Mhoris eMm: "When queerness is normalized, something else will appear to destabilize it": A Conversation with Martin Ward
Mhoris eMm is an emerging voice from the LGBT community of Buenos Aires. As a writer, poet and queer performance artist from Buenos Aires, Mhoris is part of a new generation of artists in the second decade of the 21st century. Since 2014, he has published slam poetry and has found much success with it. He won the annual "Slam Capital" contest in 2017. His works represent the "under" world of Buenos Aires and destabilize what we think we know about sexuality. In his second collection No me toleres (2015), the narrator Bhoris characterizes the inherent problem of homophobia by presenting a character, Juance, as a heterosexual person suffering from heterophobia. By queering the idea of homophobia in his literary production, he opens a space where he invites us to question heteronormativity. It is clear in his work that, in spite of the advances of civil rights, many people of the LGBT community in Latin America continue to suffer. I had the opportunity to meet Mhoris in June/July of 2017 during a trip to Buenos Aires exploring the local queer community. The interview took place on July 14, 2017 at a local restaurant in Buenos Aires.
Martin Ward: Do you describe yourself more as an author or a poet or another type of writer?
Mhoris eMm: I describe myself more as a poet and performance artist. If I do something that is more visible, it is slam poetry. At first, I just participated and later I organized a slam poetry event in the northern neighborhood of Vicente López. There was already one in the capital but in the southern part of the city so with some friends I met through slam events, we put one together in the north. Apart from slam, I do performance stuff based on queer, transvestite and poetic themes. I also write books that are more of a narrative than poetry.
MW: Do many of the writers/artists of the queer community know each other or read each other's works?
M.e.: I'm familiar with the works and texts of others but also there also exists a type of ghetto in which we will go see others when they present or perform. For example, here in Buenos Aires many writers will read poetry at an event or someone will show their artistic production at some type of artistic event in which they invite the public to come see it. Public reading is also used a lot here. You end up seeing a lot of people and meeting them that way or sharing words with them in passing.
MW: Do you have a new work coming out this year?
M.e.: Yes, on July 29th. The first work I put together was a book of slam poetry called Querido heterosexuales. It has several poems I had written for slam competitions. I published them through a publishing house some friends had started up recently and they were working a lot with slam poetry. I have another collection called Niños de los 90 that was edited by a group of several young people. Later I published a book with Milena Caserola called No me toleres. After that came a short book with an independent publishing house called Ninguna peluquería abre los lunes that is primarily poetry but not slam poetry. Now, my new work of slam poetry is coming out July 29th and it's called Los vecinos de abajo saben cosas. It's made up of my most recent works.
MW: Why do you like slam poetry more than other forms of poetry?
M.e.: I like slam poetry more because there is more of a theatrical component to it. I don't know why it grabbed my attention so much because I used to write a lot of poetry that wasn't slam poetry. But slam poetry is freer and when I went to my first slam poetry reading, I was blown away. I like it a lot because it's poetry from the body in the form of a show, it's not just written words but rather it has a spectacle element to it. When someone writes, they are thinking of the scenery and the poem. I like theater and literature more. So, slam combines two great things I love to do so it's natural that I'm attracted to it. There is also more of a performance aspect and the poetic part is more isolated even though the literary text appears too. I think slam is a genre in and of itself. To say whether it is or isn't poetry, for me, of course it's poetry and a very particular kind of poetry. It has its own features. I enjoy writing other types of poetry but at this moment, slam poetry is what interests me most.
MW: What word best describes No me toleres? A work? A text? Poetry?
M.e.: For me, No me toleres is a work of various types of texts like the story of Juance, the HPV cumbia and the epic poem because there are several distinct texts in the work so it's a bit of a pastiche. There is a mix of several different things. With the story of Juance, I had been studying literature and had read a lot of stories by baroque authors. In Argentina, there had been a lot of discussion about television and radio laws when I wrote about Juance and I was affected by the public discussions at that time. I was also taking communications classes so the concept of heterophobia had been circling in my mind for a while. I believe I wrote it very affected by that time and it inspired me a lot.
MW: Does homophobia continue to be a problem here?
M.e.: Yes, in Argentina it is still a problem, at times in cities including Buenos Aires. It depends on where you go. You can walk through downtown Buenos Aires holding hands with a guy and everything is fine. You can go to a different area and it will be a problem. Outside of the city in more rural areas it's a completely different situation. In the central provinces, it is even more drastic. It wasn't long ago there were still cases of young men committing suicide in those regions because of the homophobia there. In Buenos Aires, our reality is completely different from the rest of the country.
