Macha Mexico caught up with Artemisa Téllez, self-described fiction writer, lesbian, literature student, professional agitator, amateur journalist, and low-budget diva. She has published a collection of poetry, Versos Cautivos (2001), and a collection of short stories, Un Encuentro y Otros (2005), and has been published in several anthologies, including the bilingual lesbian short story anthology Dos Orilla/Two Shores (2008). Artemisa is also the creator and facilitator of the first women’s erotic literature workshop in Mexico and the co-creator of two shows of two “musical-poetic” lesbian shows with Fabiola Jiménez. In our electronic interview, we discuss her work as a writer and as the organizer of the TTTrans Festival in Mexico City and the Festival of Rock, Film, and Sexual Diversity as well as her hopes for what a queer Mexico City should look like.
You recently published an essay about the issues facing women writers in Mexico in an anthology about gender discrimination published by the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (UAEM). For those who are unfamiliar with Mexico’s literary landscape and can’t have the pleasure of reading your essay in Spanish, could you tell us about some of the issues you touch on in the essay?
In México the average of books read yearly are 2.9 (according to a 2006 CONACULTA survey). Most of them (close to the 80%) are textbooks. With the exception of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, it is not required to read a SINGLE female Mexican author in the university programs, not even in the Spanish literature degree.
This means that a Mexican female author—after all the difficulties in becoming a writer, to take it seriously and be taken seriously, have the courage to face the machismo in publishing and cultural circles and finally get published—is not going to be read and when the first edition runs out, wont be re-issued. Under these conditions is almost impossible to succeed, most of them are forgotten when they aren’t here to defend their works.
Who are some women authors or lesbian authors that should be published and/or translated, but haven’t been?
I think the programs should include at least 20 mexican female authors. Only Poniatowska, Garro, Mastretta, Esquivel, Krauze and Loaeza have been considered in SOME cases (prices, scholarships). Usually there´s a moment in an ordinary literature course when they present “women mexican literature” they mention this names (Sor Juana and Castellanos) and students (or teachers) choose one or two works. I can tell you at least 100 names more, only talking about the published ones!
In your conversations and professional interactions with older lesbian and feminist authors in Mexico, what do you think has changed in the literary scene in the past forty years?
Feminism has changed everything, its incredible how many female authors published in the seventies and eighties under the influence of this movement. Unfortunately nowadays patriarchy is stronger than ever.
In México, the right wing is advancing; that means catholicism. For catholics the place of women is clear: mother (of twenty if God “says so”), obedient daughter or wife (or nun), and completely apolitical. Also the educational system is becoming increasingly sexist; most female writers I mention were discovered, published, and studied in the seventies. But that’s not only here in Mexico: women’s rights are being discussed all over the world. Even France (which long ago legalized abortion and contraception) is now debating if that’s right or not.
Do you know of any other organized efforts to defend this law? Are there any organizations that you think are doing good work for pro-choices causes in Mexico City and/or Mexico in general?
There are many feminist groups which have been doing a great job on it. Católicas Por el Derecho a Decidir has done an excellent campaign in favor of all women´s rights, including this. Their impact has been huge, cause they call themselves feminist catholics. Their slogan has been: “When the angel appeared to Mary, he ASKED HER…”
This year you were one of the co-organizers of the first annual TTTrans Festival in Mexico City. What challenges did the organizers face in creating that festival?
Well, the first was to find the right persons to consult in order to understand more about the problematic of being a transperson in México. Then to balance the festival, we didn’t want it to be an exhausting debate about politics, we wanted it to be truly holistic. We dedicated each day to an specific topic: the first was focused on politics, rights and laws (the Ley de Identidad de Género was under discussion in May, also was the first trans wedding), the second on health, hormones, surgeries and beauty and the last on art and culture. After the conferences we had a show and then a movie about transexuality, transgender or cross-dressing. We had a lot of press, but most of it was transphobic, they wanted to interview Mario and Diana (the groom and bride) to exhibit them as weirdos, and Tito Vasconcelos took credit of our job in front of the media. Most sponsors didn’t want to pay for the publicity, cause they realized the trans population is poor… Anyway Im very glad we did it, and was a great occasion to learn, show solidarity, and provide of an information of quality. Most activists and institutions were happy to contribute with their knowledge, presence, and material.
In the United States, there is often a lot of tension between the lesbian community and the trans community, particularly around the exclusion of transwomen from “women’s only spaces.” How is the situation in Mexico City?
Lesbofeministas don’t accept transwomen. They say they are a group that is appropriating our bodies and spaces; they still look at them with distrust because they think they’re men. In less radical groups the rejection isn’t as bad, though it’s still there.
How do these communities work together?
With the exception of Opcion Bi (a bisexual/queer group) I´ve never known them to.
From your perspective as a non-trans lesbian, what does the lesbian community need to change about it’s attitude about transpeople?
