April 2010

Beth Harrington


An Interview with Maria Finn

When Maria Finn was in her mid-thirties, she thought she had created an ideal future for herself. After spending years living in Alaska, she had completed an MFA in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence and was living in New York City. She was making enough money as a freelance writer to relinquish her teaching position. She had gotten married, thus freeing herself from the Sex and the City fate (in her book, she cites a statistic that for every single man in New York City proper there are at least 3.5 available women). It seemed likely that the greater portion of the rest of her life would be spent pitching articles to magazines while raising a child with her husband.

Then, she discovered some lascivious messages addressed to another woman in her husband’s e-mail account. She filed for divorce immediately and was forced to undergo the all-too-typical process of reconstructing a life that had once seemed to promise stability and happiness, yet was now fraught with sadness and uncertainty. To give her a focus outside of the divorce process, she joined a tango class. Her memoir Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home chronicles the year after her marriage ended through the dual lenses of a heart scarred by betrayal and a set of feet that slowly gains finesse on the dance floor.

There seems to be a subgenre of literature emerging geared towards women in which a woman in her mid-thirties finds herself in a rut (bad marriage, family or job issues, etc.) and undertakes a quest to discover a more holistic version of herself that has been lost in the fast-paced monotony of contemporary life. I am thinking, of course, of Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster
Eat, Pray, Love. Have you read Eat, Pray, Love? How do you feel that Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home fits into the framework described?

When I was an undergraduate, I really loved studying the Greek classics, particularly the tragedies. They believed that struggle was necessary for reaching truth, which was the ultimate goal -- and regardless of how horrendous the truth was -- like Oedipus learning that he killed his father and married his mother, it enlightened him, brought him wisdom, and elevated him spiritually. For the audience, the tragedies dignified suffering and the overall human condition. We are all going to have our hearts broken in some way, at some time. It’s what you do with that experience -- you can become bitter, stay angry, and live in the past, or you can develop a deeper sense of compassion and become a better, wiser, person from the experience. In Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home, I was very conscious while learning tango that I wanted to take a bad experience and turn it in to a positive change in my life.

There’s a term in Lunfardo, a slang spoken in Buenos Aires, “mufarse” that means something like “the melancholic shiver of pleasure one gets from having survived heartbreak.” In Orhan Pamuk’s novel, The Museum of Innocence, the lovelorn protagonist experiences “hüzün,” a sort of spiritual loss that causes a person’s melancholic soul to fall so deep into despair, that it experiences divine desire. In the classic sense of a “Hero’s Journey” there’s a “call to adventure” and for Greeks, it was men who did this, but even so, the goal was to find a spiritual freedom. Though my book, and Gilbert’s may be contemporary and involve more female pursuits, i.e. dancing and food, and what triggered the journeys were marriage problems, the goal was ultimately interior and the search was to transcend suffering and find a sense of completeness.

In the context of the current economic downfall, do you think that more women are trying to express themselves through hobbies such as art, literature, and dance perhaps because they are unlikely to find fulfillment in their careers at this time?

I think women -- or the ones I know -- also like book clubs, travel, cooking classes, wine tasting, and socializing in general. Of course, men have their hobbies too, and sometimes they overlap, but unfortunately for single people, not as often as most would like. When economic times are good, women might shop more and tend to identify themselves through their shoes, designer clothes, what restaurants they go to, etc.. But when times are tough, hobbies, community and friends take precedence. Nobody needs $600 shoes or $1,200 purses, but we all need our friends and there are always simple pleasures available: a good book, taking a hike, listening to music. I think this economic downturn is helping people to value experiences and relationships over consumption, and hopefully this will last, even when economic times get better. I was told recently by a journalist that a certain editor at a certain high-end travel magazine would have freelancers come down to the office and look at their shoes -- if they weren’t wearing the right ones, she wouldn’t give them an assignment. I very seriously hope that editor lost her job in the downturn.

You explain that you took salsa dancing lessons while dating your husband. Then, when you were getting divorced, you learned to tango. Though your book describes the obvious differences between the two, the uneducated will likely lump them together as "Latin American dancing." How do you explain that you found solace during your divorce in something that you associated with meeting your husband?

This does seem a little like a “hair of the dog that bit me,” but I lived in New York City at the time, and had I been in California, the place I live now, I might have taken up surfing instead as I wanted to get out of my head and in to my body and have something else to focus on. I needed this, and at my first encounter with tango, I knew that the music, the human touch, the community could take me to a better place. While I may have danced with my husband, I had also danced salsa with hundreds of men who I never dated, never really knew, and experienced the metaphor of relationships, not the actuality of them. Dancing can be very safe emotionally, as most people are really there just to dance.

In the same vein, despite the fact that your name is Maria, you describe yourself as being an Irish-American from the Midwest. Why not step dancing or contra dancing?

While my parents did win Irish jig competitions in my old neighborhood, for the past 20 years, I have spent a lot of time in Latin America, and I identity with and love Latin cultures. My three brothers are married to women from Mexico and all have bilingual children. We think it may be the Catholic connection. And there’s no greater compliment to me than when someone sees me dancing, then comes over and speaks Spanish to me -- it’s the ultimate nod to my salsa dancing. Recently, I was in a small town in California where I had never been before, and a fruit vendor flagged me down and asked me to translate from Spanish to English for a customer. I marveled at this, I’m red haired, pale-skinned, and yet he somehow knew…

In tango, men are always the leaders and women the followers. You write that:
"The difficulty of following is often more psychological than physical. Women of my generation were taught to fend for themselves and to be independent. It takes a while to relax and realize that if a leader respects his follower, it can be a very good experience for a follower." Still, I am sure there are women who will balk at this. Have there ever been cases of females being leaders? Do you care to comment on this situation more than you already have in your book?

