so when she walked away from the church, she walked away from her whole identity and her whole social environment. But she walked away.
Can you talk about brujería?
It’s a really important part of the tradition and folklore in Argentina. There are strong forces that are out of your control and are ungodly, things that are done with malice. A lot of influence that comes from Brazil and Santería. Sometimes my mom would travel to Brazil to get the shells to do conjures so she could keep her marriage. It was very expensive.
Inés, who was my father’s mistress, was very into brujería, and she had a goal, and the goal was to separate my father from my mother. That was a consistent threat for us.
Weirdly enough, I’m not interested in any of that. I like to get my tarot readings every now and then. I love the whole magical moment of having someone reading, but it’s not like I believe it. It’s just the moment. The moment is magical. But I lived around ideas of supernatural things in the world that were out of our control.
At a certain point you said the town witches offered to turn you into a girl.
I thought I could take a chance, but these women were, like, really scary. Really scary. They were socially isolated from the rest of the world. You walk by them and they yell things, but people needed to keep going to them. You get sick, so you need remedies. I don’t know how they made a living. I think my mama paid them when she gave us remedies and things like that.
I didn’t really believe her. Even if I did believe her, I didn’t want to take that risk of having her help with that. I couldn’t have gone back and said do it. And trust me, I wanted to be a girl. But they’re gonna trick me like Ariel the mermaid. There’s a trick there, there’s something they’re not telling me and I’m not gonna be stupid. I don’t want to take that risk.
What is your relationship to motherhood? The letter to your mom is such a centrepiece of the book.
The most important thing I wish people take away from the letter to my mom is that my mom was a wonderful woman; she was just not a good mother. The fact that she was a wonderful woman needs to be highlighted because when we say that someone is not a good mother, we think of this person as the worst person in the world—if you’re not a good mother you’re just a horrible person. I came to understand my mom was just not a good mother; it was not for her. She should not have been a mother. It was pushed on her. I believe that’s the reality of many women.
She could’ve been my best friend. After years, we became really good friends, but when you think about motherhood and the responsibility and the support and shepherding your child— she was not that person. I have always had a lot of issues with the ideas of motherhood and I always felt like to be a mother it has to be a very intentional form of identity. It’s not, “Oh, I’m your mom,” it’s “I’m your mom, but how am I mothering you?” Because of my experience, I always felt motherhood would be an identity that had a lot of responsibility. So when I started working at Apicha, I had more than 600 patients. Many of them just came continuing hormones from other places, but many of them came to start hormones, so I was with them throughout their whole understanding of themselves as trans. So, many of them naturally started calling me Mom and I was always shocked by the word. I was always like, “What?” But then what am I gonna say? “Don’t call me Mom?” So, I was always uncomfortable with someone seeing me as a mom, because I could not be a mom who was not only present, but purposely helping you in a good way. I also couldn’t be a mother to a hundred children. I was their case manager. But the level of inserting yourself in the lives of these kids has to be measured because you want to be their case manager. But a couple of them really broke through my walls and they’re my children now.
Did you have a trans mom?
I met the first trans person in my life when I was 17. I had different trans moms.
Did that feel really important to you?
No, because of my relationship to motherhood, I never fully allowed them to be mothers. I don’t think they wanted to be mothers. They just wanted to have a sense of sisterhood. It was not as structured as people in the ballroom scene. It was more like a big sister kind of system. It was not as demanding, but I do see them as motherly figures. They taught me about hormones, dressing, how to act in spaces, how to sell your body. They are my mothers, but specifically with one of them, I had a very troubled relationship through all the years. It would be weird to talk to her as my mother when I can’t stand her.
The book is dedicated to your boyfriend Peter. Can you talk about your relationship?
I’ve been in a relationship for about seven or eight years. When I met Peter, I had made a decision and the decision was a series of different decisions: I’m not gonna date, and if I date, I’m not gonna date a man, and if I date a man, it’s not gonna be a cis man. And if it’s a cis person, it’s not gonna be a white person. I was really looking for dating a trans woman of colour or transmasculine people of colour after so many frustrating relationships with white cis men. Of course, who comes into my life but a white cis man, and he has worked really hard on helping me change that perception that a white cis man could not be good to me, and he has worked really hard and continues to work every day, and he makes me really happy.
I have had really bad relationships with men, and I kind of lived this romantic Argentina idea that if he hurts me it’s because he loves me. It’s not just a trans thing, it’s a romantic idea of Latinx love and specifically. I don’t know if you ever heard tango? Tango is really about backstabbing and terribleness, and I think I kind of absorbed that idea to an extent that wasn’t healthy, and my relationship with Peter has been able to change my mind about love and relationships.
How did you know he was the one?
I told him that I don’t know if he’s the one, but I know that he’s the last one.
Your memoir is written in the form of letters you’ve written to people you knew in Gálvez. The final letter is written to Delia, a woman who was cruel to you during your childhood. It’s an extremely potent letter about growing up queer in a small town.
I feel like it was a lot of people who really banked on me and my persona and my identity as some kind of North Star for terribleness, and the more they could create distance from me, the more they were achieving some kind of angelical wellness. But by creating the distance, they were really evil. I don’t even know if she’s alive, but if she got to read it, the letter doesn’t have a meaning of judging her, but it has a meaning for me. To release myself from that judgment. Very stupidly, the most difficult thing for me about this book was to imagine what would happen if people from Gálvez read it. A lot of my solace for a long time was that it was in English and they’re not gonna understand it and it wasn’t gonna get to them. But then I realized a lot of people speak English. It was a really important moment. It was okay, that’s why I wrote it, so they could read it, and it’s okay if people don’t like me after. I’m not looking for their love anymore. I lived in this country for 23 years and through most of those years, I still cared about what they thought of me, and today I’m free of them.
Who was gonna tell you this child was doing this work? My mom was very hard on you when you celebrated yourself. She thought you should be humble. She would say “mírala tirándose flores a sí misma,” which means “look at her throwing flowers at herself.” She would say, “If you’re gonna get flowers, they have to be thrown at you.” But I’ve always been humble. But fuck it—I’ve done some good things in life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.