Books By Women: The Lady Matador’s Hotel

Suki Palacios is a half-Mexican, half-Japanese female bull fighter. Cristina Garcia‘s novel only gets more intriguing from there. The story chronicles the lives of a cast of strangers (or near strangers) for the few days they all live in an unnamed Hispanic country’s most expensive hotel. The country has recently come out of a long and violent civil war.

Won Kim is a failing Korean businessman, at the hotel with his pregnant mistress. Aura is an ex-guerilla, no working as a waitress in the hotel’s restaurant. Gertrudis is a German international adoption lawyer. Martin is a colonel behind gross acts of violence during the civil war. Ricardo is a poet who, along with his wife, are adopting a baby girl.

lady matador

I first read this novel for a course I was tutoring and couldn’t devote the time to it I wanted. I was in the middle of taking my own college courses. When I made the commitment to read books by women for a year, this was on my list as one of the few books I planned to reread.

There are a four things which automatically make this book stand out as an inclusive feminist text.

1. Suki owns her sexuality.

As I’ve noticed as a trend in Garcia’s work (I’ve since read Dreaming in Cuban and will post on it shortly), her female characters do not shy away from sex or taking their own pleasure. For Suki, this means that part of her ritual before a bull fight is to find a male stranger with handsome feet she has sex with. In the novel, he pleasure her in a beautiful jarring scene between Suki and a man from room service.

Throughout the novel, all the male characters want to have sex with her, but Suki is always the one in control of how she uses her body. Better yet, there is no rape or coerced sexuality at all in the text.

2. Garcia plays with gender roles. 

Each character subverts or works from a gender stereotype. Suki, for all her beauty, competes in the masculine world of bull fighting. Won Kim wants nothing more than to study butterflies. Ricardo desires to be a great father, but no one trusts him because he’s male. Martin is the epitome of masculinity and we watch it consume his thoughts and violent desires. Although there are no queer, trans or gender divergent characters, Garcia purposely uproots our ideas about simple gender roles.

3.  Aura.

Aura’s my favorite. Garcia plays on gender expectations (again) when “the ex-guerilla” turns out to be female. Her plot arc, one of the most action based in the novel, is a revenge story which does not rely a gun in a female character’s hand for her to be strong. Her strength comes from her morality and her decisions. As Aura seeks revenge for her brother’s murder she has to really consider the consequences of jumping back into a life where she is a murderer: a life she gave up and does not want.

4. Aura. 

Aura provides the magical realism of the novel, adding just enough magic and mystery that I was engaged with both the characters and the world. Is Aura really speaking to her dead brother on the roof of the hotel? Maybe. Probably. But maybe not.

Garcia is the master of this in-between, ambiguous space. What I love the most is that, like Suki’s mixed heritage, everyone is more than one piece of  their identity. Everyone is messy and struggling. Without straying into dark plots that could never reach a happy ending or even a conclusion, Garcia takes each individual’s struggle seriously even the despicable characters we want to hate. Writing this humanity for even the darkest and most awful characters is what makes this novel a must-read.

Up next feminist nonfiction essays: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Keep reading!

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Honor the Dead Don’t Honor the War

Every year for Memorial Day my family would march down our street set up lawn chairs along the main road and watch the Memorial Day Parade. Everyone from the boy scouts, to the girl scouts, to the high school marching band, to the fire department would get to march in the parade.

I didn’t think about it until this year but Memorial Day is a poorly disguised day to honor the glorious tradition of America.   I have family who are veterans and I’m not writing as an excuse to dishonor those who gave their lives. However, it is in terrible taste to create a holiday where everyone is taught to blindly love the wars America has fought.

My whole life, I’ve been told that we’re honoring the dead’s sacrifice for the living so we can have freedom today. But in reality, we’re honoring war. We’re honoring a tradition of white men who fight for some abstract idea of America. What does this even mean? We may have a democracy in theory but how many people actually feel they have a voice and can make change? Although America was founded under the banner of representation, we were never an egalitarian country: the founding fathers wrote up the Constitution to protect the interests of the rich white male. And that is the same interest of most of the wars we’ve fought in since.

I understand that’s a big generalization, but from my experience being taught to be patriotic and uphold the values of American freedom and democracy I’ve found that as we get older we’re never really told the truth. Sure we find out that our founding fathers owned slaves and that the Civil War wasn’t actually fought over slavery, but we turn the wars America has fought in, into an impossible good vs evil struggle. And America is always the good guys.

I once argued with a friend’s boyfriend about America’s involvement in WWII. He told me that if America hadn’t gotten involved the world would have been lost. First, how can you prove this? Second, this is giving America a hero complex. This is completely ignoring the terrible racism America had against Japanese Americans even before the internment camps, ignoring that Pearl Harbor happened because America cut of Japan’s oil supply, and ignoring that America didn’t open our borders to Jews. There is so much more going on here than good vs evil and America’s great altruism to save the world.

It’s a great idea to have a holiday honoring the dead. However, we’re honoring America’s wars instead. We’re honoring the racism inherent in our system which segregated blacks and whites–racism which still affects people of color today. We’re honoring the lie of self determination we fought for in WWII, while America still held onto colonies and continued to racially oppress its own people. We’re honoring the numerous rapes and war crimes of Vietnam.

My home town is majority white and could be the quintessential American suburb: great school system, affluent area, white population. This is reflected in our Memorial Day parade where almost everyone who walks down the main road is white, middle class and raising high the American banner of white supremacy and patriarchy.

If we really wanted to do something for our troops, how about we implement a program where soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are not encouraged to be islamophobic and racist. How about we protect the Bradley Mannings of the world instead of imprisoning them as threats to national security? What the women of the armed forces? They are suffering through sexual assault at increasing rates by other American troops. And this is the tradition we are honoring: one of violence against everyone.

This parade I had gone to since I was a child is a facade to further imbed American nationalism. I do not feel comfortable supporting a parade which perpetuates ideas of racism, patriarchy and violence.

By all means, honor the dead, but there are no heroes of war.