On Saturday, Nov. 11, a crowd of gleeful literary enthusiasts gathers around the raised wrestling ring at Park Gym in SOMA to witness the first ever North American Lucha Libro, or Fight of the Book: five masked LGBTQ writers of color, five minutes, one publishing contract.
A play on lucha libre, Lucha Libro is like a wrestling match -- only with words. There are no ring girls or referees, but the writers' wrestling masks, iridescent costumes, and colorful monikers -- like Witch Pussy for Satan Child and OG Get Free -- make the writing competition feel like a Mexican, soap opera-esque wrestling spectacle. The writers, whose identities are kept secret, have five minutes on stage to write a story or poem that will win over the judges: local authors and academics Carolina di Robertis, Faith Adiele, and Truong Tran.
Unlike a regular wrestling match where luchadores warm up by jumping back and forth and throwing punches in the air, one masked writer in galaxy tights dances salsa ringside; another in a zebra-print leotard straddles a stack of fifty pound weights and gathers her thoughts. A third saunters in, holding a Frapuccino; a fourth skips into the gym in a gold cape. The fifth writer sits in the audience, typing into a small computer. A phone on the floor counts down from three minutes.
Lucha Libro was created in Peru as a rebuke to that country’s publishing industry, which, due to a slow economy, places the financial burden of printing a book on the author. Lucha Libro, Bay Area edition, was put together by LGBTQ promotional outfit RADAR productions, the bookstore Booksmith, and queer literary journal Foglifter Press. Following the lead of its Peruvian counterpart, it addresses North American publishing problems like elitism, uniformity, and publishers' penchants for safe bets.
Juliana Delgado Lopera, director of RADAR, addresses the crowd from the ring: “In Lucha Libro, you don’t need an education, you don’t need a bio. Your work is all that is valuable.”
The audience sits on folding chairs, re-purposed ab benches, plyometric boxes, or directly on the floor. All around, there are vinyl puffs of red and blue boxing gloves, monkey bars, buckets of chalk, and weightlifting machinery. In the far end of the room, pyramids of kettlebells double in the floor-to-ceiling mirror.
Spectators, writers, and judges alike spend the next half hour in five rounds of tension, wherein one masked writer sits at a laptop, confronted with the blank page and the blinking cursor, which — no pressure — is projected live on the opposing wall. A hushed audience keeps their eyes glued to the wall as the words come one by one.
Fabulist La Lucifer Colorada is a subtle but deadly opponent, sure-fingered and slippery. “Your last revolutionary act was to commit suicide. You said, ‘A man is trying to kill me so I will kill myself first.’ You tried five times.” Then come the unexpected moves: “When you jump into in a green lake, la llorona swims alongside you and whispers, ‘Not yet.’” Other characters who appear at suicidal junctions include Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo.
It seems like the match is over before it started, but then Rio de Vergas (whose catchphrase is "Here to kick homophobia in the face! And eat all the flan!") makes an entrance, his sequined cape aflutter and his sneakers flashing neon as he twirls toward the audience and into the ring. He has us laughing in seconds: “This is the story of how I became Rio de Vergas, which means River of C-cks if you were wondering.”
Each contestant has their own fighting style. While OG Get Free is poised and deliberate, Luna Guerrera de los Rios writes with furious intention and with such animal force, the tablecloth underneath the laptop trembles with each keystroke. (Naturally, that tablecloth is sequined and glittering purple.) Witch Pussy for Satan Child freezes, asks to begin again, tries to shake it all out. “F-- ‘em up!” someone yells in the audience.
The judges confer by the floor-to-ceiling mirror for a few minutes, then announce the winner: “For queering content,” Carolina di Robertis, author of The Invisible Mountain, says into the mic, “for sensibility of gender, form, the use of vivid and particular language in ways that push open in vistas of culture and vision, in blending harshness with beauty, in speaking truth to power, we’ve chosen... La! Lucifer! Colorada!"
There is no championship belt for La Lucifer Colorada to hold up, but there is an introduction to the Foglifter editors waiting nearby. I ask La Lucifer Colorada (her real name is Vianney Casas) if she expected to win. “No!” she exclaims. She tells me she woke up at 8am and conceptualized the winning story. Casas likes to use surrealism to talk about the things she’s going through. “In the winning piece, I incorporated women, and I included Van Gogh, too, who committed suicide. I am a person who has depression and I wanted to use these women and Van Gogh to inspire me to keep going.”
Casas is a recent transplant to the Bay and is attending college for writing. “I have a couple collections, so I’m going to give those ideas to see what might be best to publish,” she says.
Carolina di Robertis thinks Lucha Libro is an incredibly powerful thing to do in the Bay Area's literary community. “As an author, I’ve published four books with so-called Big-Five houses in New York, and I know how hard it is, you know, for myself as a queer Latin American woman to break in and to stay in. When your voice is societally marginalized in any way, it is a struggle."
Spaces that center queer people of color and competitions that result in publication are essential for today's literary world, she adds. "In the major houses in New York, something like 95 percent of editors are white, and many of them are straight. That can result in a gatekeeping that doesn’t let in important and innovative voices like the ones we heard today.”
Lucha Libro was put on by RADAR Productions. Find more information here. And watch out for Vianney Casas’ chapbook next summer!
The Spine is a biweekly column. Catch us back here in two weeks!