On Saturday 24 January, Chile bid farewell to one of its greatest literary, cultural and iconic figures, Pedro Lemebel, who passed away in the small hours of Friday 23 January. The funeral, attended by hundreds, including Michelle Bachelet, the president of the republic, and Claudia Barattini, the minister for culture, is a testament to the massive changes undergone by Chilean society during the period of Lemebel’s lifetime and in which he can be said to have played no small part.
Born in 1952, in the impoverished marginal Santiago neighbourhood of El Zanjón de la Aguada, Lemebel attained national and international recognition for the myriad of roles that he performed, from performance artist to writer, and queer activist to major public figure. The reach of his aesthetic production and the renown it garnered is all the more remarkable for the context in which it was created: a period in which Chile transitioned from a state which had penalised homosexuality through most of the twentieth century to its definitive decriminalisation in 1993, via a seventeen-year military dictatorship which targeted not only left-wing ‘subversives’ but homosexuals, the indigenous, the indigent, and other identities deemed non-assimilable to a model of national identity of which the white, heterosexual, ‘masculine’ military men most closely approximated the ideal. Lemebel, who has described himself on numerous occasions as “maricón, pobre, indio y viejo” [a poor, old, indigenous fag] is situated, and situates himself, at a great remove from the ideal of Chilean identity that the generals and their supporters envisaged. That the Chilean president declared on his death that “his cultural legacy enriches the country that we are”, and the minister for culture describes how he “changed the cultural history of this country” and “made us recognise a complex and diverse Chile”, as has been widely reported in local and international media outlets, illustrates that at least some of the ideals for which Lemebel fought have been achieved.
A graduate of the University of Chile art school, where he qualified as a high-school art teacher, Lemebel experienced a short-lived teaching career when he was fired from the two teaching posts that he (briefly) held upon graduation. Yet if the institutions of the state, here the education system, were not to harbour his talents, he would find an outlet for them by rather more disruptive means. Lemebel first came to public attention in 1986 through an (uninvited) intervention that interrupted a meeting, in Santiago’s Estación Mapocho, of left-wing opposition parties at the tail end of Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In high heels and make up depicting a hammer and sickle emerging from his mouth and extending to his left eyebrow, Lemebel denounced the homophobia of the left in his ‘Manifest: I Speak for my Difference’ to a bewildered, even hostile, audience perplexed at the cross-dressing revolutionary they had difficulty recognising as a figure of left-wing militant politics. Also marking his literary debut, the intervention staked out the space of marginality and difference that Lemebel unapologetically inhabited and rendered visible through his actions: “No soy un marica disfrazado de poeta / No necesito disfraz / Aquí está mi cara / Hablo por mi diferencia / Defiendo lo que soy / Y no soy tan raro” [I’m not a fag disguised as a poet / I don’t need a disguise / Here’s my face / I speak for my difference / I defend what I am / And I’m not that unusual].
1987, the eve of the plebiscite that would depose Pinochet and bring about the end of military rule in Chile, saw the founding, with writer and artist Francisco Casas, of the art collective they named Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis [The Mares of the Apocalypse] in a reference to the vulgar use of “yegua” to refer to a woman and, in its homophobic version, to gay men, as well as a play on the association of AIDS with the plagues of the apocalypse. Interrupting – and disrupting –– political and cultural events throughout Santiago and elsewhere in Chile, Lemebel and Casas forcibly brought to public attention historically marginalised groups in Chilean society: the poor, queer people, HIV-positive people, transvestites, sex workers, and the dictatorship’s disappeared. In actions that incorporated installation, video, photography, performance and transvestism and which would eventually take them to the VI Havana Biennal, Las Yeguas intervened on nearly twenty occasions in actions that ranged from the simultaneously comic and sensual –– when they traversed the campus of the University of Chile naked and Godiva-like mounted on a mare (‘Refundación de la Universidad de Chile’ / Re-founding of the University of Chile, 1988) –– to the sombre and painful, when they gatecrashed the inauguration of an art exhibition at the Centre for Social Studies naked, in wheelchairs, bound by barbed wire and pushed by an accomplice dressed as a nurse (‘Cuerpos contingentes’ / Contingent Bodies, 1990) in a bid to draw attention to the devastating effects of the HIV virus on gay men in Chile.
But it is above all as a writer that Lemebel gained notoriety. Attending writing workshops organised by the Society for Chilean Writers, Lemebel both forged friendships with some of Chile’s foremost writers and feminists –– Diamela Eltit, Nelly Richard, Pía Barros –– and honed his characteristic writing style and preferred genre, the chronicle. Continuing in a dominant Latin American literary trend that has seen writers, such as Gabriel García Márquez and Cristina Peri Rossi, move between journalism and literary writing, Lemebel’s chronicles were initially published in various newspapers and magazines in Chile, as well as presented on the radio, before being compiled in his first three publications, La esquina es mi corazón (1995), Loco afán: crónicas de sidario (1996) and De perlas y cicatrices (1998). In a hybrid style that combines fiction, memoir, reportage, public address and socio-historical analysis, Lemebel’s chronicles present, with heart-wrenching poignancy, razor-sharp observation and acerbic wit, interrelated vignettes from the social, political, sexual and ethnic margins he occupied.
