It is fitting perhaps that the novelist, playwright, human rights activist, academic and Chilean exile Ariel Dorfman can only be accessed from Australia through the written word. As his new book Feeding On Dreams was released in Australia last week, I was able to access him through a single email – a set of questions, a set of answers; a note in a bottle crossing the ether seas then finding its way back. Australians may have accessed Dorfman's work through the successful and popular productions of his plays Death and the Maiden, Widows and Purgatorio, which explore many of his recurring themes of human identity and relationships, finding hope in a world of terror, forgiveness, revenge and the fight against destructive fundamentalisms and ideologies.
These themes remain central in Dorfman's second memoir, which picks up where the first left off – immediately following his survival of the Chilean coup and escape from Chile, when he began his painful exile from the country he loves.
Your first memoir ended after General Pinochet's military coup on September 11, 1973. In this book, you tell of experiencing September 11, 2001, as a resident of America. How were the two events the same? How were they different?
One of the reasons why I wrote the book is because of that experience. History decided to juxtapose those two events, choosing a similar date, so that one act of terror echoed the other act of terror so many years earlier. But the way in which Chileans reacted to the aggression against us, the way in which we kept hope and humanity alive when all around us was being destroyed, the way in which we dealt with this challenge to our identity, was so different from how the majority of the people in the United States reacted. My book offers a path out of hatred and revenge – without abandoning memory and justice. That's basically my story and one of the reasons why I wanted to tell it now, in the twenty-first century.
How did you keep your hope for a better humanity and better political reality alive?
My wife was the home and territory that I inhabited through my wanderings. Many readers have been moved by her story, so close to mine. As to politics, I matured.
You express feeling much tension between your two languages, Spanish and English, throughout your life. Do they finally coexist happily, or do they still struggle?
They struggle, but happily. It is very strange to be so completely bilingual – I think of myself as having two lover-languages, in sweet adultery or perpetual marriage with both of them. And they influence each other through what they share with me.
How have you witnessed language reflecting cultural and national identities in positive ways? And in negative ways?
Let me answer both of these questions with an anecdote, one of many encounters I explore in my memoir. It was early in my exile, in the mid-1970s, when I met the great German writer Heinrich Boll in a café in Paris. He had come to discuss ways of financially helping Chilean and Latin American writers stay in their countries and not emigrate as I had been forced to do, but we also spoke of other topics. He told me that in times of war and repression the major task of the writer was not to abandon the language to the fascists, the powerful. The Nazis had corrupted so many words (comrades, love, enthusiasm) that had to be recovered for the future. That should be my main task: to make sure they were not the owners of the language because as long as we keep our imagination alive, they cannot win. So language can be used in a negative and in a positive way. But this is only one example. There are many more in the memoir.
Do you want to say anything to your first time readers and younger generations just discovering your work?
Everything and nothing. But as many of them have known me through my plays, I do think this memoir is a relatively illuminating introduction to my theatrical work. Besides revealing the context and story behind the creation of Death and the Maiden and Widows, many of the major themes of my existence are played out in the memoir and can serve almost as an introduction to my other work in fiction and the theatre. My Paris years form the background of my novel Konfidenz, where an exile in that city finds the woman he has been dreaming of each night of his life only to realize that if he is to save her he must betray his best friend. My newest play, Delirium (about a couple separated in their own home by a border guard who draws a boundary through their house) can be traced back to an obsession with frontiers and guards and my aversion to fundamentalism of all stripes. Another play, Picasso's Closet, which deals with the famous artist's four years during the Nazi occupation of Paris, echoes my struggles, depicted in the memoir, with the role of artists and writers when faced with repression. Do you save your work for the future or do you join the resistance and risk death and the perhaps worse death of your creations? Or my doubts about the pitfalls of transitions to democracy (which we can now see playing out in the aftermath of the Arab Spring) can be seen as well in the diary I kept all through the first months of the Chilean transition to democracy, once we ousted Pinochet from the Presidency but not from the enclaves of power that he still occupied.
What questions will this book answer for lovers of your first memoir, Heading South, Looking North?
Basically, what happened next? After I survived the coup in 1973, a whole new life of trials, tribulations and discoveries opened up for me and my wife and family. That story somehow needed to be told.
Have your feelings and views on bilingualism changed at all since that book?
Only to deepen my conviction that we must embrace as many languages and cultures and communities as we can. We can only become humanly richer.
FEEDING ON DREAMS – Confessions of an unrepentant exile by Ariel Dorfman is available now through Melbourne University Publishing. Details»