I was writing an article about gay tango in Buenos Aires, and started taking “Queer Tango” lessons and learning how to lead. My teacher there said that she learned to lead because when she got good, she didn’t want to dance with men who had bad musicality. As well, she didn’t like wearing high heels and skirts. She wanted to express who she was. Some women learn to lead in tango so that they can teach, some because they are gay and want to dance with women, and some so they improve their musicality and dancing in general. I would like to pursue leading more, but I feel that there’s a very valuable lesson for me in following -- to learn to be in the moment and not control the outcome of a situation, and to trust a man and let him take care of me on the dance floor -- I’m not good at this in real life.

If a woman is naturally more passive and comfortable handing over the reins to other people, she would benefit from leaving her comfort zone and learning how to lead. Women have approached me in bookstores after readings and told me that they could never follow, because either they have been too hurt by a man, or they are too controlling. I tell these women that they need to learn to follow the most. Trusting and letting go of control are the most valuable lessons you learn. I would like to pursue leading, but it’s more a matter of having to learn the dance all over again and having the tricky job of navigating the dance floor -- followers get to just close their eyes and relax.

You talk a lot about the tango embrace “el abrazo” that is necessary between dancing partners, and how this requires two people who may be virtually strangers to achieve a significant level of physical intimacy. During the middle chapters of your book, you join an internet dating site and go on a string of first dates. However, you manage to avoid succumbing to any more destructive romantic urges -- such as compulsive sexual behavior, etc. Do you credit your being able to attain this sense of physical closeness in tango that you were no longer receiving through a relationship with keeping you safe during this vulnerable period of your life?

YES! When we get rejected on such a profound level, our almost immediate response is “you hurt me, so I’m going to hurt me.” Your self-esteem is at an all time low, so things like sleeping with his friends, stalking, finding inappropriate men, and drinking and drugs all seem like great ideas when in this downward spiral. (I think people should get two years of behaving badly after a divorce.) Tango kept me from all of this. I could have the metaphors of rejection and one-night stands take place on the dance floor, and those bad feelings go away pretty fast, and you have just as many, if not more, good experiences when dancing.

To shift gears and talk more about the business of writing, when you were going through this very difficult period of your life, did you find yourself thinking "Someday, I’m going to write a book about this"? Or did the idea come later?

Such wonderful and startling things came out of my dance teachers’ mouths at classes, that I took notes after each lesson. And learning something new really makes you vulnerable and face feelings of inadequacy -- from the sidelines of the dance floor, when men wouldn’t ask me to dance because I was a beginner, it felt like being in junior high when nobody picked me for the snowball at the roller skating rink. I would go home and write about these experiences as well, as you have a new, adult perspective on this painful, familiar feeling. So many metaphors for relationships came up during the learning process that I jotted down notes about these as well. I knew, even in the experience, that I would pull these together as a book. Writing is what helps me make sense of situations and find meaning in them, so writing this was as important of a process as learning to dance.

In the book, you avoid getting into much detail about your married life, choosing instead to focus on the aftermath of the breakup. Your husband isn’t really a character in the book. Was this because writing about your marriage was too painful? Or did you worry that whatever you said would sound overtly snarky or emotive?

It was because my editor made me take out the nasty details about him and our divorce. I’m very grateful for this now. Some time back there was a high profile divorce in New York that kept making the news as the wife made videos for YouTube, ranting about her ex-husband. I remember thinking, “You really don’t want to do this. You are at your worst right now, you don’t want the whole world to see it, and when this should pass, it won’t because of these videos.” He didn’t look bad, she did.

Here’s your chance to get (a little bit) snarky. Does your ex-husband know about this book? Has he responded in any way?

I haven’t heard from him for some time and he’s not a big reader. […] So if he’s read my book, it was probably a slow and clandestine experience. I know he feels really bad about what he’s done, and life has a way of giving people what they deserve, so I really didn’t set out to punish him with this book. But if it gets made into a television series or movie, I may send him a “thank-you” note.

To finish things off, what’s next on the literary agenda for you? I notice that you’ve been the editor of some travel books:
Cuba in Mind and Mexico in Mind. Will there be an Argentina in Mind, or perhaps a Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home Part II?

I have two book proposals I’m in the process of getting together. I worked in the commercial fishing industry in Alaska for ten seasons and traveled and worked in Latin America during those winters. I plan on writing a swashbuckling adventure book about these experiences. Storms blowing up while out on fishing boats, mountain climbing in Peru, encounters with brown bears, lots of misadventures with men.... As well, I moved to a floating houseboat in Northern California almost two years ago and I have been amazed by the food and wine culture here. I keep wondering why no A Year in Provence or Under the Tuscan Sun type book has not been written on these quirky people and their devotion to epicurean matters. I might have to write it.

Bonus question: what ended up
being your favorite tango step?

The volcado. It’s searching, sad, and sexy. It’s the French film of tango steps. [Interviewer’s note: In her book, Finn defines the volcado thusly: “the man steps backward, pulling the woman off her axis, and her full weight presses against him; her free leg extends and searches, making a sweep of the area where he once stood.”]