In February I was interviewed by RadioAva (DIY sexworker radio, a project of x:talk) about The Three-Headed Dog. When I arrived at the pub in mid-afternoon a fight was blowing up in the back room, glass splintering and chairs crashing to the floor. Soon the place was full of cops and two clutches of drunken young white men were being moved out the door while shouting out epithets: Knackers! Travellers! The perfect setting for an interview.
In this interview I talk about creativity and pleasure, about my own likes and dislikes. The interviewer describes her feelings about the characters, surprising me by saying she found sexworker Marina ‘too perfect’. Here I confess to identifying not only with the detective narrator, Félix, but also with a villain of the story called Sarac. What are they supposed to do? I say, referring to men reared in tribal and national wars who now may turn to people-smuggling. I talk about cultural relativism as a way of understanding lives unlike our own.
I hear my self in this interview. I hear myself saying more than once I wanted to put it out there, referring to a sense of urgency, that stories of migrants who sell sex are so rarely heard that The Three-Headed Dog can exist as an historical document to be discovered by future historians – like this interview, which is located on the wonderfully-named mixcloud.
Listen to it while doing some chore. Note the bar-clinking in the background. On the same show: Pandora Blake and the ECP. Good company. Thank you, all.
Note: there are musical interludes interspersed with segments of me and Carmen talking. They are all migration-inspired and most were provided by me. They aren’t identified on the podcast, so I’ll do a separate piece about them soon.
Reviewers of The Three-Headed Dog have been showing they get it: The detective-narrator is a woman with a complicated and conflicted interior life. It’s about how migrants sneak across borders and how they get along. These are lives usually mentioned, if at all, under law-and-order headlines: people-smuggling, the underworld, human trafficking, crime. Or desperation, exploitation, abuse. It’s noir – maybe some kind of ‘crossover’.
I published this novel myself on Amazon. Many people still think bricks-and-mortar publishing houses filled with employees are necessary to prove books are real and good. My own history with these houses goes back to the 1970s, and I don’t agree. There is snobbism about self-publishing and prejudices against ebooks: I don’t have those; I’m pleased to be in charge.
What interests me are conversations with folks who read the book, whether they loved it or not. A few of them have left reviews on the book’s Amazon and Goodreads pages.
Hillerman, Mankell and Block: I could hardly be more pleased about the detective comparisons. But for a reader to compare Félix’s haunted interior life to Elena Ferrante really takes the cake. The detective’s ethical sense, how to weigh up conflicts, is for me an important element of noir, however terse. The private eye, unlike the cop, gets to decide what to do with being tied to laws or a strict code of behaviour (doing things ‘by the book’.)
Interesting to see the world I write about as impenetrable and confirms it was right to write about it. I like dives, too. This is an excerpt from a longer review.
There is a mention of the word trafficking in the book, by a character who is neither stupid nor bad but simply parrots stereotypes presented in the media. The book is about people-smuggling or undocumented migrants.
This review and others like it mean a lot to me because it comes from someone open to learning about underground lives that exist at the edge of most people’s vision. Overhearing phone conversations on the bus or in the corner shop, most people find out something about undocumented migrants, but, given media disinterest or silence, never find out more.
When I read the comparison with Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – also known as Smilla’s Sense of Snow – I was happy. It’s one of very few novels I know in which imperialism plays a big part. Smilla is a half-Greenlander in Denmark, not an undocumented migrant, but as aware of two different worlds as anyone could possibly be. A book that couldn’t have been written by anyone else: What a compliment.
Gripping is a great tribute, and a few others have said the Dog is a page-turner (funny when swishing on a screen). They mean the reader is hooked on the story and wants to know what comes next. That’s not easy to achieve!
Yes, there’ll be more. Working on it now. It starts in Spain and travels to England via Calais.
Being and being reviewed is a play on the English title of Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s book Varat och varan: Being and being bought. Hers is an ideological diatribe on the commodification of women who sell sex and surrogate mothers, full of sound and fury, as well as lies, including one or two about me. It makes women’s bodies and selves into transcendental things.
To put a book out into the world is to say I did this, take it and like it. It’s a kind of commodification, whether you give it away or give it a price. Strict marxists might insist the book is the product of labour and that one is only commodifying that. But I think it’s ambiguous, and I’m not worried about commodifying myself or pieces of myself. I don’t think I’ll lose my humanity by opening private places up to strangers.
Olly ‘gives away his degree’ via book commentary on his youtube channel Philosophy Tube. (I might say he commodifies himself.) In a recent broadcast he reviewed Sex at the Margins. Nine years after publication, there it is, being reviewed. And guess who is reviewed right after me? Hannah Arendt. (See how I muddled the boundary between the book and myself?) You can hear it at about minute 3.20.
Here’s the thing: Olly describes the book in a way that doesn’t perfectly match what I’d say myself. If I were in the room with him I’d argue. But it’s his reading, his experience, and he’s already done with it. The book is an object in the world, not mine to control. It’s a piece of me that others interpret through their own selves.
