A novel ended George Rabasa's writing career — and then jolted it back to life
A picture of the back of a woman's shaved head covered with brightly colored tattoos adorns the jacket of Minnesota Book Award winner George Rabasa's new novel "Undressing Lavinia." It's the story of a smart, passionate Mexican woman dying of cancer in Minnesota. The author says the novel is fiction — but the photo is very real.
Rabasa won't identify who is in the picture, other than to say she was someone who lost her hair while being treated for cancer. He says she didn't want to wear wigs or a scarf because they tended to attract, usually, women, who wanted to offer sympathy for her situation. But such expressions irritated her, reminding her she was sick. So Rabasa says she chose designs significant to her and visited a Minneapolis tattoo parlor.
“When she tattooed her head, those nice women averted their eyes, because they said, ‘Here's some kind of countercultural freak,’ ” he said. “But the counter, subversive elements in our society, motorcycles, truck drivers, they thought her head was beautiful. This made her very happy. It was the lemonade from the lemons that came from losing hair.”
Rabasa — who was born in Maine to Catalan immigrants — says he had this woman in mind when he wrote "Undressing Lavinia," but it's not a memoir. It's a work of fiction. He began writing it in 2010, but it was really hard going. One day he decided to quit. And not just the book.
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"I said, 'Screw it. If J.D. Salinger can stop writing, I can.' And so I stopped cold turkey, and I loved it. I felt a sense of freedom. I could just be a civilian, you know, and have a good time."
Rabasa, author of four novels and a short story collection, didn't write for years. He was in his 70s and spent a lot of time in Mexico, where he grew up. Then COVID-19 hit. Rabasa found himself sitting in his studio apartment in St Paul with time on his hands.
“So I opened up my hard drive, and I saw a picture of the head, of the tattooed head, which has a history. And then I saw the first paragraph. I said, ‘Look, this is not bad.’“
He recognized the paragraph was in the voice of Jordi, the dying woman's husband, and began writing his story. Then he wrote in Lavinia's voice. As the story developed he added more and more voices.
"And then I started writing — something I'd never done — seven days a week, three, four hours at a time, just sailing through this."
In "Undressing Lavinia" Rabasa produces a mosaic of stories and observations, through her own words, and those of her family and friends, her lovers. There are also the words of people she’s wronged. Readers learn of her childhood in Mexico, her move to the U.S. for an Ivy League education. Then there's the life she later builds in Minnesota and the death for which she prepares.
"The narrative is really about Lavinia not doing battle, but negotiating with cancer. You know, living with cancer treatment," said Rabasa.
Rabasa describes how Lavinia sees the progression of her disease as a mounting pile of inconveniences. Her husband Jordi sees it in very different terms, as does Ysabel, her best childhood friend, and others she met throughout her life. And then there’s her father and brother who travel from Mexico as her death approaches, only to be refused access to her bedside.
Undressing Lavinia's unconventional creation continues into its publication. Rabasa decided to self-publish. It will be available in some bookstores, but mainly through his website. He's happy the novel goes on sale as the Mexican-American community begins marking Día de los Muertos.
"And it just so happens that the character upon whom Lavinia is based was an expert on Days of the Dead. She used to do ofrendas, as we call the altars. So you know, the book has been blessed by the way by fortuitous coincidences."
Which began with him rediscovering that first paragraph and a picture of a tattooed head.