Translated by James Curry-Castillo
41 Closets is a hybrid novel—oscillating between poetry, essay, and first-person narrative—written from the point of view of an aging professor in Mexicali who is coming to terms with his sexuality and his place in the world. The novel explores literary form and the experience of homosexuality on the Mexican-American border. Like much of Yépez’s work, it is often densely philosophical, and sketches out the scattered psychic landscape of a postmodern world in which ancient colonizations get mixed up among global neoliberal flows.
The title of the novel alludes to the “famous 41,” a group of forty-one aristocrats who were arrested during a police raid at a private party in Mexico City in 1901. Half of the men in attendance were dressed as women, an image that was immortalized in a sensational illustration made by José Guadalupe Posada. Yépez writes of Posada’s image:
The images of Posada (that same artist who immortalized the celebrated Mexican calacas which symbolize the supposed mockery and indifference of Mexicans towards death) represented the detained as dressed like women, with prosthetic breasts or butts, or performing weaving, cooking, or domestic hygiene, but all of them with moustaches and the demeanor of the era’s decadent bourgeoisie. The image identified homosexuality, likewise, as an evil provoked by the degrading contact of the national with foreign lifestyles. In this sense, homosexuality in Mexico has always wanted to be attributed to the promiscuous contact with what is beyond our border, although, as we know from the frightened Spanish chroniclers, the indigenous people practiced homosexuality in a thousand forms. The aztecs were puñales.
It is within this historical context that the protagonist of 41 Closets meditates on Foucault, the exhausting heat of Mexicali, and the resigned comforts of going to the movie theater or eating at “the same old Chinese restaurant.”
An important thing to note about this translation is that the word género has been left untranslated. This is because, throughout these passages, Yépez uses the word’s two meanings of “genre” and “gender,” often at the same time. Because I could not think of any English word that could contain, at once, this full range of meanings —evoking the general concept of type or distinction, as well as the specificities of both narrative and that discursive/corporeal assemblage gender—I decided to keep the word in its original Spanish. The words macho and jóto are also left untranslated; the first refers to a general concept of the masculine in Mexico, and the latter is a slur for a gay man.
seem to me
I do not believe that poetry
I do not believe that there exist
of rhythm, sound
or use of resources.
Prose can also
be written in a fragmentary manner.
is nothing more than a trick
to use up paginal space.
Nothing more. To invoke silence, enjoy its romantic prestige.
(That verticalization, of course,
imposes upon us certain paradigms,
and tends to structure in a distinct way
our relationship with words. It makes us
tend toward the sublime.
The same idea acquires
diametrically opposed styles
(I call this immediate phenomenon
The 90 Degree Turn of Language)
if one person has to decide
between unloading it
Verse is horizontal.
That’s why poetry will never be in agreement with itself.
Prose can also, of course,
use many images
instead of using expressions like these.
I myself do not like poetic images very much,
but I know many prose writers
who utilize images more abundantly
than do poets.
(Might Lezama Lima be a separate case
or a perfect illustration of this position?)
(Every image is a metaphor;
if there are images that appear irreducible
this occurs exclusively
because not even their very creator
knew exactly which were
he himself lost the keys
to realize the translation
of one género to another.)
Heidegger, for example, wrote essays
of pure poetry. Heidegger should have
written more verses. He did not do it much. When he did, it was not too good.
The poems of Heidegger are not notable. They are about thought. When he wrote those poems / he wanted to be Parmenides. A German trying to be a Greek, what an embarrassing situation.
On the other hand, colloquialist poets
could transcribe their verses to prose (horizontal writing, based on the paragraph as distinguishing unit)
it would do the same.
What I want to say
is that I do not believe that there is an essential difference
between prose and poetry.
What I want to say
I could say in both forms.
What I want to say
is not the form
and neither is it what I want to say.
What I want to say
is that I do not believe in géneros.
Everything that exists are customs,
And so, generally, when someone
makes a more frequent use of metaphors,
synecdoches, rhyme, linguistic experimentation
they decide to do so in verse
so that such games
inscribe themselves within the prestigious
history of poetry.
[Just as there are people who decide to live their lives within a relationship in place of doing it only within a business. Or who combine both lifestyles.]
But in a strict sense
such distinctions are inoperative.
There does not exist a separate region
called “poetry”; there does not exist a
single region called “prose”.
