John Better: a Career Out of Limbo
To say that John Better Armella (Barranquilla, 1978) is an enfant terrible of Latin American literature will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with his life and work.
As an adolescent, he fled his native Barranquilla for the capital Bogotá, not unlike Arthur Rimbaud, alongside whom he will appear in 2021 in Queer: A Collection of LGBTQ Writing from Ancient Times to Yesterday. Young, gay, and attractive, Better arrived in Bogotá penniless, also like Rimbaud, a condition that forced him to live by his wits and good looks, a topic that serves as the core of his urban chronicles Locas de felicidad. In Bogotá, he immersed himself in the city’s queer subculture, a life that, to some extent, imitates that of Pedro Lemebel, who would not only write the prologue for Locas but would become in many ways his fairy godmother. Also like Lemebel, he dove headfirst into Bogotá’s trans and drag demimonde, a trope that runs through much of his life and work.
It seems, however, that Latin America’s literary world can only embrace one queer writer at a time. With the death of Lemebel, there are those who consider Better to be the true heir apparent of Lemebel.
Praised by Roberto Bolaño—who was also christened an enfant terrible during his lifetime—and Carlos Monsiváis, Better considers Lemebel as one his greatest influence, followed by Truman Capote, as well as H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, both of whom make cameo appearances Better’s latest novel, Limbo (Seix Barral, 2020), a horror novel that Borges might have written had he been a queer writer living in 21st century. (Think “The House of Asterion.”)
I chatted with John via email and Facebook in September about his life and Limbo. At 42, there is still something defiant in John Better, more than anything in his insistence that the literary world accept him on his own terms. That defiance can be noted in the conversation that follows.
George Henson: I’ve always known you as John Better (Armella is your mother’s maiden name), but you’re credited in Limbo as John Templanza Better. Why suddenly now Templanza?
John Better: After Limbo (my most recent novel), I wanted to sign my books as John Armella, my mother’s maiden name. But my editor suggested it was a bit too late. I had previously published three books under my real name, John Better, which I always thought of as a joke because the literal translation [in Spanish] is “Juan el mejor.” Many people think it’s a pen name, but that’s not the case. And to be honest, I hate that last name: my father would not acknowledge me as his son from the beginning of my mother’s pregnancy. He was a sleazeball, and I started using Templanza as a hyphen to further distance myself from him. I hate that last name with a passion. I think in Limbo, Cristian Nerval, that madman who hates his unborn child, is my father through and through. As far as level-headedness [the English translation of the word templanza in Spanish], I don’t have any of that so it’s also a contradiction. I am contradictory.
GH: Locas de felicidad was the first book of yours that I read, which by the way is a brilliant title and very difficult to translate because of the double meaning of the word locas.1 Please tell us a little bit about the origin of that book, which is a series of chronicles.
JTB: Locas de felicidad is a descent into my teenage inferno. I ran away from home (Barranquilla) to Bogotá to literally self-destruct. And that type of effort takes time, it’s just that now I do it in moderation (I’m starting to contradict myself). It was years of excess for the body and soul. I prostituted myself, I was cold and hungry, I slept on the streets... a series of experiences that I was able to use to write about later. I also write trans and drag queen narratives, which Colombian literature had not really touched on until that time. I brought out all those police blotter characters and drag queens with my “flowery” language and gave them names and faces. That way, for the first time, the country heard the voices of all these beings that are only “visible” on endless nights under a streetlamp. That book is already ten years old and has served as study material at various universities in Colombia and abroad. It's also taught in queer studies courses at the University of Los Andes by the Brazilian professor Candida Ferreira.
GH: How did Pedro Lemebel end up writing the prologue?
JTB: I met Lemebel through a great Colombian writer named Efraim Medina Reyes. He served as a bridge. It happened in 2007. I’d read part of Lemebel’s work and wanted to interview him. It was no easy task: everyone was well aware of the great Latin American chronicler’s volatile personality. The first thing I did was send him a message signed as Betty Sulfuro [Sulfide]. Humor is the best ally. From there on, it was chemistry. We talked daily. He granted me the first interview. He started to read the first manuscripts of Locas de felicidad and got hooked. He saw himself reflected in my books. He didn’t see me as someone who was plagiarizing him or that wanted to praise him, rather as a young guy who had something in his trousseau that he’d borrowed from him: a sunflower necklace, a rhinestone broach or bracelet. I wasn’t expecting those introductory words; more than a prologue, it’s a Lemebelian merecumbé song for his debutante daughter.
