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Las malas is, quite simply, luminous. Sorry, I hate when people describe books like that too, but I genuinely don’t know how to write about Argentine actress and writer Camila Sosa Villada’s 2019 fiction debut without getting irritatingly abstract. Take one of my notes, jotted down while reading: ‘silver sparkle thread’. What does that even mean? I don’t know, not in concrete terms, but that’s what reading Las malas felt like—following a glittering thread through a fairytale forest. It’s no wonder this was one of the top-read books in Argentina during the pandemic and continues to make ripples in the Spanish-speaking world.
The novel, described as both fairytale and horror story, opens with a nameless protagonist spying on a group of transvestite prostitutes* in Parque Sarmiento, Córdoba. “Se mueven así, como si fueran manada,” writes Sosa Villada. [“They move just so, like a pack.”] And it’s that pack, that manada, that fold—unofficially helmed by La Tía Encarna—into which our protagonist is eventually welcomed, on the same night an abandoned baby is found squalling in the bushes.
An homage to trans glory and a testament to trans pain—although Sosa Villada maintains that the novel was in no way intended as a mere act of visibilising this world—the principal threads of Las malas are pulled from her own experiences as a transvestite prostitute in Córdoba. Las malas is autofiction at its best, blending the real and imagined yet somehow still managing to convey a stranger than fiction feel.
At first, the plot seems somewhat divergent, homing in on one character then another, wrapping up their more individual plotlines smoothly but never so quick you, the reader, get whiplash. As the novel progresses, these almost standalone episodes become more infrequent, instead focusing on the core group and their dynamic, as well as the life of the baby found and adopted by La Tía Encarna in the opening pages of the novel. Speaking of La Tía Encarna: if Sosa Villada’s fictionalised self serves as the eyes, ears, and mouth of the pack, La Tía Encarna is the beating heart. And surgically enhanced chest.
Even the sprinkles of actual magical realism—women sprouting feathers, for example—that Sosa Villada employs to great effect as an oblique comment on the subjectivity of the body didn’t leave me cold, and I’m very much not a magical realism kinda gal. Rather, she deftly blends this heightened irreality with consistently affording humanity and depth to the transvestites with whom she (and her character) found community. No character feels either flat, forced, or overly romanticised and, while a genuine tenderness pervades and proliferates, even when morals become murky, there’s always a clear-eyed frankness to her tale.
Las malas is a book I wish I’d read sooner and can’t wait to read again, one woven with a beguiling, tender magic. A skein of sparkling silver, you might say.
* Please note, these are the terms Sosa Villada herself uses in the Spanish; travestí and prostituta.
About Camila Sosa Villada
Camila Sosa Villada (Córdoba, 1982) is a transgender screen and stage actress, as well as a writer of both poetry and prose. To date, she’s written an autobiography, two novels, and a collection of poetry.
Other Books by Camila Sosa Villada: La novia de Sandro (Tusquets, 2015), El Viaje Inútil (DocumentA/Escénicos, 2018), Tesis sobre una domesticación (La Página, 2019)