The Punished Body: An Interview with Pedro Lemebel
Pedro Lemebel is a phenomenon in today’s Latin American literature. I use the term phenomenon in its double meaning: he is an original and noteworthy prose writer and, for his readers, a freak, someone who attracts attention because of his appearance and who rejects normativity. - Carlos Monsiváis
A biographical sketch would tell us little or nothing about the writer Roberto Bolaño once called “the greatest poet of his generation.”
Why mention that he was a visual artist who, alongside Francisco Casas, founded the collective Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis (The Mares of the Apocalypse), whose performances were legendary. Quicklime burials, folkloric dances on glass, naked horseback rides across university campuses: these are the blurred footprints left behind as he galloped through a decade of weeping and disappearances.
Why say that he was a rabid leftist to the bone, who dressed in drag more than once so that members of the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front would have a Mary Magdalene to come to their aid in the streets of Santiago de Chile amid the burning smoke of tear-gas bombs. Why reveal that he strolled through cities around the world in high heels proclaiming that “to be poor and queer is worse than anything else.” Why say that he adopted his mother’s surname, Lemebel, out of pride and a sense of solidarity with women, that he was an opening act in a Manu Chao concert, that he strutted insolently through the halls of the Sheraton, whisky in hand, while an embittered Miguel Bosé waited impatiently, amid lights, to meet the myth called Lemebel. Why boast that he won this or that prize, or note that any reporter who interviews him runs the risk of losing a story because the writer is probably in a bad mood and may walk out in the middle of the interview.
Reading Pedro Lemebel (1952–2015) is like getting too close to a fire, which in the end won’t burn you because the writer has already put his hands in the flames for us. The proof of his martyrdom lies in his books, La esquina es mi corazón (The corner is my heart), Los incontables (The uncounted), Loco afán: cróncias de sidario (Crazy desire: Chronicles of the Aidsman), De perlas y cicatrices (On pearls and scars), and Adiós mariquita linda (Eng. My Tender Matador), among others. His last book, Háblame de amores (Talk to me about love), is a collection of chronicles about those who were fortunate enough to pass through his body and his soul, an amusing book in which he pays a small tribute to Barranquilla in a text entitled “Barranquilla Moon, You Made Me Bleed,” where he relates a night of revelry during which he competed with Fernando Vallejo for the affection of an ephebe.
After rejecting dozens of invitations to literary gatherings and interview requests from international media, the most acerbic chronicler of Latin America sat down for this interview, one of the last he gave, to talk about his early years, Vallejo, Chile today, and, of course, his loves.
John Better: Why does Lemebel hate interviews? Do you have something against journalists, prima?
Pedro Lemebel: I hate that cruel question, which is always answered on the downcast face of the queer being interrogated. I detest the obviousness of interviews because there’s a hint of superiority in the person asking the question; the journalist judge, the journalist inquisitor—there is something horrible about having to testify in the trial of your life, where you’re under suspicion of being who you are and guilty of daring to reaffirm it.
JB: The early years of your life were very hard. Do you think about them often?
PL: Minority biography is tricky, it always puts you in that gaunt and Christian place. There wasn’t that much drama, a few scratches, that’s all; when I was a tyke I did okay. Literature puts a dramatic veil on biography; in the end, it’s a matter of mar- keting and homotheatricality. I mean, the queer sells more if he suffers, pure capitalist theatrical masochism, prima.
JB: You got “pregnant” as a little boy. How did that happen?
PL: That’s a story from my childhood, from when I swallowed a tadpole egg and it grew inside my belly, but that happens to poor boys. At Harvard, the gringo students asked me in broken Spanish, “That be magical realism?”
JB: At what moment does Francisco Casas come into your life, and the two of you become the Mares of the Apocalypse?
PL: In 1987, during the dictatorship, we were sitting on a sidewalk in Santiago, drinking wine, and we thought about founding a collective that would open the doors for Chilean homosexuals. It was the time of Aids and the dictatorship, and it was Holy Week. Through an open window, we could hear on the television one of those Hollywood biblical movies, which is how we thought of the epic name: Mares of the Apocalypse, like Ben-Hur or Cleopatra. Our first act was to restore the worker’s name on the Hollywood marquee. The golden christening of our proletariat names.
JB: And writing, when did that start?
PL: I had written stories before, and they were okay, but fiction fit me like a borrowed dress. When I wrote Manifesto (I Speak for My Difference), someone paid me to publish it, and they asked for another text. So my chronicles were born out of the need to survive. It’s worked out well, which is why I say with all the false modesty of a bald queen that, in Latin America, chronicles are what pay to get my hair done.
JB: You’re always labeled as a gay writer, a queer writer; how queer, and how much of a writer are you, prima?
PL: In answer to that question, I’ll quote Carlos Monsiváis, my friend who’s no longer with us. More than homosexual literature, it’s a matter of punished subjectivity, an ignored sensibility. Isn’t that beautiful? Although I now think that the flux of minority writing is exploding into diverse eroticisms—spoken, performative, acting. It’s not just queer writing. There are thousands of transurban gurgles, metaphors of zoomorphic sexualities that are emerging and still yet to appear.
