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INTRODUCTION

Frida is a fictional biography of Frida Kahlo, the legendary Mexican artist known for her surreal self-portraits. The book, told by her younger sister, Cristina, gives us an intimate, adoring and envious look at the passionate, talented and tormented woman behind the canvases.

Suffering from polio as a child and a crippling accident as a teenager, Frida's life was riddled with pain. Various treatments only increased her suffering. She often was confined to her bed, where she sometimes had to use a mirror to paint.

Her marriage to Diego Rivera, the muralist, was tumultuous. His affairs with women would drive Frida to have her own affairs with both men and women. However, she would view Diego's affair with her sister Cristina as the ultimate betrayal, the greatest hurt.

Behind a backdrop of great drama, a constant parade of Mexican politicians and international artists shared the stage with Frida. The parties, soirees and political gatherings were charged with excitement, fervor and even political violence. By using Cristina to tell Frida's story, Bárbara Mujica shows us what it's like to live in the shadow of celebritythe woman who attends the party as a guest, not the star.

In the end, even as Frida spiraled downward into a haze of alcohol and drugs, it was Cristina that was always there for her. While cancer ultimately killed Frida, her wild life also played a part in her death at the age of 44.

 

ABOUT BÁRBARA MUJICA

Bárbara Mujica is a novelist, short story writer, critic and professor of Spanish at Georgetown University. A two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and the winner of the E.L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition and the Pangolin Prize, among other awards, she is the author of the novels The Deaths of Don Bernardo and Affirmative Actions, and two collections of short stories. Ms. Mujica is a regular contributor to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Praise

Praise for Bárbara Mujica's Frida

"Vivid....Burns with dramatic urgency...Mujica's Cristina is a vivid creation."The New York Times Book Review

"A captivating introduction to the lifeand deathof Frida Kahlo."Grand Rapids Press

"Mujica's Frida is a brave, foul-mouthed child, simultaneously defiant and winning."The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Absorbing."Book magazine

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH BÁRBARA MUJICA

What drew you to want to write about Frida Kahlo? How long were you attracted to her as a subject before you began the book?

I had been interested in Frida Kahlo's painting for a long time, and I had read quite a bit about her. Most of what I had read dealt with her arther themes and techniques, influences of Mexican folk art, comparisons with Diego Rivera. Those books and articles that recounted her life tended to be almost hagiographic. Frida as the victim. Frida as the Communist saint. But Frida Kahlo was a complex woman. She was very vulnerable, yet very manipulative; very kind, yet very cruel; politically committed, yet completely self-absorbed. I wasn't interested in writing another documentary about Frida, but in exploring her psychology.

In your Author Notes you say that you wrote this story through the eyes of Cristina, the youngest Kahlo sister, because you were "interested in what it might be like to be the unexceptional sister of such an exceptional woman." Did you always see yourself telling the story through the lens of Cristina, or did you decide on this once you began your research and/or writing? Why did you choose to have her speaking to a therapist to tell her story?

I started writing in the third person. After I had written about three chapters, I decided it wasn't working. The book was turning into a biography, and that wasn't what I wanted. When you tell a story in the third person, you make the narrator omniscient. The narrator becomes the all-knowing authority whose word constitutes truth. I wasn't interested in enumerating facts. I was interested in the paradoxical, shadowy areas of Frida's personality. I asked myself: What would it be like to live with someone like Frida? How did she impact those close to her? I needed a subjective narrator, someone who knew Frida well, someone very close to her, someone who loved her but suffered the effects of her moodiness and her selfishness. I came up with Cristina, Frida's younger sister.