Just as there is no “story,” “novel,”
There only exist ways in which writing decides to read
itself and in which it desires to be read by tradition and by others. To place itself in the market.
Neither do sexual géneros exist.
There is no natural or essential difference between them.
All of them are, equally, artificial. Everything depends on the city, the age, or the cantina.
In his long essay about discourse in the novel, Bakhtin writes:
[...] the poetic géneros of verse (the lyric géneros, for example), when they are introduced in the novel, can have the direct intentionality, the total semantic charge of poetry. Such are, for example, the verses of Goethe introduced in Wilhelm Meister. The Romantics incorporated their own verses in their prose—and, as is well known, the Romantics considered the presence of verses in the novel (verses taken as the intentionally direct expression of the author) as one of its constitutive roots [...] Finally, the poems incorporated in a novel can also be completely objectivized as are, let us say, the verses of Captain Lebyadkin in The Possessed of Dostoyevsky. A similar situation is the incorporation in the novel of maxims and aphorisms.
The novel has always been hybrid. To remember this means returning to its roots. Or that its parts have been separated and you observe them. Already dispersed.
The figure of the Northamerican homosexual
strong, large, a sailor
is for me a stranger.
Here almost all the gays are jotitos.
On the street they are called mannered.
They do not use leather clothes nor
do they go to the gym. The fees are very high.
They work in the kitchens,
the counters, the beauty shops,
or the pharmacies. Those are the stereotypes they prefer.
They do not have slogans for banners.
There is no money to construct
parade floats, websites
or to maintain monthly bulletins.
Generally we are brown.
Therefore when Daniel and I went
to the Gay Pride parade
in San Diego
we actually felt foreign.
When we returned to Mexicali
and we entered the same old Chinese restaurant
without waiting for the menu
we ordered the number five meal.
And we took it home
and each one sat down in a different sofa
and ate silently
knowing that we
are another class of homosexual.
What class of homosexual we are, it is hard to know. Perhaps impossible. We would have to carefully look at the menu. Northamerican gays are an imitation of the macho right-wing and all of its aesthetic values. Besides these, the jotito or the crazy woman (in its drag queenesque equivalent) dress themselves up as women, and they push it to the extreme. So the homosexual is not an alternative to the macho nor to the woman as they are traditionally defined. One takes the macho to the gym and perfects the masculine, celebrates it, beautifies it, aggrandizes it; the other, one takes to the clothing store and buys it high heels and wigs, then puts some large tits on it or they adopt a baby and they become a mother, that is to say, they glorify and embody the feminine ideal as it has been constructed by machismo: the woman as spectacular sexual object. This is why I hate myself and all fags, because we do nothing but love the male, love machismo. Daniel thinks the same as me. It is the only thing that unites us. This resentment. We do not admit it because we know that at any moment he would be the woman and I the machito. I took almost forty years to enter into my homosexuality, despite knowing since I was 13 or 15. When I entered, I also knew that the project was dead from the start.
Heterosexuality is a variation of homosexuality (the masculine love for the ideal images of the masculine and the feminine) and both are a variation of machismo. Everything bothers me about this category, starting from that the gay (the homo versus the hetero) is a literary category. And though the gay is a discriminated part within high culture, it is a strategic part of it. Besides, “gay” is part of the dominant language, and though there it is the marginal, they are the margins of others. Not only heterosexuality is a defective product of occidental values, but so are the other géneros, so are all géneros. Homosexuality is another of our failures.
I could speak of bisexuality, but now I don’t want to. I would have to talk about Karina. And about Karina I want to say almost nothing, since I’d have to undo this whole character that I am now in order to make myself another—to bifurcate myself—, and I do not want to lose my current comfort. For the moment, for these pages, I am intersexual.
In reality I never partook of him.
When I had sex with women
I imagined that there were greater sensations.
I do not know if that cleavage weakened
my capacity for pleasure
because when I make love with a man
I keep imagining the great pleasures
that I am not feeling.
Heriberto Yépez is a writer and translator from Tijuana. His work, spanning nearly two decades, concerns many themes, including the relationship between Mexico and the U.S., as well as the politics of literary form. He recently published two new books: Trasnational Battle Field on Commune Editions, and Mexiconceptual on Satélite. 41 Clósets was published by Cecut in 2006.
James Curry-Castillo is a writer, translator, and musician currently based in Portland, Oregon. He grew up at the border of San Diego and Tijuana. His art and blogging is available at jamescurryiv.com.