JB: Roberto Bolaño’s love for your work sparked jealousy within the establishment. They called him crazy for praising you in the way that he did. How important was he in your life?
PL: Bolaño knew me from my days in the Mares of the Apocalypse, and he was harsh in his comments, which were not gratuitous. His death was an unexpected blow.
JB: Prima, people insist that you are a cult author. Are there Lemebelians among us?
PL: Perhaps the cult author thing has a sort of queer collector or antiquarian aspect to it. It’s disgusting. I detest the machista mythomania that places literature at the center of everything and rescues accursed writers and hopeless alcoholics. Those kinds of comments make me unreachable, and I want to be out there, in the street, on the sidewalk, pirated by clandestine commerce, within arm’s reach where my public can grab me. I belong to the copular and popular class.
JB: When did you begin to realize that things weren’t going well in your country?
PL: Always, before I started writing. I discovered with sweet bitterness the proletarian landscape of my childhood. But as a child, you believe that your square meter of poverty is the world. So I wanted to paint it, decorate it with metaphors and affected adjectives, what they call uncloseted baroque, although I was never in the closet. We were so poor that we didn’t have a closet.
JB: You’ve said that you’ve been the victim of censorship and marginalization. What do you mean?
PL: Look, the most recent discrimination always brings prior experiences to the surface. While that is true, I am no longer as marginalized as before, because educated and liberal homophobia has changed its attitude; they read me now, or so they say. Now they become teary-eyed at my themes of massacred transvestites and the disappeared. Now I’ve become part of their horrible “diet” world, a fad, the flavor of the day. But that world never interested me, it repulses me to be reduced to the role of a meager public servant of literature.
JB: By the way, prima, someone tried to kill you, a deranged man during a reading in southern Chile. What did you feel then?
PL: During that reading, some guy stands up in the audience, with his hand in his armpit, and he starts to insult me and someone says, “Watch out, he’s got a blade,” and I didn’t associate blade with knife. And I said to myself, What the hell! I’m going to hit this fascist with my umbrella. And that’s when my friends from the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front tackled him and disarmed him. I thought to myself, I’m not even Lennon.
JB: Pedro, in Chile some think that the dictatorship died with Pinochet. What do you say to that?
PL: Dictatorships reappear on walls every so often, like stains on stale walls painted with propaganda about a rich and happy country. Pinochet was not put on trial here; he made a transition pact and all the murderous torturers walked free. Even the swine who murdered Víctor Jara is walking around, pretty as you please. When Pinochet died, the grandson of General Prat, one of the dictator’s victims, stood in the long funeral line, in disguise, and when he arrived at the coffin he spit on the glass.
JB: Your novel My Tender Matador was a bestseller, but it coincided with the death of your mother. How did the media exposure affect you, and does it affect you still today?
PL: I hated that novel for many years until the pain of her leaving subsided, until her death stopped raining on me. Now I see it as a good novelistic exercise; it was what it was. Bolaño never liked it. He called it a dime novel, and that’s what it was, with no other pretensions. What was the question?
JB: Media exposure, prima.
PL: That’s relative; sometimes it’s overwhelming when I come out with a new book, but I’ve learned to do battle with the media monster, disguise myself, lose myself in the anonymity of the street. Sometimes I pretend to be a crazy woman, a half-operated tranny pobladora, mid- sex change, whatever it takes to become invisible and to submerge myself in the profane waters of the city, to know the city, become the city, the free market, a worn book, used, poor neon, Latin American creole sidewalk, a mestiza in shoes and in bare feet. Do you understand?
JB: You once stole a kiss from Joan Manuel Serrat. What did that kiss taste like, and the one you gave to Gabriel García Márquez, how did that happen?
PL: There weren’t just men, there were women, too. They nicknamed me “The Kissing Mare.” The Serrat kiss was furtive but sweet; the story is in my book Loco Afán, but Joan Manuel never speaks of that time when my mouth sang in his mouth. The Gabo kiss was consensual, as we were leaving a theater here in Santiago, and it tasted like dead insects.
JB: You opened a concert for Manu Chao in Chile. What was that craziness like?
PL: My very dear friend Manu asked me to open for him, imagine, and although I have experience with large crowds, this was a delirious stadium full of Manu fans. But in spite of my fear and their screams, they listened to me and the text worked out well. What time is it, darling?
JB: The Catalan writer and critic Jorge Carrión edited the book Better Than Fiction, where you appear next to “the Great Luminaries” of the genre. When asked, he said that what you write is close to autofiction, that Lemebel is very much like Fernando Vallejo; the only difference is that Vallejo insists that he has written a novel and you a chronicle. What do you think, prima?
PL: Well, hija, we’re a long way from being a star of that genre. The luminaries of the chronicle are Monsiváis, Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, one crazy queen or another in the slums of Lima or Buenos Aires. Everything else is bird-cage liner, travel and gossip journalism. What that horde of chroniclers from the beau monde lacks is biography and the street. Meager servants of the chronicle. I’m not running for any office in the royalty of letters; what I do is barely illiterate scraps, traces of iridescent manure on the page that reads like an unfulfilled and eager desire. Sometimes I set arrogance aside, and I am terribly humble; so not to be like myself, I betray myself, but I don’t take myself too seriously.
