One day in September 1986, when Pedro Lemebel was not yet a well-known author and his country was still governed by Pinochet, the Chilean writer gave a memorable reading at a meeting of the clandestine left in Santiago. On high heels and with his face made up, he presented a political manifesto called I speak for my difference. “Don’t talk to me about the proletariat,” he exclaimed. “Because being poor and a fag is worse.” Critical of the dictatorship and capitalism, but also of the machismo of a certain left, Lemebel hoped that democracy would return to Chile. He also wondered what space there would be for poor gays or transvestites like him. “What will they do with us, partner?” “Are you afraid that life will become homosexual?” The manifesto contrasted the traditional concept of manhood with his: “It was biting my mockery / Eating anger so as not to kill everyone / My manhood is accepting myself differently”. His proposal was another, more subversive. “I speak of tenderness, partner.” Novelist, short story artist and chronicler, managed to live the transition to democracy in 1990 and become a cult author in Chile before dying, in 2015, at the age of 62. And now, 35 years after that intervention, his nonconformity has gained new momentum.
At the beginning of the year, the Amazon Prime platform bought the rights to a successful film in Chile based on Lemebel’s only novel, I’m scared bullfighter (2020). It had a similar message. “If one day you make a revolution that includes the crazy women, let me know,” La Loca de Enfrente, the main character of the film, complains to a leftist guerrilla who plans an attack on Pinochet. In addition to the film, several of Lemebel’s chronicles books are being recovered for an audience that receives them as news in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Chile (Seix Barral, Planeta’s label), and in Spain by the independent Las Afueras. Other publishers in the United States (Penguin), United Kingdom (Pushkin Press), Brazil (Companhia das Letras), Poland (Claroscuro) and even Egypt (Al Kotob Khan) are translating his work into English, Portuguese, Polish and Arabic.
“It is true that there has been a revival of his work,” admits Josefina Alemparte, editorial director of Planeta in Chile and editor of Lemebel in the last years of her life. “It was always read to him in Chile, but last year’s film generated a phenomenon, and the novel I’m scared bullfighter it started to sell in an impressive way ”. Alemparte adds that the massive protests in Chile, which began in 2019, aroused this new appetite for the author. “He connects with the people, because his work tells that country that it has been made invisible, it tells the lives of the people who live on the margins at a political and social level,” he says.
Connect with people, because his work tells about that country that has been made invisible
Josefina Alemparte, editor
I’m scared bullfighter It is his most famous work, although Lemebel published more than a dozen books of chronicles about the LGTBI world in Chile, which have not had the same international visibility. He also stood out in the field of performance artistic thanks to his work with Francisco Casas, Together with the one who founded the Yeguas del Apocalypse in 1987 and carried out famous actions during the dictatorship. His entire career is collected in the documentary Lemebel (2019), by Joana Reposi when we have the information.
Seix Barral publishes this year in several countries of the continent titles such as Cute ladybug, The corner is my heart, Zajón de la aguada, Of pearls and scars, Tell me about loves and his most famous non-fiction book, Crazy eagerness, where the 1986 manifesto was published along with raw chronicles about the life of trans women or the gay community. “He was never afraid of pacos [militares]”Lemebel wrote there about a Mapuche and transvestite woman who called herself Madonna. “The crazy woman would stand up to them very haughty, yelling at them that she was an artist and not a murderer like them.”
“We decided not to start bringing books little by little, but to bring four at once to cause a small phenomenon,” Juan David Correa, literary director of Planeta in Colombia, tells El PAÍS, where the appetite for the lyrics of Lemebel. “Colombia, like Chile, is experiencing an awakening on issues that, although they are consigned in the Constitution, were not publicly discussed, such as diversity.”
Francisco Llorca, from Las Afueras, in Spain, says that Lemebel’s books were practically impossible to find in Europe. “Whoever wanted to read them had to pay an exorbitant price in the second-hand market or resort to imports from Chile,” says the editor, who will rescue Little man at the beginning of 2022. “Lemebel tells us about our own time, about us (in fact, he was ahead of his own time), he challenges us and offers us ways to rethink issues such as the heteronormativity of the dominant discourse, the need for transversality of the different struggles ”.
Very few of Lemebel’s chronicles were translated into other languages while he was alive. The Grove Press publisher published in 2003 a translation of I’m scared bullfighter (‘My Tender Matador’), and other independents translated it into French, German or Italian. “But those contracts expired, and I want to see if they can be reactivated,” Elianna Kan, literary agent of Lemebel’s heirs and professor of creative writing at Columbia University, in New York, tells EL PAÍS. That, the agent thing, is a novelty. He never had one.
Talk about issues from then that are very relevant in the context of now
A few years ago, Kan says, when he was going to teach a nonfiction class, he discovered that there were only North American authors on the program. “I was surprised that Latin America was not represented, where there is a history of great chroniclers.” He also discovered that the best accounts he knew of Lemebel had not been translated into English. “She is like an Audre Lorde or like a James Baldwin, she talks about sociopolitical issues from then that are very relevant in the context of now,” he adds. “I am impressed by how fierce his voice is, it seemed that he was not afraid of anyone, and his was a literature forged in the street, because he was not the type of writer who circulated in small worlds of privilege.”
Offers began to reach the family: Penguin, Pushkin, Companhia das Letras or Al Kotob Khan in Egypt (the country where Human Rights Watch investigated last year how the government imprisons and tortures citizens of the LGBT community). Karam Youssef, its editor in Cairo, advances that next year they will have a first edition of I’m scared bullfighter in Arabic.
The edition that will surely attract the greatest international interest will be the translation into English of several chronicles, by Penguin, in which the North American writer Gwendolyn Harper works. The anthology will have a foreword by the famous writer Garth Greenwell and will be published in 2023. “He is a very difficult author to translate,” Harper tells EL PAÍS, who published an English version of the manifesto in 2018 I speak for my difference at the request of the family. “It is a challenge; used a lot of neo-baroque grammar, as well as a lot slang Chilean of the old school ”, he adds. “And there are also many sexual puns in their texts.” There are indeed phrases in Lemebel’s work that seem like a riddle. “Aesthetic for aesthetics, detachable in its striptease-ro queer, removable in its oblique demariconaje, politicizing to maricomprenderse”, he writes in Crazy Eagerness.
That political language, but also poetic, won him the admiration of the great authors of the continent. “For me Lemebel is one of the best writers in Chile and the best poet of my generation, even if he does not write poetry,” signed Roberto Bolaño in 1999. “He is one of the few who do not seek respectability (that respectability for which Chilean writers lose their ass) but freedom. His colleagues, the horde of mediocre people from the right and the left, look at him over their shoulders and try to smile. He is not the first homosexual, God help me, of the Chilean Parnassus, full of crazy women in the closets, but he is the first transvestite who goes on stage, alone, illuminated by all the lights, and who begins to speak before a literally stupefied audience ” .
Now, that audience that could hear him in that 1986 meeting, alone, illuminated by the spotlights, does not stop growing.