We have to understand these women are exactly what they say they are, and not to fall in a biology-conditioning position, which is not very fortunate for us (non-trans women) either. Biology (as it is understood, or used) is blind. In that case, women are females and they should feel that way and they should prefer males for reproduction, that would be the “natural behavior”. Under this vision, lesbians (or even women who do not want to reproduce) appear as “unnatural”. It is necessary to understand that biological gender, sexual identity, and sexual preference are three different variables which can be mixed in infinite ways, all of them normal.
You’ve also been involved in creating queer social spaces outside of the Zona Rosa (such as the parties you organized as part of Meras Efímeras and as part of the Second Annual Festival of Rock, Film, and Sexual Diversity). Why do you feel those spaces are necessary in the LGBTQ scene in Mexico City?
First, because all ghettos are dangerous (a good example was El Sádico, a series-killer who operated on the corner of Florencia with Londres in the Zona Rosa), boring, and likely to disappear, especially with this right-wing government that we have.
I’m curious about this idea of gay ghettos disappearing. Also, I’m not sure I agree that gay ghettos are a negative thing. At least when there are many gay venues in one neighborhood, the streets themselves in that neighborhood start to become “gay” in their own way, with machas holding hands on the sidewalks as they walk from one club to another. Do we lose that when there is just a gay club here, a gay party there?
I didn’t mean to say they’re going to disappear. I think they’ll become unnecessary someday, and I think that would be better. Many don’t consider the ways that ghettos discriminate too; not everybody is comfortable in them. The idea of the “gay lifestyle” discriminates against lesbians, bisexuals, intersexed people, gay men in the closet and all other ideologies, even though they might be “gay” in some way. I don’t consider myself a gay woman, and even I don’t think of myself as a prototypical lesbian, I feel theres no place for my way of being in “Gayland”, nor in “Straightland”, I hope someday many of us can feel comfortable in (as the Zapatistas say) “a world where many worlds are possible”.
What is lacking from the mainstream GLBTQ scene that you’re hoping to create?
An alternative for those who have never been comfortable in the Zona Rosa; and a more integrated community with others who are also excluded (emos, punks, teenagers, seropositive people). It is so important that we have diverse and positive images outside of stereotypes, and there’s no better vehicle for that than art, culture, and entertainment. Beside our being LGBTQ, we also have our tastes, ideas, friends, families, and free time as well as the possibility (and right) of difference.
That sort of integration is something you’ve aimed for in your work as a writer and editor also. Can you tell me about dentrodelcoctel, the online magazine you edit? What is it? What are your goals?
dentrodelcoctel is a non-remunerative project whose main objective is to provide well-documented information in human rights, sexual education, gender and LGBTQ studies in a bimonthly publication. We also publish comics, photos, short stories and poetry. The magazine is free and available (past and current issues) all the time and is not divided in gay section, trans section; we divide it in topics (poetry, news, opinion…). We believe that way the LGBTQ community and other readers will be more aware about other problematics and ways of being. I mean if you like poetry, read it and if you identify, or like it (or hate it) isn’t necessarily going to be because it is written by a trans sex worker. In that very moment you could realize were not so different.
Back to the issue of Catholicism that we touched on earlier, how do you relate to your own Catholicism, as a lesbian or as a mexicana?
I’m a cultural Catholic (I was raised as one, I studied in a Catholic school, and my granny, who’s very close to me, is Catholic), but I consider myself an eclectic atheist believer. I believe in magic, energy, the Virgen de Guadalupe, faith and good will. Being lesbian has nothing to do with it.
Do you play with Catholicism in your writing?
Yes. I love catholic tropes (guilt, sin, hell and doble moral), if you can’t understand this idiosyncrasy it’s impossible to approach the problematic of sex in our culture. My culture and environment are Catholic and that is profusely reflected in my writing. Also, nuns gave me the opportunity of living in an all-female community, and learn about sorority, solidarity, independence and lesbian love!
How do you find time to write when you are so busy with activism and work?
Writing is my activism, but in fact I’m looking forward to having more time for work. I have a thesis and two novels that have been on stand-by for two years now. I plan to make a stop very soon; I really feel it’s necessary. Anyway it’s impossible to write all the time. My life is divided in three: living period (when the material is gotten), writing period (when I start researching and putting an order to the memories, ideas, projects…) and publishing period.
Finally, you’ve already mentioned some female Mexican authors, but if you had to give our readers a list of “require reading,” who would be on it?
Beatriz Espejo, Rosario Castellanos (at the very least because there are 100 elementary schools with her name), Luisa Josefina Hernández, Brianda Domecq, as I said, I could give you 100 names, but these are probably some of the most important for me, cause they give voice to the women’s condition in México through their works.
Artemisa Téllez’s books are available online at www.leslibros.com.