JB: Speaking of Vallejo, you had an encounter with him a few years ago in Barranquilla, in the famous Carnival of the Arts that the Fundación La Cueva organizes. Had you met before? And talk to us about that chronicle which appears in your book Háblame de amores where you tell a spicy anecdote about Vallejo.
PL: Look, it’s nothing, Vallejo sometimes is a little boy, pale and melancholy like a sailboat without an ocean, run aground in his vain rhetoric. That night was special because Fernando was returning to Colombia, and we were by the ocean with the orchestra playing the song “Lágrimas Negras” (Black Tears). It was a beautiful encounter, and the chronicle is an expanded version of that hard and hot night during Barranquilla’s carnival; by the way, the chronicle is titled “Barranquilla Moon, You Made Me Bleed.” But I don’t know him well.
JB: What can readers expect from Háblame de amores?
PL: It was published by Planeta, and it’s a mix of chronicles and other material: photos, drawings, texts, letters, pamphlets, etc., just like the rest of my books, so don’t expect anything new; in the end we always sing the same song.
JB: Have men ever loved you?
PL: Maybe, I guess. They just haven’t told me. They just say they want me, but wanting is an obsession that lacks amorous mysticism. That’s why I say I don’t know that thing you call love.
JB: In some of your chronicles, you say you’ve paid for company. How expensive is love?
PL: I’ve paid for sex, without guilt, but like a queen friend of mine says, It’s cheaper to pay, it’s a one-time transaction, because if you fall in love and take him home, there’s the booze, the drugs, you have to support him, he starts to live with you, and it ends up costing a fortune. The search for love is so corny, amiga, I prefer that people love me on Facebook and in silence. I never understood the amorous algebra of exchanging hearts. Kristeva says something very beautiful that I used as an epilogue in Háblame de amores: “My only love sprung from my only hate! . . . A hatred at the very origin of the amorous surge, a hatred that antedates the veil of the amorous idealization.” And I agree, don’t you, Betty Better?
JB: Prima, I’m one of those who believes in love. See this scar? Well, it’s proof of what I know to be love, but better we continue the interview. You just survived a delicate cancer. What is worse, illness or the effects of dictatorship?
PL: I prefer cancer: it can be reversed, and the surgeries heal well; the dictatorship remains forever in the unpunished absence of our deaths.
JB: What about the adaptations of your books to the stage and screen? Do you like them?
PL: They’ve allowed me to live a little better than my publications with Anagrama, which is pure gloss and cultural sophistication. My Tender Matador might be made into a movie. I wrote it thinking that it would make a good screenplay; we’ll see, there’s no money. Do you see how we live to talk about money? It must be why in Chile they say that “the vile metal reigns,” but it doesn’t rain on those who need it most. Because of the propaganda of the neoliberal El Dorado, lots of immigrants arrive. I’m waiting for a Colombian taxi boy (prostitute) who’s a poet so I can pay him in metaphors.
JB: Finally, would you ever pose nude?
PL: Not long ago I met Spencer Tunick. There’s something sexy about his obese gaze. Posing nude at this stage, however, would be too much. I’m a punished body, hija.
Translation from the Spanish by George Henson
Originally published in World Literature Today 89, no. 3 (May 2015).
1 This is a reference to the creation of mass graves during the Pinochet dictatorship, in which quicklime was used to speed up the decomposition of bodies.
2 My Tender Matador (2003) was translated by Katherine Silver for Grove Atlantic.
3 Lemebel traveled to the coastal city of Barranquilla at the invitation of John Better to participate in the annual Festival of the Arts, at which appeared the novelist Fernando Vallejo, author of, among other notable works, Our Lady of the Assassins. Vallejo’s novel Casablanca la bella was reviewed in the November 2014 issue of WLT.
4 Throughout the interview, Better and Lemebel refer to each other as prima, “(female) cousin,” both as a term of endearment and to suggest a familial relationship. The use of feminine gender serves a playful purpose as well as to subvert traditional gender and sexual binaries.
5 Chilean novelist and screenwriter Roberto Brodsky recalls in an interview with WLT (September 2012) a Chilean literary circle in which he and Lemebel were invited by Bolaño to participate.
6 This is a reference to an essay written by the late Carlos Monsiváis in which Monsiváis labels Lemebel’s writing as “barroco desclosetado” (uncloseted baroque).
7 Literally “settler,” used in Chile to refer to shantytown dwellers. During the Pinochet dictatorship, the pobladoras became a political force that arose in opposition to Pinochet’s neoliberalist economic program.
8 Like prima, the use of hija, meaning “daughter,” is employed as a term of endearment. It also serves to underscore the generational difference between Lemebel and the interviewer.
9 Originally from Medellín, Colombia, Vallejo moved to Mexico in 1971, where he eventually became a citizen.
10 Here, Lemebel alludes to the difference in Spanish between the verbs amar (to love) and querer (to want, love).
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.
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 translations have appeared in World Literature Today, the Paris Review, Granta, and Two Lines. In addition to serving as an 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.