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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Gabriela Wiener does not care if you don’t see her writing as literature


Gabriela Wiener in New York, Sept. 21, 2023. The Peruvian author, whose latest book, “Undiscovered,” investigates the 19th-century European explorer that shares her last name, wants to “decolonize” everything — starting with her body and her family.

By María Sánchez Díez


When Peruvian writer Gabriela Wiener was a child, she dreaded school trips to museums in Lima, the capital.


As her class approached the display cases containing the pre-Columbian ceramic statues known as huacos retratos, she would start shaking. The figurines’ faces, which are believed to represent notable members of the Mochica culture, had an undeniable resemblance to hers.


Mockery and insults would inevitably follow: “There’s Gabriela,” she remembered her classmates would shout. “Indian face, huaco face.” To look Indigenous, to be brown and not white in Peru in the 1980s, meant to be ugly, undesirable — or at least that is what she felt for a long time.


“Colonialism is not something that just happened in the past. It continues to pulse in our lives, our beds, our families, our society,” Wiener said in Spanish during a recent visit to New York, standing in front of one of these statues at the Metropolitan Museum.


Several decades and several books later, the huacos retratos are no longer vessels of painful childhood memories for Wiener, perhaps the most irreverent and daring voice of the new literary generation of Latin American women. The sculptures have become an instrument to “decolonize” herself and reclaim her identity, she said; the metaphor is the backbone of her novel “Undiscovered” — “Huaco Retrato,” in Spanish — out by HarperVia, in a translation by Julia Sanches.


“Undiscovered” explores a conflict central to Wiener’s identity. She is brown, a proud “chola,” to use the derogatory Peruvian term for people of Indigenous ancestry. But she also is probably a descendant of Charles Wiener, an Austrian-turned-French explorer who traveled to Peru in the 19th century and became known for almost finding Machu Picchu: He came as close as Ollantaytambo, where the locals told him about the abandoned Incan city. Wiener mentions it by name in his notes, but he never reached the ruins.


Charles Wiener left behind a trace of colonial violence and pillage that the novel examines, mixing fact with fiction. What is known about the historical Charles Wiener is that when he left Peru for France, he took thousands of pre-Columbian artifacts — including huacos retratos — that helped build the Ethnographic Museum collection in the French capital. In a book he wrote about his expeditions to Peru, Charles Wiener also describes buying a child named Juan and taking him to Europe.


In exchange, he left behind a son he had with an Indigenous woman — the beginning of the mixed-race lineage that would, according to the story passed down by the family, lead to Gabriela Wiener. Reconstructing the steps of the patriarch and intertwining personal and official history, Gabriela Wiener unmasks her ancestor as the force that shaped many of her wounds.


“The book talks about all imperialisms from a place of everyday, intimate life, from experience,” Wiener said.


The conclusion? She wants to decolonize it all: the status of whiteness as a proxy for beauty, the mythology around Charles Wiener in a clan that is still proud of its European-sounding last name, the family secrets.


In addition to race, sex has also been at the center of Wiener’s work. In 2008, working as a journalist, Wiener wrote “Sexographies,” a collection of first-person gonzo stories that explored, no holds barred, various aspects of sexuality. She wrote openly about her taste in pornography and her experiences donating eggs, about female ejaculation, about a sexual encounter with a porn star and about visits to swingers clubs.


Before polyamory went mainstream, before the term “ethical nonmonogamy” caught on in dating apps, Wiener was already speaking openly about the complex polyamorous relationship she had with her longtime husband, poet Jaime Rodríguez Zavaleta, and a Spanish woman.


Wiener, who has lived in Spain since 2003, has also written about the immigrant experience in “Llamada Perdida” (“Missed Call,” unavailable in English) and alternative approaches to pregnancy and maternity in “Nueve Lunas” (“Nine Moons,” published in English by Restless Books).


“Gabriela is always pushing the boundaries and trying to ensure that these topics and issues are not taboo,” Peruvian novelist and journalist Daniel Alarcón said. “She is always opening doors for us.”


Alarcón, host of the Spanish-language “Radio Ambulante” podcast, featured Wiener in an episode about ugliness, during which the writer unpacked what it meant for her to feel unpretty. In, it she cataloged all her perceived imperfections.


“My crooked teeth. My black knees. My fat arms. My sagging breasts. My small eyes circled by two black bags. My shiny and grainy nose. My black, witchy hair.”


The inventory went on and on.


What happened afterward is exactly what Wiener had hoped for: “A lot of women came to tell me that it had liberated them from their own physical complexes,” she said. “That’s what happens. You create something and it can become something that mobilizes things.”


This unconventional and kamikaze approach to writing has prompted critics at times to label her work not as literature, but as “testimony,” she said. But she couldn’t care less what literary critics think, she said. “I feel less and less ‘a real writer’ every day. And proudly so.”

For Wiener, the political is woven into her writing, but also goes beyond, into activism.


She is an outspoken anti-racist feminist, and in her opinion columns in Spanish newspapers (and occasionally in The New York Times), she has furiously denounced, among other things, Spain’s colonialism. She pointed out, for example, that Oct. 12 — the day that commemorates the arrival of Columbus on the American continent — is the main national holiday in Spain.


In 2020, she participated in a protest in which activists spilled red paint, to symbolize the “bloody genocide” of Indigenous people in the Americas, over the statue of Christopher Columbus that looms over a namesake square in Madrid. When, during this interview, Wiener learned that Manhattan has its own statue of Columbus — a 76-foot monument in the middle of Columbus Circle — she insisted on stopping by.


“There he is, offending and hurting people, so plump, in the middle of everything, in an absolutely central, untouched place,” she said, looking up.


Then, she tried to climb the pedestal, as a group of office workers and tourists stood by, eating their lunch in the sun.

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Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence
Oct 21, 2023

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