Eddy isn’t the typical victim of sex trafficking narratives; he’s not a girl, for one thing, and he’s probably gay. He’s not the typical young person you see in novels, either—he’s neither precocious, nor chosen, nor ambitious. His goals are mostly short term; warmer clothes, a better haircut, a job. Short-sighted, without many connections, it’s likely he’ll be taken advantage of, in big ways or small—but then, being taken advantage of is the fate of most people.
The novel-without-borders idea refers to the difficulty of fitting the book into contemporary genre-categories. Amazon and other book dealers make one choose them (and then they fudge the choices). Noah argues that noir needs ‘mistrust, deceit, dramatic betrayals’. For me, the first two are part of all fiction and the third forms an overt part of The Dog’s plot. Noir’s defining feature is moral ambiguity, and my choosing it as genre was easy and natural to me. I’d argue with him if we were having a drink in a bar. But my own conviction doesn’t trump any reader’s experience.
From Customer Reviews on the Amazon page:
Laura Agustin has created an intriguing character in Felix and I hope to encounter her again.
I loved reading the tale of Felix. Can’t wait for more.
Both these reviewers seem to know there is likely to be more: that is the nature of detective fiction. In some ways those are the most important reviews of all. If you read The Three-Headed Dog, leave a line or two of comment on the Amazon page. Doing that makes the algorithm at Amazon pick up and show it in searches for non-insiders looking for books about migration, trafficking, smuggling and above all borders. If you enjoy Goodreads review it there.
And speaking of algorithms, the way to avoid them in terms of seeing posts on this blog is to subscribe by email or RSS. On facebook and twitter you’re at the mercy of time and the robots.
Every reviewer has to mention a different defect in the book under review: That was my conclusion when reviews of Sex at the Margins were proliferating. Some of the defects pointed to said more about the reviewer than the book, like the English academic who dismissed the research because it had taken place in Spain. I laughed a lot at that one. If you’re interested in migration and globalisation then nation becomes a funny category.
The other day I was interviewed by an investigator interested in undocumented migration in The Three-Headed Dog. We met in a blue bar and drank from stemmed glasses. She agreed I may publish a few points of our conversation, on the subject of place, location and nationality. Her name is Zelda.
Zelda: Why did you situate The Three-Headed Dog in Spain? Is the plot special to the Costa del Sol? Or could it be moved to Britain or Italy or the state of Florida?
Laura: Spain has long been part of my own life and I lived in Granada while I was reading and doing fieldwork for and then writing what became Sex at the Margins. The Costa del Sol is one of the most fluid and confusing places I know, full of every sort of human mobility, and therefore appealing to me.
The stories in The Dog could be moved in terms of every important concept: How migrants reason and feel about what they’re doing and the sorts of networks they live in. The way they have to look for jobs and housing, the existing in and crossing out of social margins. Those are universal dynamics for undocumented migrants anywhere in the world. But margins feel different according to the terrain and the historical moment. If the scene were set elsewhere plot-mechanics would vary according to local laws and policing, cultural ideas about sex and women’s mobility, the availability of black-market jobs and the ease of getting out if things go wrong. If there is a coast, boats are an option. Sometimes trains are easily hopped.
Zelda: What about the migrants, are they interchangeable? Could the group of Dominicans on the airplane just as well be Chinese? What about the young Romanian smuggler, could he be Greek? Could Polish Tanya be French? Does anything about nationality matter?
Laura: The human responses portrayed are not unique to any nationality, but some of the mechanics of migration would have to change if you were to make arbitrary switches. For example, Tanya might humanly be French, but she’d be less likely to set up a cleaning service in Madrid. Or the Dominican club-owner, Carlos: If he were Chinese he might certainly run a hostess-bar, but it would be in another part of Madrid, and have a different style, perhaps with gambling, and would the protagonist Félix plausibly have become his close friend?
The key to making the story work in any particular place is knowing how migrant networks function and the patterns that have developed based on (1) the possibility of getting visas to other countries and (2) colonial and other dependency/linguistic histories that lead to family relationships. For instance, Brazilians have visa-freedom to travel to Portugal, which is part of Schengen territory, meaning they cross easily into Spain and rest of Europe. Dominican women have a long history as maids and sex workers in Spain – over generations. These are migrations that give meaning to the word transnational.
Zelda: Can migrant women become sex workers anywhere, whether there’s some kind of regulated sex work or not?
Laura: The two jobs available everywhere to undocumented women are maiding and sex work, but if the plot were picked up and put down in Hong Kong, say, then adjustments would be needed to the kinds of sex businesses where migrants are likely to get employed. And to take up any kind of sex work without knowing the local context and laws, without knowing a few people on the inside, who can give informed advice, is highly risky. This is why there are roles for ‘protectors’ in the migration process, and most of them are not monsters. The plot would have to reflect this.