There were six Kahlo girls. Frida's father Wilhelm had two daughters by his first wife and four by his second. Frida was the third child of the second brood. She was just eleven months older than Cristina. They were very close. In fact, Frida referred to Cristina as "my twin." Cristina was Frida's closest friend and her confidante. Still, she must have felt some resentment toward her older sister because Frida was always at the center of everything. Frida was her father's favorite and, because she was often ill, she required continual attention. Cristina was the girl who did everything right according to the Mexican social norms of her day. She married and had two children. She was the only one of the Kahlo girls to give Wilhelm grandchildren. But in spite of that, Frida was always the star. Cristina's bitterness grew. Finally, she did the one thing she knew would really hurt Frida: She had an affair with Diego.

The affair with Diego is factual. One critic said she thought I was very audacious to invent such a far-fetched incident, but that critic doesn't know her history. The affair between Cristina and Diego has been amply documented. It was a turning point in the lives of both women. Frida felt horribly betrayed, and Cristina felt so guilty that she practically became Frida's servant, waiting on her hand and foot until she (Frida) died.

I thought Cristina would be a good narrator because we actually don't know too much about her. Although she figures in every biography of Frida, she's always a marginal character. By bringing her out of the shadows and giving her a voice, I was able to paint a more nuanced, subjective portrait of Frida than I would otherwise have been able to do.

How did you conduct your research? Did you spend any time in Mexico visiting the places that were a part of Frida's life?

I had lived and gone to school in Mexico for a while, and I return to Mexico every year. I have visited all the places mentioned in the book. I also read everything I could find about Frida and also a number of books about Diego. Her letters and diaries are also available. I had been teaching a course on Latin American history and culture at Georgetown University for years, so I was very familiar with the historical period.

It seems that living in Frida's world would be exhausting. Was there anything that particularly surprised you about Frida? Do you admire her more, or less, after writing this book?

I was intrigued from the beginning by the complexity of her personalitythe contradictions, the inconsistencies. You have to admire her perseverance, her feistiness. She did not allow herself to be cowed by Diego. In spite of his abuses, his affairs, his temper tantrums, and his deceptions, Frida plowed ahead. She was her own woman. She had planned to study medicine in a period in which very few Mexican women had careers. When that didn't work out, she became a painter. When she couldn't stand Diego anymore, she got a divorce. But she needed him, and she was courageous enough to admit to herself that she wanted him back and to remarry. Also, you also have to admire Frida's joie de vivre, her sense of humor, her ability to turn it all into a joke. That's what kept her going.

While Frida was a diva in many ways, what may surprise readers is how she loved to cook for Diego and take care of him. What does that say about her to you?

Frida was a woman of her times. In spite of her radical views and her desire to shock, she was raised in an upper middle-class household where girls were expected to become wives and mothers. Even though there were servants, the women learned to cook. They saw the kitchen as a "women's space" where they gathered and shared in the joys of preparing food to nourish the family. For an early twentieth-century Mexican woman of Frida's background, there was nothing unusual about wanting to cook for a husband and take care of himeven though there were women who didn't share that attitude.

Frida is a strong character sexually. Do you think that through sex she was looking for something else? Her sexuality began at such a young age. Can you see anything in her history to have inspired this precociousness?

Frida lived in a period in which the intellectual/artistic elements were involved in sexual experimentation. Frida was born in 1907. She was an adolescent during the twentiesthe "roaring twenties" in Europe and the United Stateswhen women began wearing short skirts and breaking the rules. Short hair and men's clothes were considered chic in the artsy set. So were smoking, drinking, free love and lesbianism. So it's not so strange that Frida, who wanted desperately to be accepted by Diego's crowd, was drawn to that kind of activity. Even before then, when she was in high school, she saw herself as superior to the staid bourgeoisie. She and her friends did everything possible to rebel against the norms, and sexual experimentation was part of that.

Are you an admirer of Frida's artwork? If so, is there a favorite piece?

Much of Frida's art shows tremendous depth and imagination. When you see her works in person, you're overwhelmed by the luminosity of the flesh, the vibrancy of the colors. As awful as the topic is, I was swept away by The Suicide of Dorothy Hale. The figure is so fragile, yet so vital. She is dying, but she is so alive, and her gaze is so penetrating.

