Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sirena Selena by Mayra Santos-Febres, translated by Stephen A. Lytle

Sirena Selena
Mayra Santos-Febres
Translated by Stephen A. Lytle (from Spanish)
First published 2001, I read kindle version
224 pages, LGBT+, drama

Miss Martha Divine, an old veteran of the Drag Queen scene in New York and Puerto Rico, has found her ticket to glory: a 15-year-old with a voice like an angel, who takes on the artist name of Sirena Selena. Miss Martha takes her young protege to the neighboring Dominican Republic, in an attempt to sell the act to one of the fancy tourist hotels there - where they won't mind that the performer is underage.

After seeing Sirena Selena's audition, one very wealthy businessman, Hugo Graubel, is captivated by the young star - in her enchanting performance, he thinks that he has finally found the person that he can love "as I have always wanted to love a woman" (p. 175). Filled with desire, Hugo arranges to have Sirena Selena come to his house, to perform for his business associates at a dinner he will be throwing later that week. His wife, unsatisfied with her husband's continued disinterest in her, is not pleased to have a travesti in the house. Hugo doesn't care what his wife thinks; even if she decides to divorce him over it, he just wants to have Sirena Selena for his very own.

Interspersed with Miss Martha Divine's reminiscences about the gay scene in Puerto Rico and New York and a tangentially related look at the friendship between two young boys, this novel questions the stability of gender, sexuality, and dress in the hot Caribbean world of travestis.

Sirena Selena Vestida de Pena

The original Spanish title of this novel is "Sirena Selena Vestida de Pena" which means both "Sirena Selena, dressed in pain" or "Sirena Selena, dressed with care." (If I remember my formerly-fluent but long-disused Spanish correctly.) No wonder the translator chose to just shorten the title! 

This original title captures the essence of the book and of Sirena's character. After a terribly difficult childhood, involving living on the streets after his grandmother's death, drugs, and being raped, the young performer finally has the opportunity to make something of her life. After dressing carefully for the role (she is a consummate actress), she wows her audiences with her soul-filled renditions of her grandmother's boleros. It is the emotion, the pain imbued in the songs, that gives her voice the power to enchant her listeners. 

Perhaps it is for this reason that Hugo is so drawn to this young travesti. It seems that, his whole life, he has been hiding the fact that he is gay, something that is frowned upon by his family and Dominican society, especially for someone of his social standing. Feeling pressured to act and appear straight, he married a woman and had children, but did not enjoy any of it. He sees his salvation in Sirena: while she appears to be the perfect woman, her male genitalia will allow him to truly love her physically for the first time. 

Miss Martha is not a typical Drag Queen: her goal with the money she can make with Sirena is to pay for her own sex confirmation surgery, at long last. Without surgery, she is uncomfortable with her body, particularly her male genitals, that conflict with her sense of self. 

As a novel

I am not an expert in issues relating to LGBTQA+ identities. But it seemed to me that this novel treated these categories too simplistically. Is Sirena Selena a transwoman, or a Drag performer? I feel that she is the latter, as is Miss Martha. I don't know much about the social context, or the role of the travesti in Puerto Rican/ Dominican society. Perhaps doing Drag shows is one of the only ways for transgender individuals to demonstrate their gender identity? In the end, gender categories are fluid; people can express themselves in any way they like. I'm just not sure how well this novel depicts the reality of transgender people/ Drag performers in Puerto Rico. I would love to hear about it from someone who knows more. (You can also read this scholarly examination of gender as performance in Sirena Selena for more discussion.)

What was more disappointing was this novel's writing. At times, it soars to beautiful heights, especially when describing Sirena's act:
And flames pour from Selena’s eyes, dry blue flames, flowing from the fragile face of a cornered gazelle, already leaping in those heels. Her waist undulating like a shimmering sea in front, and behind, from her naked back, hurricanes, cataclysms . . . and the sea foam covers her, quietly shielding her little dove’s chest, her narrow chest with two shallow protuberances there, breasts of syrup, waxy fruit, the softest imitation of a peach, with the soft down of a fifteen-year-old girl. (p. 162)
Unfortunately, to reach these beautiful passages you have to wade through many, many pages of only tangentially related, uninteresting descriptions. Far too many pages are devoted to Miss Martha's reminiscences about life in the gay scene, or to her comedy routines. These have very little to do with the main story, and I found them extremely dull. Then there is the story of the Dominican boys, Leocadio and Migueles, who are rescued by a kind woman. Their story is only tangentially related, and by the time I figured out who they are it turns out that I, at least, don't actually care.

I would be interested to hear a review of this book from someone who actually identifies as transgender, travesti, or a drag performer in Puerto Rico or the Caribbean. But otherwise I wouldn't really recommend reading it unless you're interested in reading the disjointed reminiscences of a fictional, aging Drag performer that have nothing to do with the main plot of the novel.

Sirena Selena is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart.

 Further Reading: 

"Trans Women Are Not Drag Queens" by Maddie McClousky from Everyday Feminism
"10 Myths About Drag Queens" by Tom Bartolomei from Huffington Post
"1898 and the History of a Queer Puerto Rican Century..." by Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes from Academia 
"LGBT in Puerto Rico" from Wikipedia

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  1. I haven't ever read anything by Santos-Febres, Chelsea, so it was interesting to me to read your complex review of what seems like a fairly complex work. Too bad there were so many dull and/or extraneous passages in the novel for you, though!

    1. I would be interested in reading more books by her; her writing style is beautiful when the story calls for it. But this one just didn't appeal to me.