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Letter to an exile

Dear Ariel Dorfman: I'm the one who asked you the irritating question at your recent talk at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham. I wanted to write you a note, because I'm not sure I ever made clear what I was asking. It had simply occurred to me, as I sat among your 20-or-so listeners in the store's basement, that in your novel, The Nanny and the Iceberg, your voice differs from that of most novelists writing now in the United States. You give such liberty to the narrator, for one thing, to discuss the story as it unfolds. What interested me, though, was not how your writing was different, but whether you had an awareness of being set apart. I did know that your first language is Spanish, and that you'd been deported years ago from Chile; so without considering my choice of words, I asked if you knew what it was in your style that made you different from American novelists.

Immediately, I saw I'd asked an offensive question. You are an American novelist, you said--Latin American, for a start. Plus, of course, you've lived in the United States for what is it now--30-some years? "I'm for the mongrelization of everything," you said, arguing for a true melting pot of national identity and, at the same time, for the proper recognition of all the Americas.

OK, point taken. I should have said United States. And it's true: I would have done well to have already read your memoir, Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey. But I wonder: If I had asked my question in acceptable language, and had done the proper advance research, known how many times you've been uprooted from language and home, would you have answered my question? Would you consider the possibility that your voice is slightly different from current trends among U.S. novelists? Would difference be admissible or acceptable?

This note is starting to expand beyond my intention, but I want to tell you what unfolded three days after the reading. It was, by chance, the Fourth of July, and I lay propped in bed at home reading your memoir, which you'd inscribed with an amiable testiness: "How to be another sort of 'American.'" At mid-morning, the heat index outside had risen to 105 degrees, and with my husband Bob, I was celebrating victory in the American Revolution by lounging in the air-conditioning with books. I kept interrupting Bob's reading to offer him tidbits from your story: persecution driving your Jewish parents from Eastern Europe to Argentina, forcing you out of that country when your father spoke against the right-wing military government; the McCarthy hearings then driving the family from the United States to Chile (by then you're 13 years old); your own exile from your chosen homeland of Chile with the fall of your Marxist president, Salvador Allende.

"He didn't start off as Ariel," I told Bob. "His name was Vladimiro."

"Why are you so fascinated by this guy?" Bob asked, putting his book down. A clinical psychologist, he was reading some new research on marital therapy.

"I'm not."

"You went to hear him."

"Laurel and a couple of other friends were wanting to go. ... Actually, he kind of irritates me."

Silence.

"It's because the novel I've just finished revising is about the same thing as his life--somebody who leaves one country because of violent politics only to have it break out again years later in the new place."

From Bob, a skeptical sound. But that had been a pretty good answer, I thought, true and close to the bone, though for me the persistent image was not so much of being uprooted, but of someone on the run and having to face again, at each new place, at every turn, the same crisis--no escape. I'd worked, intermittently, on this just-completed story, set in India and the Southern United States, for eight years.

A moment passed. "And I've wondered," I said, "I've thought about it: if I could hold up, or if I'd give people up, under torture."

From the off-duty therapist half-listening on the other side of the bed: Aha, that sounds more like it's leading somewhere. Pushing the covers off his legs, he sat up, back turned, feet on the floor. "You would," he said. "Hold up."

"I don't think so. I don't know."

Bob started getting dressed--enough, apparently, of this conversation for him. I went back to my book, reading how you, Ariel Dorfman, once escaped being tortured to death only by a fluke change in your schedule. I am with you as it happens, in the final hours of Allende's Chilean Revolution. A colleague, an old school friend, has swapped shifts with you, keeping watch and manning the phone at La Moneda, Chile's Presidential Palace, with its 4-foot-thick walls, where you'd been working as a cultural and media advisor.

On this night you are at home, putting your young son Rodrigo to bed. Then comes the phone call: General Augusto Pinochet's take-over of the nation has begun. It will be your friend instead of you who dies.

A shocking twist of luck--anyone would feel some guilt, if that's the right word. In any case, you've turned the events of that night over and over in your mind in the 26 years since, imagining your friend tied naked to a chair as a man in uniform approaches with electrodes, a long needle. ...

Maybe my torture question is a way to test myself, my loyalty, on days like this when I linger on the waterbed with a book. Suppose I'd been captured--as a runaway slave, or as a courier in the French Resistance--could I have been made to say where my compatriots were hiding?

I did see the movie made of your play Death and the Maiden, Ben Kingsley playing the torturer. The scene I can't forget is the glimpse of him seated in the box at the opera with his family, looking normal and ordinary. And the question that the story asks: Will the victim of horrific torture perform the same acts on her captor when she is given the chance?

Maybe my own question--I have to go on with this, please bear with me--maybe it is one of the ones that everyone asks of themselves: Do I have the guts to suffer greatly on someone else's behalf? Is my love for anyone that strong? (I wouldn't hold out one instant on political principle--not in anybody's revolution.)