MW: Is your work (No me toleres) a queer work and political work?
M.e.: Yes, I think so because the writer is queer and the work talks about queerness. I think the two go hand in hand. No me toleres is also a political work but every work is political. I wrote it to express myself and it's a collection of various works I wrote over several years and wanted to put together and publish as a book. I like them a lot and I think they're fun and I hope readers have fun when they read them like I do. I think it's both political and fun at the same time. They're situations that aren't based in heteronormativity, heterophobia doesn't exist and the HPV cumbia as well.
MW: Can an author who isn't queer talk about queerness in their works?
M.e.: Of course. An author who isn't queer can talk about queerness and an author who is queer can write works that aren't queer at all. For me, now that I'm thinking about it more, you could say that a work is queer when it talks about queerness in regard to the actions or the characters. What happens a lot is there are lots of writers who dedicate themselves exclusively to queer themes or queerness appears repeatedly in several of their works. It seems to me that you could speak about a queer writer beyond his gender and sexual identity.
MW: Then what does queer mean? Is it a catch all term? Does it have a negative connotation in Argentina?
M.e.: It's an Anglo-Saxon term we have appropriated. Here, words that refer to the LGBTQ community, that are offensive, continue to be offensive - maricón, puto. There are others like torta that hasn't lost any offensiveness. Puto has lost a slight amount of offensiveness but these words still continue to carry a level of denigration. It also depends on whether the person that uses them is part of the community or not.
MW: Do you think queerness can be a destabilizing force towards a cultural hegemony here in Argentina?
M.e.: I think queerness destabilizes in a sense of visibility. Queerness has this visibility to the outside world and this continues to destabilize. When the "other" goes along seeing other possibilities, they start assimilating to them. Queerness could end itself by its own nature and cause its own destruction. When queerness is normalized, something else will appear to destabilize it.
MW: What about the cumbia form made you want to use it?
M.e.: The cumbia is very masculine and denigrating to women. Women appear as sexual objects but it seems to me that the slum cumbia is like that because of the whole social context and population that surrounds it. In Argentina, the cumbia is from the lower classes but it has traversed the entire country. In other words, everyone knows the cumbia and everyone dances cumbia.
MW: Speaking of social classes, is it more difficult to be queer/homosexual and poor here?
M.e.: Yes, it is more difficult to be gay and poor. First of all because in the lower classes there is more homophobia. Discrimination in lower social classes is more intense and that's just how it is. I don't know why discrimination is more intense. I guess there is less tolerance. People of a higher social class seem to have more tolerance. In the HPV cumbia, there is more of a political tone to it. The story of Juance the heterophobe seems to me to have a political tone as well because it discusses homophobia. But in the HPV cumbia it discusses gender and lower social classes. The main character is a man but presented as if he had a feminine identity. The epic poem is probably more aligned with heteronormativity or at least it tries to create a different reality.
MW: Now that civil rights are advancing and acknowledging the queer community, is there still a large gap between visibility and the public perception of the queer community?
M.e.: Yes, there is definitely a gap between the legal and the social and the everyday reality. Legally, you can change your gender and the law states you must be treated as the gender on your national ID card but in real life that doesn't happen. Discrimination continues to exist and the State doesn't enforce all of its laws. The trans ID law is not enforced regularly.
MW: Is transphobia very strong here?
M.e.: Yes, transphobia is a very strong and actually much stronger before the gender identity law. What happened was that the gender identity law was very high profile and so it made visible the situation of trans people. This became the motivation for discrimination. It continues to exist and apart from the State, there are a lot of issues that aren't legalized. Meanwhile trans people suffer a lot of violence and people in the street yell things at them. Access to work and healthcare is hard as hospitals also discriminate against them. There is much more transphobia than homophobia. There has always been transphobia, even within the queer community. There are issues of discrimination within the community itself in regard to what is feminine and what is masculine. There is always discrimination associated with what is feminine. Within the homosexual community, being feminine/effeminate is still seen as negative.
MW: Could you say that within the homosexual community there exists the idea that you must show you are very manly or very masculine?
M.e.: Yes, that still exists. From the social stereotypes to eroticism it's social. It is something that is eroticized then turned into a stereotype. The masculine gay man is eroticized as a sexual stereotype that imposes himself more than an effeminate man. I call it passive-phobia(pasivofobia). Phobia of being passive exists.
MW: Why do you think this passive-phobia(pasivofobia) exists and how does it affect perceptions of manhood?