GH: I know from what you’ve written that you were very fond of him. What influence has he had on you as an author?
JTB: A lot. You can tell in Locas de felicidad that his books, like Loco Afán [Crazy desire] and La esquina es mi corazón [The corner is my heart], encouraged me to dare to do it. So that in the act of writing I wouldn’t have any qualms whatsoever when I became overwhelmed, telling someone else’s story.
GH: Many, including myself, consider you to be the heir to the literary movement created by Lemebel. Do you think that’s an appropriate or correct comparison?
JTB: There are a lot of us: Alejandro Modarelli, me, and others. I’m the heir to his rage, which is the rage of every poor fag making their way in a hostile world like this one. And like Lemebel, I like to make the “correct” people feel uncomfortable.
GH: A chronicle from Locas de felicidad will soon be included in an anthology of queer literature edited by Frank Wynne. What does it mean to you to be a part of an anthology that includes writers like Armistead Maupin, Oscar Wilde, Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Sappho?
RB: I’m glad that my texts are starting to be translated into languages like Italian and English. It’s really a delight to see me, a guy from southern Barranquilla that thrives on books and the love his mother has given him, among those names. And we should toast even though our glasses are empty. Cheers!
GH: Your work has shifted from the marginalized toward “respectability” (note that I’ve written it in quotes). What does it mean to you to be published under a highly respected imprint like Seix Barral?
JTB: It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just that: an imprint. One of many that has been placed on my antediluvian skin. According to the media, I’m a queer, gay, LGBTI, marginal, and controversial author. Recently, I’m a “horror” writer. All imprints are a bit scary. Any label tends to separate you, to set you aside. I’ve said it in several interviews, I’m a can without a label. Inside you can find expired beans, dog food, a fetus, or something you never expected to find inside a can: Andy Warhol’s soul.
GH: Lemebel was disgusted that the literary establishment saw him as the token queer, like a kind of freak that is fashionable, in Latin American literature. Do you care if that’s how you’re seen?
JTB: I’m not worried. The literary establishment is a country club of extremely boring ladies and gentlemen, people with no swing as Fito Páez would say. Literary gatekeepers that gather during their festivals to further bore themselves to death. They are people that consume and exude literature and defecate books that smell like “literature.” I like to be a minor author, to be viewed condescendingly and who with a single phrase can annihilate them just like that.
GH: You’re from Barranquilla, which is of course known for the famous Barranquilla Group. How has your native city influenced your work?
JTB: It’s impossible to avoid Gabo, a word genius. I identified more with Álvaro Cepeda Samudio. His writing is experimental and warm, full of music and self-confidence. As for the city, it’s a city without natural landscapes, more concrete every day, fewer green areas. It’s hot as hell. It’s a place that has produced great artists and well-bred monsters like Sofía Vergara or Shakira. As the tango song goes, I’m from the south and it’s another world: more amazing, carnivalesque, violent, solidary, and miserable. I experience the city through sound and the bodies I inhabit. I’m a fleeting guest in thousands of bodies, that’s where my stories beat—they flow in the stream of the many vagabonds sheltered by my heart.
GH: How did you decide to tell this story, the one about the Duplicated Sisters and the intersex boy, and at the same time incorporate real figures, like the Polish saint Faustina Kowalska?
JTB: Everything is confusing, George. I’m a bit messy when I write, everything emerges instantly. It’s as if a warlock were to give me the ingredients for a potion, and there I go, in my infernal kitchen (my room and my bed, I write lying down) mixing ingredients. What I did have was a memory of the dead child I saw when I was 7 years old. He was on a table with his eyes open thanks to the toothpicks that had been placed between his eyelids so that he wouldn’t close them. The child had not been baptized and everyone feared he would go to Limbo, to the non-place where souls without that sacrament die. The Duplicated Sisters (Orfa and Ninfa) are crazy ideas of mine, images that tormented me when I was a child. I was a very sickly and nervous boy. I experienced terrible nightmares. While reading about limbo, I discovered Saint Faustina Kowalska, who had visions of this place. I found her diary on the web and read it. These visions were terrifying, like from a zombie movie, and well, the witches' cauldron filled up with things until this novel that is giving people so much to talk about was created.
GH: The book is brimming with cultural references and examples, especially from the United States. Why? What role do they play in the novel?