Zelda: What about racism? Aren’t some countries worse in that way? Wouldn’t that make a big difference to where you set the story?
Laura: In the book, several of the Dominicans reflect on racial hierarchies that affect them in Spain, including those that give some dark ethnicities more cachet than their own. All cultures have ideas and prejudices about Others. But also mixing and hybridity are everywhere, even if more in some places than in others. The consequences are always the same: natives feel threatened, some promote xenophobia, governments talk about tightening borders. But there are colonial histories that can make natives feel that some foreigners are closer to themselves than others, whether their skin is blacker or not.
Zelda: So colonial things, like language. Dominicans who go to Spain already speak Spanish, which has to be an advantage, right? What would happen if you changed the group on the plane to Chinese? Isn’t the whole thing much harder if it’s a new language?
L: Not as much as you imagine. Félix visits a Chinese migrant who runs a big variety store and who stands up well to extortion attempts because she has community behind her. Migrants come via networks whether they are legal or not. And migrants from different communities often communicate more easily with each other in the new language, because they all speak more slowly or with a common vocabulary. Then, too, sharing language can work the other way: when Dominicans speak, Spanish listeners know where they are from and bring negative cultural baggage to bear.
Z: The Costa del Sol has all kinds of ethnic groups in it, but you mention places like a Danish church and the urbanizaciones where everyone living there is the same nationality. Don’t a lot of migrants stick to their own kind? Isn’t there insularity among other Europeans who have made second homes on the coast?
Laura: There is, but not forever for everyone. Europeans trying to settle and start businesses feel ambivalent about what they’ve left behind and anxious to hold onto their national selves. You see signs in Swedish or German, shops with food items imported so other cuisines can be maintained. But over time things loosen up for a lot of people, they become more curious and less fearful, they make new connections and cultures blend. And for some people, being in a mixed place with a shifting sense of belonging becomes interesting. They don’t find it so easy to answer the question Where are you from? It’s more about This is where I am now. I wrote about this kind of cosmopolitanism among sex workers in Leaving Home for Sex, many years ago.
I wrote The Three-Headed Dog to get away from the straitjacket of a debate where one side is always moralising and the other reacting with rational debunking. In terms of academic discourse I long ago proposed The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex, with the aim of expanding topics of interest from a narrow (but still vague) idea about prostitution, with its attendant moral baggage.
I don’t know how long improvements might take, either to the debates or academic production, but I stick by my assessment of many years back that In 200 years the situation has not improved for women who sell sex, but the social sector to help them has grown exponentially. I mention 200 years because that is when the contemporary idea of prostitutes as victims needing to be saved began (I did historical research for Sex at the Margins).
Most people never hear or see useful, complicated or interesting information about jobs in the sex industry. They don’t realise how common it is to work there; their friends that do don’t tell them. How can they learn anything new if all they see are ‘debates’ and screamy trafficking headlines? Reading fiction is one possible way.
In The Three-Headed Dog the search for a missing boy takes the detective-narrator into a number of sex-industry businesses.
* Bars with hostesses and beds available in back: Félix, the narrator, goes dancing with Carlos, who runs several hostess bars in Madrid. At the end of the night Félix persuades him to take her to one, despite his conviction that she is the wrong kind of woman to be there.
* Residential flats where a number of sex workers are available at the same time to clients who make appointments. Marina has worked in the past in flats in Torremolinos, but inexperienced managers have taken over, causing havoc.
* Large sex clubs on highways where workers live for a few weeks at a time: Marina decides to go on this circuit in northwest Spain after several bad experiences in flats.
* Bars with dark rooms for sex and pick-ups: Eddy gets a job washing dishes in a gay bar in Madrid.
* Spas/massage parlours: Businesses of varying quality and style where sex is on the menu alongside health treatments. Félix investigates two in Madrid.
* Cruise ships: Marina considers taking a stewardess job.
* Streets: Promise works with a few friends close to Málaga’s centro histórico. Eddy makes friends with a rent-boy who works in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol.
None of the characters talks about doing completely independent escorting. That’s not significant, just not part of this particular story. Most here are migrants who have gotten into debt paying smugglers and false-papers makers and who expect to work in businesses where managers organise a workplace and workers do shifts. We don’t know the details about anyone’s street-work.
The sex industry is represented in other ways in the book. Félix’s friend Carlos has long experience employing chicas de alterne, but another migrant man wants to start a smuggling and pimping network. Eddy takes up with a ‘sex tourist’ (perhaps, it’s a pretty useless concept). There are sentimental clients and an outreach worker angry about disruption to provision of health services in flats caused by managers’ turf wars. There are various employees in the spas, and migrant maids considering going into sex work. A couple of men are seen arranging photos of women on a webpage in a cybercafé.
For readers steeped in reductionist media discourse to read a story where these are the characters and jobs might help understand better. For more on why I wrote a piece of noir on sexwork and migration, see Sexwork and Migration Mystery and Melodrama and Archetypes.