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Gabriela Wiener on Writing Libido-Centric Essays in 'Sexographies'

“When I published my first book and sexist, misogynist, racist, and classist insults were hurled at me for being a woman, looking the way I do, and speaking loudly of my rights and my desires — that’s when I began to identify as feminist."
Reading time 5 minutes
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By the time we’ve reached the last of the 15 essays that make up Gabriela Wiener’s Sexographies, just published by Brooklyn’s Restless Books, she really doesn’t need to tell us, “I’m a journalist who specializes in putting herself in extreme situations and writing in the first person about those experiences.” In one essay, she spends two nights with a polygamous man and his six wives at their home outside Lima, having shared the address with none of her loved ones. In another essay, Wiener and her husband go to a swingers’ club in Barcelona. In another, she visits a man known for his expertise at triggering female ejaculation. In all these scenarios, Wiener’s journalist’s hat stays on but her knickers come off.

Her fearless approach to sex is hard-won. “Sex education in Peruvian schools, especially during the 80s, when I grew up, left much to be desired,” Wiener recently told me by email through a translator. “It was deeply conservative, and by no means a lesson in equality. I’m a victim of this systematic miseducation. Like most, I had to find information by myself, and I learned little by little—from the Latin American boom and its authors’ eroticisms, from trash TV, from the few movies, like Porky’s, being played on the TV, from newspapers, from porn, from men physically harassing me on the streets and verbally harassing me on the bus…Spurred on by all that culture, virulence, morale, and trauma, when I was able to go deeper I did, becoming a sort of self-taught chronicler of intimacy and sexuality.”

 

Wiener’s libido-centric essays account for Sexographies’s tantalizing title, but that title is also a bit limiting. The Madrid-based writer’s first book to appear in English, Sexographies is made up of charged and hard-charging essays selected from three previously published collections — Sexografías (2008), Llamada perdida (2015), and Dicen de mí (2017) — and many of the pieces are as sexy as an IRS audit. One is devoted to Wiener’s body dysmorphia disorder, another to her almost debilitating superstition about the number 11. What’s interesting here is that Wiener seems to be most vulnerable in essays in which she isn’t putting her body on the line.

 

In “From This Side and from That Side,” she writes about being on the receiving end of cultural stereotypes (“I used to be considered an oddball for being Peruvian and not cleaning houses”). In “On Motherliness,” she exposes parents’ ultimately farcical efforts to show our children only our best selves (“Sooner or later they will realize you’re not postmodern, just an imbecile; that you’re not funny, just careless and irresponsible…that you’re not their friend, just their mother”). Wiener may have had to disrobe in “Goodbye, Little Egg, Goodbye,” but there’s nothing erotic about giving one’s body, or at least a part of it, to an assisted-reproduction clinic (“At this precise instant, a child of mine is growing inside of an unknown woman”) in order to make the last payment on a master’s degree.

Most of us can appreciate the urgent need to make ends meet, but few of us have Wiener’s daring. I asked her if she ever walked away from an assignment on the grounds that it was too risky. “I turned down writing about pharmaceutical companies’ clinical trials because I didn’t want to stuff myself with drugs without knowing their consequences,” she told me. “I also very nearly ‘hired’ philosopher Paul B. Preciado to sneak me hormones in order to experience what he did when taking Testogel, but the whole business of sprouting a beard and being gripped by excessive lust put me off.” A good rule of thumb: If Wiener isn’t game to try something, it’s probably a terrible idea.

In Sexographies, no less of a preoccupation than sex is feminism, and I asked Wiener when she experienced her political awakening. “When I published my first book and sexist, misogynist, racist, and classist insults were hurled at me for being a woman, looking the way I do, and speaking loudly of my rights and my desires—that’s when I began to identify as feminist. The barrage of insults remains a constant in my life. If anything, their frequency and violence have increased. But this radical violence has radicalized young women, who are now at the forefront of the movement.” One of those voices belongs to Wiener’s own offspring: “My 11-year-old daughter is already called ‘hembrista,’ the Spanish-language equivalent of ‘feminazi.’” Even by email and through a translator, I can’t miss the note of pride.

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