I have wondered too if, at the heart of the matter for me, are my memories of segregation and the fact that, as a white kid growing up in Wilmington, I managed to live it without seeing it or doing anything to change it.

But perhaps the reason I'm reading this personal history of yours so avidly is simply that I sense in you tendencies that are also mine and that I fight indulging--your near-manic enthusiasm and outrage, for example. In your book, you give a portrait of yourself as a young political activist: "I was everywhere, vociferous, exhorting, convincing, boundless in my energy and my convictions." Exuberance, you call it, even exhibitionism.

Do you happen to recall the one other time you and I crossed paths? It was about 10 years ago, in the first days of the death threat against Salman Rushdie, Rushdie's new novel having given offense to Muslims. I remember the night well, because it was snowing and the streets were iced, the town shut down. The reading, at Southern Sisters, a feminist bookstore now long closed, was held in spite of the weather and people did straggle in, enough to fill the room. You and I and other writers were to read aloud from Rushdie's book, to support his freedom of speech, to protest the threat to his life. I prefaced my own reading with a few mild comments that amounted to "gee whiz, how awful--being from Eastern North Carolina, I can't imagine having to worry about people trying to kill me over what I write."

Novelist Clyde Edgerton read next. I immediately recalled, though he did not mention it, that here in this same Eastern North Carolina, his university teaching contract had been called into question after his first novel stirred religious controversy, and he'd wound up resigning. When it was your turn, Ariel--and this more than the snow is likely the reason I so clearly remember the occasion--you seized the podium, bristling with energy and importance, on that too-quiet night when cars didn't even pass outside, and announced: "I have spoken this morning with Salman. He is well and thanks you for your concern." I rolled my eyes; so theatrical, I said to myself, and what a piece of name-dropping. You proceeded to read a passage from Rushdie, marbled with foreign phrases which you pronounced correctly and with relish. I was appalled, disapproving of your assurance, your lordly air, as you showed how at home you were in all those languages, how at home with yourself as you stood there.

I did not then know that all of your life has been a struggle to find a safe home, and a language you would not have to leave, how you have been divided in half, torn even in your own mind: to live and think in Spanish, or in English.

"Wasn't I, in effect, a foreigner?" you write of your life in Chile. "And wasn't I destined to be one forever?"

Closing your book, I got out of bed, marking my place a third of the way through. Bob and I drove the half hour from where we live out in Chatham County into Chapel Hill, to get some exercise. He swam, I lifted weights and sauntered a couple of miles on the stair machine. It was later in the afternoon, when, freshly showered, browsing through a video bar, I felt myself sink down through those earlier answers, toward other possible sources for my peculiar interest in you. On the cover of a video case, a blurb praised the movie Cousin Bobby as a "lovely evocation" of the personal sources of political conviction.

Your story shows so clearly the roots of your own conviction. Your parents were Communists; you grew up wanting to help the masses, though you hadn't met them. The repeated flights and deportations had their own effect: "It was that persistent hunger for a real community that had now led me here, to this revolution, to this place in history." You were lucky, in the fall of that government, not to be executed, and that has charged you with a duty to tell the world about torture and injustice. As you describe it, you have been "keeping a promise to the dead."

My life, my luck have been so different. For one thing, I have never stood at risk of being imprisoned or deported. As human lives go, mine has been easy. But I do know something of what it is to mold one's persona, though it's a long story and not what we started off talking about.

It's so difficult, I know, to risk losing your place in the world by seeming the "odd man out." I picture you, tall and blond and fair-skinned, in Santiago, bent on being fully Chilean. The distinct quality I noted in the piece you read from The Nanny and the Iceberg was the way your narrator comments and rhapsodizes, moves easily through time and space; whereas, it's more fashionable in North American fiction to plunk the reader down into a scene, with all its particular sensations, and let the narrator evaporate as the scene realistically unfolds.

I could well understand if you didn't want to evaporate. Probably the personal sources of political conviction are no more than a threat--either in one's nature or from the outside world--to security and belonging. If you're a serious kid, and one guided toward altruism, then you find yourself beginning to form plans for how the world ought to be governed and how all people can fare better.

In my world plan, I like to imagine a system that allows people to speak their boldest, weirdest, most original thoughts without any cost, without any risk at all--no exile, no loss of income or respect or credibility or love. A professor's tenure is one effort to offer a measure of freedom to speak, as is the First Amendment to the Constitution. But neither of these can offer true sanctuary, though it can be arranged in private, person to person, which is perhaps why much of your memoir of language and identity is about your alliance with your wife Angelica, and this letter of mine hatched out of a reading-in-bed conversation with Bob.

In defense of my question to you that night: I've come to believe that it's not so bad to be unusual and to let it show. I'd far rather read a distinct, authentic voice than one that "fits in." Wouldn't anyone?

So I offer my congratulations to you both on the peace you've made between your Spanish and your English, and on your novel. Que le vaya bien. I wish you well. EndBlock

  • What does it mean to be constantly at risk of losing one's place in the world?

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