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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How to not Appropriate Someone’s Culture

I’m taking a Concept Development class for media and the arts and have to market a chocolate. Starting with an abstract concept I have to name the chocolate, design a package and ultimately produce a commercial.

My abstraction is feminism and my idea is that the proceeds of this chocolate would go toward aiding female cacao farmers gain economic independence. I want to name my chocolate in line with a mythology and specifically after a goddess because of the role of women in the cacao industry. Most of the cacao beans are grown in Central and South America or Africa and to be accurate I would then choose a goddess from a Central or South American lore or African lore. This, thankfully, got me thinking about cultural appropriation and that if I were to go the route I am considering I would have to do so with care, research and caution.

So, what is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is when someone takes certain aspects of another culture for their own, without understanding the culture they are using and without asking permission. This occurs when someone, knowingly or unknowingly, believes the culture of another can be used as a trend, a fashion statement, or a symbol without acknowledging the origins and oppression that are ingrained in that culture’s history.

So, here is a quick list of questions to ask yourself if you think you might be in danger of appropriating another’s culture. This is not an exhaustive list and I would love to get feedback and suggestions to expand.

  1. How much do you know about the tradition/fashion/religion/symbol (etc) you seek to use? Does your use align with the original intent?
  2. Why this particular tradition/fashion/religion/symbol (etc)?
  3. Would you feel comfortable with someone using your culture’s tradition/fashion (etc) in this way?
  4. Can members of this culture practice their tradition/fashion (etc) in public without social ridicule/stigma?
  5. Does using this tradition/fashion (etc) in any way rely on stereotypes (positive and negative) of this culture?
  6. Does this using this tradition/fashion (etc) in any way elevate your culture above the one you are representing?
  7. Do you know anyone from this culture who might be able to offer some insight on your idea?

If your answer exoticizes another culture in any way, or places the culture as a trend to be used instead of an ethnic heritage to be understood, you should rethink your idea. Cultural appropriation is racist and even the best intentions are not always free from this prejudice.

Question yourself before you take a racist step. There are ways to learn about the cultures of others and appreciate their beauty, but it is through research and understanding.