Ariel Dorfman is haunted by history
I met Ariel Dorfman at his son Rodrigo’s Halloween wedding to my friend Heather, where I dressed as the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Unlike most there, he didn’t mistake me for Swamp Thing and stood out among the partying pirates and pussycats by being only himself.
The writer hailed as one of this hemisphere’s most important cultural voices was born in Argentina of Jewish émigrés from Odessa and Chisinau but spent his childhood in New York until the McCarthy era drove the family to Chile. From 1970-1973, he served as a cultural adviser to Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected president who died, with many others, in the CIA-backed coup now called the “Other 9/11.”
He and his wife Angélica divide their time between Santiago and Durham, where he’s a Professor Emeritus of Literature at Duke. His award-winning fiction, nonfiction and poetry have been published in over fifty languages, and his play “Death and the Maiden“ became a film starring Sigourney Weaver. His commentary regularly appears in The New York Times, and he recently published the collection Homeland Security Ate My Speech.
He will be at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books on May 11 at 7 p.m. discussing “Darwin’s Ghosts,” his new novel about Fitzroy Foster who, photographed on his 14th birthday, is astonished the Polaroid shows a long-dead man kidnapped from Terra del Fuego and displayed in a 19th century “Human Zoo.” Blending ghost story and real history, it asks “who are we and what can we do about it?”
In an email, I asked Dorfman about his own haunted history.
“The 1973 coup against Allende is the central traumatic experience of my life, destroying democracy in Chile, killing friends and dreams and sending me and my family into exile. I ended up in the United States, a country responsible for that coup but that I also call my own for reasons that are explained in my memoir, “Heading South, Looking North.” It’s astounding that this adopted homeland would suffer its own September 11th. This has allowed me to shuffle, intellectually and emotionally, between the two lands, language and cultures that define me, making me very creative: both an insider and a stranger. The perfect situation for a writer!”
Why has he written about a more literal haunting?
“The human zoos that proliferated in the nineteenth century were an extraordinary phenomenon – photography, the hubris of science and modernization, the way in which the West captured (in so many senses) natives from the colonial and indigenous world, all of this stimulated my imagination. What happens if those who have been uprooted from their home decide, a century later, from the land of death, to take over somebody’s life and force that person to deal with that past? A situation both tragic and comic, perfect for a novel.”
“I have always been obsessed, since childhood, with how the dead might speak to us. We are, after all, on our way to becoming ghosts ourselves. The fact that my wife and I have also lost so many friends due to the Chilean dictatorship makes ghost stories irresistible to me.”
A year before I met him while I was dressed as a monster, he wrote about an even more famous one in “America Meets Frankenstein,” reprinted in Homeland Security Ate My Speech. There, he suggested that supporters of Donald Trump be regarded with compassion. I asked if he still believed that.
“One of the hard lessons of exile and loss is that we pay a high price by demonizing our adversaries. I am, of course, outraged that many misguided Trump voters are conned into defending policies that will destroy them, their families, the free America they yearn for, and even the air they breathe. But to feel compassion, to try to understand them from within the pain and confines of their lives, without paternalism (using the example of Faulkner, that I looked at closely in my essay on him in the Homeland Security book) is a way to establish bridges, bridges being the essence of my life and literature. I also think – as proven in novels, plays, essays, op-eds – that, despite the darkness of many of my themes, cultivating humor is a way to make human those who are different. At times we need to share a good laugh with those who antagonize us. Fiction is another way of creating a common space. I hope “Darwin’s Ghosts“ helps find the common ground of forgiveness that we so desperately need.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.