M.e.: Passive-phobia(pasivofobia) exists because machismo exists. It's an internalized homophobia in which you can see the passive homosexual, who is more identified with femininity, as an object of discrimination because of his effeminate qualities. Because of this he finds himself in a denigrated position. The Passive, the loca is an object of mockery and oppression for being effeminate. It's the same gender violence but acted out in the homosexual world. It affects the concept of manhood negatively because we aren't allowed different masculinities but all of that that escapes the "macho" stereotype is ideologically forced into submission and ridiculed.
MW: Is there a queer public nowadays in Argentina?
M.e.: I think there is a queer market. There are queer people that like queerness and form their own market. There are people that come to the shows, that buy books, and speak to us and one another. It seems to me that if a queer work is bad it's because there are many writers that publish a lot but I don't think it has anything to do with queerness itself. There is a fanaticism to publish and so many people publish, publish, publish. There are people who publish things that aren't that good and it has nothing to do with queerness. There are queer writers here that don't have much literary quality but in the form and content there is something new and interesting. For example, the works of Ioshua are nice but it's very graphic and yet very simplistic. He has an interesting proposition that up until now no one has really talked about and he has his own style. To me, debating whether one type of literature is better than another doesn't make much sense. It seems to me that there are texts written with more simplicity and others with a more complex form but it doesn't lower the quality of the work itself.
MW: We spoke about the work of Bazán in an email (I'm referring to Historia de la homosexualidad en la Argentina, 2004). Does that type of book help make the LGBT community visible?
M.e.: Specifically, to me, I liked his first book, Un día Nico se fue. The other books by Bazán, ideologically speaking, I put in a different place, in a distinct space. He's part of the Clarín group. It's the group that controls the media in Argentina. It's the big entity that controls the television, the radio, the newspapers. In general, queer writers here publish in an independent circuit. There are few queer writers that publish with big publishing houses. Speaking of Bazáns work(La historia de la homosexualidad en la Argentina), I think they are short stories.
MW: How is the word "gay" used in Argentina?
M.e.: Here it's acceptable to use it. It doesn't have a negative connotation. It refers more often to men than women.
MW: Within the LGBT community, is there a social hierarchy like the one that exists with heteronormativity?
M.e.: Hierarchy? I don't know. The same discrimination exists in the LGBT community that comes from heteronormativity.
MW: Is it possible the new administration causes more discrimination against the LGBT community?
M.e.: I think so. Everything bad that happens, if you were to ask me is his fault. So I would say yes. I believe there are a lot of laws that could assure society progresses. This government isn't going to give any attention to mistreatment. I don't think this government will oversee any major social advances. Locally in Buenos Aires, the government has closed many artistic programs and cultural centers. Overall, the government is not very friendly to cultural activities.
MW: Is there anything else about the queer community you would like to say that I haven't asked?
M.e.: It seems to me that here in Buenos Aires there is an "under" circle of writers where queerness is accepted and welcomed with open arms. Therefore, there are many queer writers that support this "under" circle in Buenos Aires where queerness is welcomed and taken seriously. This circle of writers, in particular those of the "under" movement, center themselves culturally in the ideas of "Pachamama", the Sala de los chasquidos and other cultural centers like the Casa Brandon. There are a lot of people who disseminate literature and plan events in which several artists present together. There is a lot of diffusion like that. The stories of people's lives and personal biographies are very popular right now. Also, biographic poetry about daily life is popular. These are the types of representations that are common at this moment.
Martin Ward is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Georgia. He is writing his dissertation Transforming Masculinities in Contemporary Literature of the Southern Cone about queer masculinities in the Southern Cone after the military dictatorships and the development of queer identities. He also focuses on gender studies and women's studies in Latin America.
Mhoris eMm is a poet, writer and queer performance artist in his hometown of Buenos Aires. His published works include: Queridos heterosexuales [Dear heterosexuals] (2014), No me toleres [Don't put up with me] (2015), Ninguna peluquería abre los lunes [No hair salon opens on Mondays] (2016) and Los vecinos de abajo saben cosas [The downstairs neighbors know things] (2017). Mhoris has performed in various slam poetry competitions and won the annual "Slam Capital" in 2017.
LALT No. 6 goes from the gripping true stories of literary journalism to the strange worlds of fantastic short stories and graphic literature. We highlight chronicles by Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos, speculative fiction in a dossier curated by Mexican writer Alberto Chimal, and Yucatec Maya poetry and prose in our ongoing Indigenous Literature series.