JTB: I love popular culture from the U.S., it’s a fetish. TV, music, idols, movies, etc. And they’re more than just part of the scenery, they come into play in the novel as support beams for certain narrated scenes. For example, one chapter is called Rosemary’s Baby, the one that talks about a pregnant woman named Rosemary (like in Polanski’s film). In another chapter, I talk about the supposed New Orleans jazz musician that Rosemary hears named Mandragurus Springer. It’s not just for the sake of name dropping.
GH: In the novel, we read: “Puberty brought Cristián a sickly fascination with books; but he didn’t read Dickens or Mark Twain. His taste was for Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, Diáboli Mari, Templanza Better, among many others.” A generous interpretation of this is that it’s an example of postmodern self-reflexivity, while a less generous interpretation would be that it’s egocentric. Why did you do it?
JTB: To irritate the “establishment.” Nothing to do with ego; I wanted to give Templanza Better the place she deserves. She’s another one of my inhabitants, the “narrator” as baptized by Pedro Lemebel. She’s the one that will possibly keep dictating stories to me.
GH: Mario Bellatin said about you: “If you are looking for the dissonant voice, the one that defies any classification, the one that truly enlightens the unenlightened, that’s the voice of John Better Armella, the gold standard author to understand what is impossible any other way.” What does that mean to you?
JTB: Even though there’s a desire to pigeonhole me with labels, I am precisely beyond any of them as Bellatin says. That’s what I am, the non-writer in the non-place, you won’t find me, for example, amongst contemporary Colombian authors. I don’t see myself in that power and elite circle. I’m a drop of oil in that murky glass of water. I’m the lantern when you get lost in the forest, the candle at the feet of the orisha, that blinking neon light that makes you stop and enter that dark place...
GH: Not too long ago I tweeted that in my opinion Limbo was ¨The House of Asterion” if Borges were a queer man in the 21st century. What do you think of my analogy?
JTB: That Borges will soon be knocking on your door.
GH: What can we expect from John Better?
JTB: Nothing. Maybe a kiss if we run into each other on the street.
GH: The movie version of My Tender Matador just made its debut in Valencia, directed by the Chilean director Rodrigo Sepúlveda. I think Limbo has a great deal of movie potential. Who would you like to direct Limbo?
JTM: As they say, dreams are free. María Rueda T., a sweet reader and a visual artist, suggested to me after she finished reading Limbo that “Guillermo del Toro should direct a movie based on your book.” I knew this reader and I were likeminded and that she felt the same as me. Del Toro is one of my favorites. Let’s keep on dreaming.
Interview translated by Mireille Mariansky
Read a short story by John Better Armella in this issue of LALT.
1Locas is the feminine plural of crazy but is also used to refer to gay men, much in the same way as “queens” in American English.
George Henson is the translator of many of Latin America’s most important writers, including Cervantes laureates Sergio Pitol (The Art of Flight, The Journey, The Magician of Vienna, and Mephisto’s Waltz: Selected Short Stories) and Elena Poniatowska (The Heart of the Artichoke). His translation of Pitol’s novel The Love Parade will be published in 2021 by Deep Vellum Publishing. His translation of John Better’s story “The Brevity of Cigarettes” can be read here. In addition to serving as a translation editor-at-large for Latin American Literature Today, he is an assistant professor of Spanish Translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.
John Better Armella is a writer and journalist from Barranquilla, Colombia. Better’s work has appeared in translation in Latin American Literature Today and Your Impossible Voice. He is the author of six volumes of poetry and narrative: China White (Salida de emergencia, 2006), Locas de felicidad (La iguana ciega, 2009), A la caza del chico espantapájaros (Emecé, 2017), 16 atmósferas enrarecidas, which earned the Jorge Gaitán Durán National Short Story Prize, and Fantasmata (Lugar Común, 2020). His most recent novel, Limbo, was published to wide acclaim in January 2020 by Seix Barral. The flash fiction piece “Birds” appears in his Spanish-language story collection, Fantasmata, published this Summer 2020 by Lugar Común.
Mireille Mariansky is studying Translation and Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She previously studied interpretation at York University in Toronto and holds a BA from the University of California, Davis. Born in Mexico City to Mexican and Argentine parents, Mireille now lives in northern California.
Gabriela Zayas Alom is a graduate student in Translation and Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. She is originally from Cuba and Puerto Rico.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.