Dreaming in the Dark

July 1, 2021 | 4 books mentioned 5 min read

“I’ll be frank—there were times working on this book when I definitely felt like I was just diving into the water in the dark,” admits novelist Carolina De Robertis. She’s seated in front of a wall of books—“just a fraction, of course, of the books in the house”—in the home she shares with her wife and their two school-age children in Oakland, Calif., for a Zoom call. “At times, the only way I could continue to work on the book and really give it my best as a writer was to secretly call it the Weird Book…. Yes, just put a neon sign over the metaphorical door, it’s weird.”

In The President and the Frog (Knopf, Aug.), her sixth book, the 45-year-old writer says she’s seeking something greater than truth, or, as she puts it, the ability of fiction to “use invention to more freely explore the truth.”

It opens with an 82-year-old former leader of an unnamed Latin American country being visited by a Norwegian journalist for an interview. Noticing in her something the narrator calls “the listening gift,” he wonders if he should finally reveal a long-kept secret: that talking to a frog during his time in solitary confinement when he was imprisoned for inciting revolution was what kept him alive.

The basis for the character of the aging politician was Uruguayan president and former guerrilla José Mujica, who spent 12 years in prison and later became known for his quest for human rights. Mujica, president from 2010 to 2015, donated most of his salary to charity and stayed in his own humble home, where he continued to work the land himself. And the frog is inspired by, well, a frog.

cover In 2013, De Robertis, who is Uruguayan American, was living in Uruguay while Mujica was president. That’s when she read an interview in which he mentioned that he had survived his torture and imprisonment by talking to a frog. “I tend to reflect on, dream on, gather material for a novel for years before I begin,” she says. “I call it the dreaming phase. But I was also in the dreaming phase for my prior book, Cantoras”—about five queer women who find refuge in one another in 1970s Uruguay and beyond—“and I wrote that book first.”

By the time she started writing The President and the Frog, Donald Trump was in the White House. “Many people, including myself, were grappling with grief and despair or other forms of really asking tough questions about how we were going to exist and how we were going to support each other to live our full humanity in the context of more open hostility,” she says.

While envisioning The President and the Frog, De Robertis also found herself thinking a lot about her grandmother—“a poet, and very bohemian and wild”—who fled to Uruguay after being exiled from Argentina. She died when De Robertis was seven, at a time when there were dictatorships in both countries.

“I thought about what it would be like if I could go back in time and tell her that the seeds of positive transformation for her country were alive in that very time, in one of those devastating prisons, in the form of revolutionary Tupamaros guerrillas who would one day rise up and carry the nation to a more progressive era,” De Robertis says.

“And I wondered, what can that desire of mine to reach back in time to my grandmother in her despair, what can that tell me about the seeds that are around us right now, in this era in the United States, where we are looking openly at the ways in which hostility and danger and xenophobia and racism are part of the fabric of our society?”

De Robertis envisioned The President and the Frog as “a love letter to anyone who’s ever felt despair,” she says, “or anyone who looks at climate change, or the spike in open racism, or just the difficulty of navigating daily life in our world.” As her protagonist slowly comes to understand the stories he needs to tell, not only to keep himself alive, but to make himself whole again, De Robertis offers a powerful reminder that narrative—writing it, reading it, engaging with it—is a healing act.

“There’s a way in which writing is a way of opening space to be able to fully breathe,” she says, “and hopefully to make room for other people through story, in a way that’s larger than myself.”

cover The President and the Frog seems at first disarmingly simple compared to De Robertis’s previous sweeping historical epics, which include her 2009 debut, the international bestseller The Invisible Mountain. That novel, a finalist for a California Book Award and International Latino Book Award, is a multigenerational story about three Uruguayan women and the history of Uruguay itself, and has been translated into 17 languages.

cover In 2012, she released Perla; inspired by a true story from Argentinean history; it follows a young woman who has a disturbing realization about her origins. De Robertis’s next book was 2015’s The Gods of Tango, a Stonewall Book Award winner, about a woman who must disguise herself as a man to play in a tango band in Buenos Aires in the early 20th century. Then, in 2019, she released Cantoras, which won a Reading Women Award and a Stonewall Book Award.

cover“I would say, for at least three of my four prior novels, I was painting on a very large canvas. Mural painting was one of my guiding metaphors for navigating the novel process, and then for this book, I really wanted to explore portraiture,” she says.

Even a narrow lens, however, can reveal much, and through the back-and-forth of the president’s conversations with the reporter and memories from his time on the verge of giving up entirely while imprisoned, De Robertis digs into the meaning of home and country, what humans need to survive, and what matters most in a life.

coverDe Robertis is also a translator of Latin American and Spanish literature, the editor of the 2017 anthology Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times, and a teacher of creative writing at San Francisco State University. As a child, she moved from England to Switzerland to Los Angeles as her father, the scientist Edward De Robertis, built his career. Coming to the U.S. when she was 10, “from other countries that were not my country of origin,” she says, “I had this feeling and experience of having a country inside my skin that wasn’t outside my skin.”

She went on to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, and moved to the Bay Area in 1997. “I bounced around between San Francisco and Berkeley, following the lower rents at the time, working at different activist jobs, and as a substitute teacher. And then I had this very formative experience in my mid-20s when I was about to marry a woman, the love of my life, with whom I’ve had these two children, and my parents disowned me. One of the things that they said was that I couldn’t be Uruguayan anymore, because I was gay. Because I didn’t exist in their country.

“When I was younger, back when I was writing that first novel, I thought I’d never feel at home anywhere in the world. I thought belonging was just something that would never be fully possible for me,” De Robertis says. “But I’ve built a life in the Bay Area with my wife and kids and with chosen family, and a community that we have forged where there is room for all of us. Because there’s enough openness and possibility for families like mine.”

De Robertis has two siblings, a brother and a sister, whom she remains in touch with; she’s also in contact with other relatives in South America. But she remains estranged from her parents. That rift has, in a way, clarified her mission: “It’s been such an enormous part of what’s shaped the themes that are urgent to me, and the way that I think about love and family and possibility, and the way we anchor ourselves in the world.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.