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“I think the biographies are doing something very different than what I am doing,” says Bárbara Mujica of her new book, Frida, a novelized account of the life of artist Frida Kahlo. “I wanted to offer a new perspective.”

Mujica’s depiction of Kahlo—Mexican painter, communist activist, wife of muralist Diego Rivera—is written as a first-person narrative, told from the point of view of Kahlo’s younger sister, Cristina Kahlo. Mujica, a professor of Spanish at Georgetown University, organized Frida as a series of therapy sessions during which Cristina, after Frida Kahlo’s death, recounts their time together to a psychiatrist. Her account sets the tale of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and deceit amid political and sexual revolutions of the first half of the 20th century.

“Anyone who writes any kind of biography or history book has to face the fact [that] we can never recapture history perfectly; we can never be completely objective,” Mujica says. “There already are some good biographies of Frida and several studies of her art. I was interested more in the personal aspect: What was she like? What was her personality like?” In Cristina, she says, she found a narrator “who would be close enough to Frida that she would be impacted by her impetuousness, her self-centeredness, and manipulativeness—someone who had a very intense relationship with her.

“They were best friends for much of their lives,” she explains of the sisters. “These were women who really did truly love each other, and, at the same time, they did really horrible things to each other.” Indeed, Cristina eventually had an affair with Rivera—an event Mujica describes as “a turning point in both of their lives.”

Through Kahlo’s letters and diaries, Mujica was able to gain “insight into the kind of person that she was.” “Most [accounts of Kahlo’s life] are adoring,” Mujica says. “She is idealized [as] a woman who was a saint and suffered tremendously and was a victim of Diego Rivera.

“We don’t do people a service by idealizing them,” Mujica offers. “We’re not exploring the complexity of their personality. [Kahlo] was very fragile and vulnerable—but also manipulative and selfish, and wanted always to be the center of attention. She was needy; she was brilliant.”

Mujica, a native of California, has lived in the D.C. area for 27 years. The author of two other novels and two collections of short stories, she will take a sabbatical this upcoming school year to begin work on another book and to tour for Frida, which will be issued in paperback this winter. The Spanish version has already been released.

“One thing that has greatly gratified me is that Mexican readers have been very positive about it,” she says. “People say she has become an icon, a saint—right up there with the Virgin of Guadalupe.

“It’s time to look at her as a complex person.” —Maori Karmael Holmes