This month, University of Chicago Press released a translation of Papi, the best selling novel by Dominican writer, Rita Indiana. This is the first english translation of Indiana’s work. Papi is the first in a three part series of novellas she’s dubbed “La Trilogía de las Niñas Locas.” Indiana completed the trilogy in 2013 with Nombre y Animales. In 2015, Indiana released her first science fiction novel to critical acclaim.
Rita Indiana is relatively new to the caribbean literature scene, however, she’s already a household name in Latin America due to the popularity of her alt rock merengue band, Los Misterios, and her occasional modeling work.
Here she is in the music video for “La Hora de Volver” from the album, El Juidero.
Papi was her debut novel published in 2005. In 2010, Rita Indiana y Los Misterios released El Juidero, which was named Alternative Album of the Year by Univision. NPR put the album in their top ten list for latin alternative music. In 2011, Indiana relocated to New York and developed an international following. In Latin America, she was called “La Mostra” because of her diverse collection of talents and her tall, masculine-chic appearance. Around this time, she became a full-fledged celebrity playing sold out shows and being swarmed by fans. She could no longer ride public transportation in her home city of Santo Domingo without being recognized. So she promptly quit music.
She’s said in interviews that she has no regrets. She’s a writer so she needs to be able to watch people, listen to their conversations, and observe the world around her. Even as a musician she always wrote privately creating electronic sounds on her computer. Reading Papi, it’s easy to see that she writes music too. The text makes more sense when I consider the rhythms that run through the eight year old narrator’s voice. The lack of chronology and fantasy of Indiana’s scenes play like songs. Like her genre defying electric, alt-merengue sound, Papi is not easy to place in a box. It’s not realism, but it’s not really a fantasy novel either, despite the extravagance of the narrator’s hallucinations. I’d call the novel (or novella with less than 200 pages and rather large font) a coming of age story and a piece of literary fiction.
The story centers around its unnamed narrator, an eight year old girl waiting for her father to come back from prison and/or the U.S.A. She’s always waiting for him. She’s our guide through a swirly, sad dreamscape full of his girlfriends, his thousands of cars, houses, pools, and his other girlfriends. It’s clear that Papi left Mami awhile ago and that he’s some kind of criminal, either a mafioso or drug dealer or both.
Masterfully translated by Achy Obejas, the woman responsible for bringing Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to english, the lyricism and endless flow of scenery in Papi reminds me of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The text explores the ugliest parts of dominican culture: machismo, extreme wealth disparity, corruption, infidelity, and sexism. The narrator’s innocence makes the moments where she is sexualized, exposed to criminal acts, and treated with negligence by her father all the more powerful. Her view of her own gender is fascinating. She seems to lust for her father’s girlfriends, but never really for her mother. She wants them but she also wants to be them. When she sings, she wants them to want her, as if she wants the attention and respect that her dad gets. At other times, she puts on a thong bathing suit and waits for her dad like she is his sex object. She rots waiting for him to show up. It’s a fantasy, but is it? She’s constantly being sent bikes, toys, and presents by her father, but she never gets his undivided attention or time. She’s given sweets and treats, but no nourishment. Like the wealth divide in the D.R., our narrator experiences a contrast of excessive indulgence and absence from her parents.
If you enjoy a gripping plot, this is not the book for you. This is a reading experience, like listening to a song or walking into an art installation that you can occupy and experience. Through repetition and swirling images, feelings articulated and rearticulated in later scenes in new locations, Papi is a nightmarish reading experience. It’s sexy, sad, and told to you in the voice of an eight year old. Read if you dare.