Arguably his most widely read publication, Loco afán: crónicas de sidario, whose title, perhaps best translated as ‘Mad Desire’, displays Lemebel’s characteristic lyrical and trenchant style, which shifts abruptly from humour to tragedy, from pathos to scathing critique, in the turn of a page, at times, from one sentence to the next. Bearing the subtitle ‘Chronicles from the Sidarium’, this collection of thirty-one short texts portrays the lives and experiences of a group of gay transvestite men during the years of the military dictatorship (1973-1990) and the outbreak of AIDS in Chile, thus the neologism of the subtitle, ‘Sidarium’, based on the Spanish acronym for AIDS, ‘SIDA’, and suggesting a place of seclusion to which HIV-positive men are banished through its phonetic proximity to ‘sanatorium’.
Lemebel’s representation of the gay transvestite men in the opening chronicle of Loco afán, ‘La noche de los visones’ (The Night of the Minks), echoes the contours of the conflicting ideological and class affinities at the heart of the political turmoil of the period and belies any notion of a homogenous ‘gay community’ in Santiago. Set in a New Year’s Eve party on the brink of the year, 1973, that would see the overthrow of democracy and the instalment of the military rule that was to last until 1990, Lemebel depicts the tensions and divided loyalties of the working-class and middle-class ‘locas’ [queens] at the party. Much like the reappropriation of ‘queer’ by queer activists and theorists, Lemebel reappropriates the homophobic language used in Chile to divest it of its derogatory tone by using it in self-designation. In prose that is at once colloquial and highly lyrical, as seen in the evocative description of ‘las mismas locas jai que odiaban a Allende y su porotada popular’ [the same upper-crust queens who hated Allende and his common mob], he reappropriates the stigmatised designations of class to demonstrate how the interests of the working- and middle-class characters are often at odds with each other. Yet their interests and affinities are also shown to converge in the face of wider homophobic discrimination, as well as in response to the sinister effect of the AIDS crisis. The chronicle is, in fact, triggered by the narrator’s contemplation of a photo of those present at the party which serves as a visual mnemonic and inspires the reminiscence of the fateful night, with the devastating revelation of the loss, in the meantime, of many of the party-goers to AIDS-related illnesses.
Lemebel continues to tease out the complex layering of queer identities in a politically turbulent Chile in the second chronicle, ‘La Regine de Aluminios el Mono’ [La Regine of the El Mono Aluminium Factory], which depicts the class complicity between the transvestites and sex workers of the brothel located in the El Mono Aluminium Factory and the military troops on leave who visit them for sex. Both disenfranchised groups are depicted as instrumentalised by the ruling elite in the context of oppressive military rule, a shared marginalisation that overrides political and social identifications. This shared marginalisation is ultimately reinforced by the eventual ‘calambres y sudores fríos de la colitis’ [cramps and cold sweats of the colitis] suffered by the soldiers as the result of HIV infection contracted from the sex workers.
While his chronicles were widely read and he had become a hugely popular and beloved figure at home, it wasn’t until the support of compatriot writer Roberto Bolaño, who arranged for Lemebel’s work to be published in Spain, that Lemebel began to reach audiences abroad. Lamentably, only a very few of Lemebel’s chronicles have been translated into English. His 2001 novel, Tengo miedo torero, and the only novel he published, was translated into English as My Tendor Matador in 2005 by Katharine Silver, and it is this translation which has, above all, brought him to the attention of international audiences. With a wider readership and increasing scholarly interest in his work came a Guggenheim Fellowship and invitations to Harvard and Stanford. In 2013 he was awarded the prestigious José Donoso Award, placing him alongside such literary giants as Beatriz Sarlo, Ricardo Piglia and Diamela Eltit. Many lament that he was not awarded the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 2014 in spite of the public campaign that was mobilised to promote him as a candidate.
Pedro Lemebel has left behind, along with a number of unpublished works, a significant and singular body of work of which his performance of his own queer self can be considered a part. In addition to the fluidity and mobility that permitted him to move between art practices and across social markers of identity, Lemebel also demonstrates a very rooted sense of identity, anchored in the margins and defined by difference. If state recognition, honours and decoration marked Lemebel’s final years, and indeed his funeral, this is less a sign of Lemebel seeking to occupy the centre or having relinquished his marginal position, than an indication of Chile’s improved ability, over the course of Lemebel’s lifetime, to better accommodate its margins. Never abandoning or compromising his productive, contestatory positioning on the margins, Lemebel will be remembered for having indeed achieved some of the ideals for which he fought from his very first public intervention: to render visible the hitherto dismissed margins and to voice difference.
Kate Averis is Lecturer in French Studies at the University of London Institute in Paris, where she teaches twentieth and twenty-first-century French and Francophone literature and culture. She is the author of Exile and Nomadism in French and Hispanic Women’s Writing (Legenda, 2014), and has published articles on Francophone and Latin American writing. Her main research interests lie in contemporary Francophone and Latin American literature, particularly women’s writing, gender and sexualities, feminism, transnational identities and cultures, and writing of migration and exile.
Images: “Pedro Lemebel, La Vega,” © Sebastián Tapia Brandes; “Pedro Lemebel, Departamental“, © Sebastiáná Tapia Brandes; “Pedro Lemebel (1 de 1)-32“, © Periódico El Ciudadano. All images Creative Commons, unmodified, used not for profit.