'Finding where we belong' - Bebe Books in Different Class (Interview by Jesse Brazzle)

Schermafbeelding 2024 05 02 225958

In the first edi­ti­on of Encounters, we hosted a con­ver­sa­ti­on bet­ween Joëlle Sambi and Mert Şen. Joëlle is a wri­ter, poet, the­a­tre­ma­ker, and LGBT+ acti­vist. Mert is the co-foun­der of Bebe Books, a queer publis­her and ongo­ing col­lec­ti­ve expe­ri­ment. Central in the dis­cus­si­on was the topic of belon­ging. Joëlle’s newest pie­ce Maison Chaos, plays in Theatre Nationale 03.04 — 13.04. As a Different Class mem­ber, you can attend Maison Chaos for free on 09.04 and 10.04! Make sure to reser­ve your spot — we’ll see you there!

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the pro­jects you’re wor­king on?

Mert: I’m Mert, cofoun­der of a queer col­lec­ti­ve cal­l­ed Bebe Books. Since 2018, we’ve been prin­ting publi­ca­ti­ons, but our pro­ject has evol­ved to ano­ther for­mat and now we are also orga­ni­s­ing events and exhi­bi­ti­ons. At the moment, we are resi­dents at Netwerk Aalst and at Cas-co Leuven, whe­re we’re devel­o­ping a pro­ject explo­ring queer prin­ting methods.

Joelle: As for me, I am a wri­ter and poet, I per­form and do the­a­tre, I’m also an asso­ci­a­te artist at Théâtre National. Since 2015 I’ve tal­ked most­ly about LGBT+ issues, poli­ce bru­ta­li­ty, and belon­ging. Being born in Brussels and gro­wing up in Kinshasa, I’ve always won­de­red whe­re my pla­ce is; I often ques­ti­on that noti­on in my work. My upco­ming the­a­tre pie­ce, Maison Chaos, com­bi­nes music and slam poe­try, and talks about the topic of vio­len­ce towards women and children.

Being born in Brussels and gro­wing up in Kinshasa, I’ve always won­de­red whe­re my pla­ce is

M: Belonging is some­thing I think about a lot. I was born in Turkey, lived in Portugal and now in Belgium. As a queer per­son, going back to Turkey, I don’t feel like I belong, even though it’s my home coun­try. Then here, as a queer immi­grant in Belgium, I’m an out­si­der as well. But I think I have a solu­ti­on: my body is kind of my home. That gives me pea­ce of mind and helps me move on.

J: I agree. I feel most at pea­ce in both Brussels and Kinshasa. But as a queer per­son over the­re, you don’t com­ple­te­ly belong. It’s if it chan­ges some­thing about you, like your nati­o­na­li­ty or your colour. And here, as a black woman, you are so visi­ble. It’s like you don’t real­ly belong any­whe­re. For me, my home is my cho­sen fami­ly. The peo­p­le I tra­vel with, my clo­se friends, whe­re they are, whe­re I am, whe­re we are: that’s home.

For me, my home is my cho­sen family

M: How is it when you go back to Kinshasa? What is the queer com­mu­ni­ty like?

J: I’m actu­al­ly wor­king on a docu­men­ta­ry and I’ve met a lot of queer peo­p­le in Kinshasa. There are known queer col­lec­ti­ves who go on TV, for example. But I wouldn’t say it’s a very open or gay-friend­ly coun­try. As a girl, gro­wing up, the­re is this thing cal­l­ed a Carine, which is like a gir­lfriend. So eve­ry litt­le girl can have a Carine, until you are 12, it’s like some sort of game. Then, you are a woman and it’s not allo­wed any­mo­re. But I grew up having a Carine and I never stop­ped. [laughs]

It’s fun­ny to see how the com­mu­ni­ties are chan­ging, as the new gene­ra­ti­on is beco­ming part of it. They’re so young but alrea­dy very awa­re, defi­ning them­sel­ves in a more pre­ci­se way.

M: Identities are real­ly chan­ging. What queer means nowa­days is so dif­fe­rent from even five years ago. For me, it took so long to come out. You need to dis­co­ver yourself, it takes time. Being queer is still not com­ple­te­ly accep­ted, but it’s much bet­ter than in my youth. The new gene­ra­ti­on real­ly knows them­sel­ves bet­ter and accepts it.

You need to dis­co­ver yourself, it takes time

J: A few years ago, we used to say queer’, dyke’, but­ch’… but not les­bi­an’ — as if it was an insult, you know? I think we also need to ques­ti­on the­se defi­ni­ti­ons that are ser­ved to us. Because when you don’t ques­ti­on the sys­tem it beco­mes very rigid.

M: Yeah, some­ti­mes we’re told what the right way of being queer is. It’s suf­fo­ca­ting. I strug­gled when I was still in the clo­set: being told how to be a man, how to be a straight man, how to act,… And then you come out, and you’re told how to be queer, what to wear, whe­re to go…

J: We are never far from being wrong. Sometimes within our com­mu­ni­ties, we give gui­de­li­nes: this is good, this is bad’ It can be hard to navi­ga­te, espe­ci­al­ly for peo­p­le who are more vulnerable.

M: It’s a learning pro­cess. I think repre­sen­ta­ti­on is real­ly impor­tant. That gives me hope. It’s so nice to see peo­p­le like you on sta­ge. People can learn from you and see you as an example.

J: Well, it’s a big res­pon­si­bi­li­ty [laughs]. I don’t know if I’m an example, but at least I’m out the­re. Because we have lack­ed that repre­sen­ta­ti­on. So it’s good that now others can look at queer artists, see what they are doing and say: I can also do that.’

M: Of cour­se, the­re are still so many pro­blems. But if we com­pa­re with even ten years ago, I think we are making progress.

J: Some pla­ces are slo­wer than others, but we are get­ting there. 

M: Seeing how my queer friends in Turkey still strug­gle, I feel a bit hel­pless. There are such talen­ted peo­p­le who get no sup­port from insti­tu­ti­ons and can’t pre­sent their work becau­se they’ll get bac­klash from the sta­te. That’s some­thing I’ve been thin­king about. How can we pro­vi­de sup­port the­re, and cre­a­te this kind of bridge?’ 

J: A friend of mine in Kinshasa has this orga­ni­sa­ti­on that is clear­ly queer, but they can­not get offi­ci­al recog­ni­ti­on. Still, they get fun­ding from abroad and have real­ly got­ten far. They star­ted by orga­ni­s­ing gatherings and are now doing con­fe­ren­ces tal­king about homos­exu­a­li­ty and dis­cri­mi­na­ti­on. They’re very courageous.

M: I have a book with a fun­ny tit­le here. It’s a pho­to­book of Iranian homos­exu­als, but it’s cal­l­ed There Are No Homosexuals In Iran. I think the pre­si­dent of Iran said: We don’t have a homos­exu­al pro­blem becau­se we don’t have homos­exu­als’ [laughs]

J: [laughs] Ah voilà, pro­blem solved.