Do you feel that creative people often are more eccentric than others? If so, what would you attribute this to?

I don't know if they're really more eccentric or they just give into it more. There's an image of the artist in our societythe bohemian, the nonconformist. People who see themselves as artists often cultivate that aura. On the other hand, artists often observe more carefully and meditate more profoundly on what they see than other people. They are committed to transformation and re-creation, and so they must be acutely aware of their own world. And this often leads to alienation, depression or eccentricity.

What are you working on now?

Right now I'm working on a book for Yale University Press called Sophia's Daughters on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish women writers. It's due out in 2003. When I finish that book I plan to begin another biographical novel, but I'm a bit superstitious and prefer not to mention the subject.

What authors have you read whose work you most admire?

I teach early modern literature at Georgetown, so much of my reading is of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts. My favorite authors are Teresa de Avila, Cervantes and Calderón. I also read modern fiction constantly. Manuel Puig was my friend and is one of my favorite authors. Right now I'm reading Alexandra Lapierre's Artemisia, a fictionalized biography of the seventeenth-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. I loved Isabel Allende's last two books, Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia, which I read in Spanish. Two books I read recently and thoroughly enjoyed were Anita Diamant's The Red Tent and Tracy Chevalier's Girl with the Pearl Earring.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. "Sometimes I feel as though I've lived my entire life through Frida. She was the one who had adventures; she was the one who experienced magnificent emotions. I wore life secondhand, just as I wore Frida's old clothes....Sometimes, even when they're close, sisters go through life independently, each reaching toward her own destiny. But not in my case. The simple truth is, without Frida, there is no Cristi." (Page 136) Explore the relationship between Frida and Cristina, especially in relation to Christina's need to be a part of Frida's world.
     
  2. "Frida had a kind of....almost...a sickness. Or maybe obsession would be a better word. She always had to be at the center of everything. Everyone had to be looking at her. She wanted to be different, and she was different, but it was strange." (Pg 107) Discuss Frida's obsession with being different and how this affects her art and her life.
     
  3. Explore the issue of sibling rivalry. Is there a rivalry between Frida and Cristina, as well as dependence? Think about how Cristina opens the book talking about herself. "She had her strong points and I had mine. She was clever. I was beautiful. She wasn't beautiful." Cristina wants readers to know that she was more attractive to Diego than Fridathat she was his favorite model. Why do you think that she does this?
     
  4. Discuss Frida's obsession with death and the symbolism of death throughout the book. "All during her life, Frida found death attractive, alluring. Even when we were very young, when she still found it frightening, even then, death fascinated her." (See page 161)
     
  5. Discuss the relationship between Frida and Diego. Do you think that the volatility of their passion fueled their art? Do you think that Cristina betrays Frida and has an affair with Diego to prove something to her after years of living in her shadow?
     
  6. What do you feel that Frida's obsession with creating self-portraits said about her?
     
  7. There is a theme of loss and longing throughout the book; Frida is childless. Why do you think that Frida reacts so viciously when the children in the art class come to honor her for Mother's Day? Do you think that this opens the wound of her motherless state? Discuss this in relation to Frida destroying her doll collection. Was she killing the dolls as an extension of herself, or killing them as they represented a dream of babies in the future?
     
  8. How do you think Frida's physical pain influenced her life and her work?
     
  9. Explore Frida and Diego's commitment to Communism. Do you feel that they embraced Communism as a true calling, or a socially chic issue?
     
  10. After the unattractive physical description of Diego Rivera (Page 108), what do you think attracted both Frida and Cristina to him? Besides being highly sexual, do you feel there was love between these people? Was there intimacy? Or was it merely a physical act?
     
  11. Are you drawn to read and learn more about Frida after reading this book? Does reading this book make you want to view her work? Do you feel this work will have more meaning to you after reading this book?

Meeting Note:
It may be nice to have someone bring photos of some of Frida's paintings to the meeting to enhance the experience of talking about the book.