Chileans to know: Pedro Lemebel

Pedro Lemebel, (1952 - January 2015), was a renaissance man in Chile's literary world, speaking our language and writing about our lives. He was a writer, chronicler, performance artist and poet. To this list he added in an interview for Canal 13C: "drug addict, homosexual... I've done everything... (but) not a prostitute because I didn't have the body for it."

Photo courtesy Sebastian Tapia Brandes (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sepiabrindis/)
Photo courtesy Sebastian Tapia Brandes (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sepiabrindis/)

Born and raised in La Legua, one of Santiago's toughest and poorest neighborhoods, some have called Lemebel an essential figure of Chilean life.

He represented life's peculiarities by exposing and celebrating the periphery. In his acidic style, Lemebel highlighted the essence of Chilean society by writing about politics, gender, homosexuality, society and human rights.

Lemebel in 1986, wearing red high heels and a hammer and sickle painted on his face, read "Manifiesto (hablo por mi diferencia)" (Manifest (I speak for being different)).

His manifesto was presented at a leftwing political event, leaving the traditional left at a loss for words as he called them on their hypocrisy, criticizing their conservatism and homophobia, stating that he did not want to hear them speak of the proletariat, because being "poor and gay was worse."

Photo courtesy Radio Tierra (Cronicas de lo necesario no nombrado)
Photo courtesy Radio Tierra (Cronicas de lo necesario no nombrado)

In the late 80's, he made a name for himself as a performance artist by collaborating with the artist and poet Francisco Casas in the Yeguas del Apocalipsis (Mares of the Apocalypse). Together they staged 20 interventions during book presentations, art openings and political events.

Some of their most notable acts were dancing the cueca on broken glass over a blank map of South America speaking against human rights violations; their version of the famous Frida Kahlo painting Las dos Fridas; and arriving naked on a white horse at the Arts School of the Universidad de Chile, referencing Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish conquistador and first governor of Chile.

About Yeguas, Lemebel stated during a literary conference in Cuba that they got together to "do something. To do something about the homosexual stand, about AIDS, and about the human rights that were being terribly violated during this period in my country."

His first collection of chronicles, a compilation of works first published in the newspapers Punto Final and La Nación, was published in 1996, called "La esquina es mi corazón" (The corner is my heart).

Throughout the mid 90's Lemebel, on Radio Tierra, conducted a program called Cancionero (Songbook), where he paired his chronicles of daily life in marginalized neighborhoods in Santiago with traditional folk music. These radio programs led to his third publication of chronicles, called "De perlas y cicatrices" (Of pearls and scars).

Lemebel saw himself as a chronicler. In an interview for Canal 13C, he described this genre as "the most successful for me in the pyrotechnics of the written word.” Highlighting that the style is not as rigid as the novel. He added: “it’s an exercise in survival at all costs."

It has been widely written that Lemebel owes his international notoriety to his compatriot, writer Roberto Bolaño. After having read his works and having met Lemebel, Bolaño is quoted to have stated that he "does not need to write poetry to be the best poet of my generation. Nobody reaches more deeply than Lemebel. And above all, if that was not enough, Lemebel is brave," as published in a recent article in El Mercurio.

He participated twice at the Guadalajara Book Fair, taking Roberto Bolaño's spot in 1999, which has been widely noted as the moment Lemebel's work gained notoriety in the international literary circuit.

In 1999, Lemebel was recognized in the United States upon receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship to write a book that was never published. In later years he was invited to lecture at Stanford and Harvard.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Tapia Brandes (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sepiabrindis/)
Photo courtesy Sebastian Tapia Brandes (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sepiabrindis/)

His only novel, published in 2001 and translated in English, "Tengo miedo Torero" (My Tender Matador), was on Chile's bestseller list for 30 weeks.

In 2006, Casa de las Américas, the cultural institution based in Cuba, dedicated an entire week to his work. During that trip he "had a schedule filled with gatherings, he granted interviews, spoke with people, listened to an analysis of his work and life, made friends and bothered people," wrote his hosts from Casa de las Américas.

Back in Chile, Lemebel continued to write his chronicles for newspapers and magazines, many of which were later published into books. In 2013, Lemebel was awarded the Premio Iberoamericano de Letras José Donoso, presented by the Universidad de Talca. Last year, he was a candidate for the Premio Nacional de Literatura, which was awarded to Antonio Skármeta.

About this he stated: "Everything started as a game, as an idea coming from my friend Sergio Parra. I never thought it would gain so much popular momentum. A loving entry from my reading public, the jury never took into consideration. We never thought I would win. We knew that the award was more fixed than a transvestite's face," as was quoted in an article printed in La Tercera after Lemebel's death.

To many, Pedro Lemebel was a rebel, a voice who wrote about the unspeakable in Chilean society, not caring what people may think or say. Although ignored by the small Chilean elite, for the great majority he spoke our language, and wrote about our everyday life. He was one of us and wrote about us. He may not be with us in body any longer, but his soul and convictions will continue to be with us in his words.

You can relive Pedro Lembel's visual legacy in an exhibit at Galería Metales Pesados Visual. The exhibit is on until May 23, 2015.
Merced 316. 5pm to 8pm. Tel: 2266 42451

Photo courtesy Sebastian Tapia Brandes (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sepiabrindis/)
Photo courtesy Sebastian Tapia Brandes (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sepiabrindis/)

Publications

Chronicles
1995 – La esquina es mi corazón, Cuarto Propio, Santiago (Seix Barral Chile 2001)
1996 – Loco afán: Crónicas de sidario
1998 – De perlas y cicatrices, LOM, Santiago (Seix Barral Chile, 2010)
2003 – Zanjón de la Aguada, Seix Barral Chile
2004 – Adiós mariquita linda
2008 – Serenata cafiola, Seix Barral Chile
2012 – Háblame de amores, 55 crónicas, la mayoría inéditas; Seix Barral Chile
2013 – Poco hombre, antología, Ediciones UDP, editado por Ignacio Echevarría

Novel
2001 – Tengo miedo torero

Graphic Novel
2012 – Ella entró por la ventana del baño, novela gráfica de Sergio Gómez, basada en relatos de Lemebel; ilustración de Ricardo Molina; Ocho Libros Editores, Santiago

Further Reading and Videos

Semana de Pedro Lemebel, Casa de las Américas, Cuba, 2007.

Manifiesto (hablo por mi diferencia), Pedro Lemebel, 1986.

The Clinic - Articles, Interviews, Chronicles

El Ciudadano - Articles, Interviews, Chronicles

Trazo mi ciudad - Pedro Lemebel - Santiago - Chile‬‬‬ - Interview‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Corazón en fuga – 4 part documentary‬‬

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