AN INTERVIEW WITH MARJORIE AGOSÍN
Gregory Donovan: This is Gregory Donovan and we're interviewing today Marjorie Agosín who is here to give a lecture at Virginia Commonwealth University sponsored by the School of World Studies. It's a series of lectures called "Crossing Boundaries." I'm here today with Jeff Lodge, and we are going to be asking her a number of questions related to the subject of her lecture this evening, which is "Poetry and Human Rights," but also about her life as a writer and her peculiar personal and family history.
The first thing I want to say to you is to apologize for not being able to conduct this entire interview in Spanish, but—
Marjorie Agosín: I forgive you.
GD: Thank you. But, nevertheless, our readers are probably going to expect to encounter you in English, and I thought I might start by mentioning that I have sometimes described Robert Lowell to my students as a poet who was a "moral historian" of our country. And that role was not so much a choice of his as it was a matter of unavoidable circumstance, something that was thrust on him because he was born a Lowell in a family that included presidents of Harvard and governors of Massachusetts and astronomers of Mars. You know, it was Percival Lowell who came up with that idea there were canals on Mars. Your own family history has similarly, it seems to me, thrust you into the circumstance of having to bear certain responsibilities. You are yourself a moral historian, in particular because you carry in your family such a troubled history, and it's the history of our century. It's also the history of your own family, including such figures as your great-grandmother, Helena Broder, in The Angel of Memory. I wondered if you could talk about a sense of responsibility, opportunity, how you feel about having that burden placed on you.
MA: Well, it's very interesting and flattering to be called a moral historian and to also think that Robert Lowell was. I think there are two things I'd like to talk about. I think that in all expressions of art there's always the choice, the desire to do it, the . . . almost an inner drive to do it, and also there's the history. So what I'm trying to say is that in spite of being a heir of a very turbulent history, which is really the history of the Jews in the 20th century, which is the history of not only genocide, but it's really the history of the diaspora, and, on top of it, being in the midst of another historical revolution during the Allende years, which brought me back, again, to the United States, and I was the great-granddaughter, the granddaughter, and the daughter of immigrants, but then I became an immigrant myself.
To go back to my initial thought is that even though I was thrust into this history, I made a conscious choice. So what I'm saying that it's not enough to be part of that history, you must make the choice that you will speak for this history. And in that choice I think that there is an element of vulnerability, courage, but individual commitment. I think that too many people are thrown into history, but remain accomplices, which means [they] are silent. I think what I like to say, and this is something I am the most proud of, that I made the choice to become a witness of those times. I made an absolutely conscious choice that I was going to be that, and I continue to look at the world with the same passion and commitment for social justice as when I was 17 years old, and sometimes people cannot believe it. They think I am this crazy idealist, but I am the same, even more now. But I want to say it's choice and then history.
GD: In your approaches to writing poetry, memoir, or fiction, what differences do you sense in yourself, spiritually or conceptually or even technically as you go to those different genres? Do you put on different selves? Do you approach them in a different way? Do they make different demands on you? Do you feel like you're a different person?
MA: Well, and I'm going to answer you because we are all of us are artists, and as an artist, I think that it's the same self, which is the poet speaking. I mean when some people say, "Oh, I read your poetry," but they're really referring to a memoir like A Cross and A Star or Always From Somewhere Else. My whole view of the world and my sense of language and understanding, it's informed by my understanding of poetic language. So I am a poet writing memoirs. I'm not a memorialist making poetry out of memoir, no. It's the poet that informs, describes, feels, and understands. So it's really the same self. And I would even go farther that even with essays, which there's a demand of historical truth, of more linear narrative, I still think I am the poet self speaking.
GD: Is that a self that you think of as being something primarily attitudinal rather than something technical?
MA: Yes and no. It is the attitudinal, but the technical is interesting, because if you look at—and this may be not particular to my own writing but many, for many postmodern writers, especially Latin American writers—even the technicality of the fiction and the memoir resembles the forms of poetry. They're almost collages, images. They don't obey particularly to chronology, linear time. They're almost streamers of light thrown in the page.
GD: You mentioned that word "collage," and it seemed to me that that is a place where the technical meets the personal in your own work because you're a person with a hybrid cultural and geographical background, and it struck me as not so strange at all that you might be attracted to the quick transitions and juxtapositions of opposing forces that we associate with collage.
MA: Yes. And I think that all the memoirs are written in the form of collage, all of them. And my most recent book is called Cartographies: Meditations in Travel, but a lot of people have traveled figuring out what it is and how do you categorize a kind of writing one does. I think the problem with readers is they don't read enough poetry, because Cartographies is a poetical autobiography about place, but it is a poem. So going back to the idea of collages, I think "collages" responds to the evanescence of memory and of the sense of belonging. I've always struggled to retain what I have lost, and I've tried to retain it through writing, but then I realize that not even writing can hold to this tremendous loss, and that's why it's so fragmented.
GD: It's interesting that you say that. That particular metaphor as well is one that you use often in your writing, and it puts me in mind of a friend of Robert Lowell's, Elizabeth Bishop, who was herself an exiled poet who was from the United States but lived much of her adult life in Brazil. And, you know, she wrote books called North and South, Questions of Travel, Geography III, and she used that notion of the metaphor of map-making, of cartography and geography. Also, it was an extended metaphor that included the idea that she was a woman looking for her place in the universe and the world.
MA: Yes, yes, yes. I love Elizabeth Bishop, and I think that in Latin America she's really well known. I think she's much more well known than Lowell, I think because of her experience in Brazil. Women and women artists are looking at a place to belong in the world and to call home in a very particular way. I think that women are looking for a place that will allow them to be visible. I think we live in very conflicted gender times, and most of it is the possibility for visibility: visibility as creators, visibility in the home. If you look at the whole scope of the human rights situation, you see how women are always hidden, even the veil is a form of hiding. So I think that home is to become visible. And I think that Brazil allowed Elizabeth Bishop to be herself, and I think there are certain homes or countries that allow for people to be who they are.
GD: Yes. That leads me to another question about your choice to write in Spanish. Well, there's two related questions here I'd like to ask you. You've written that the "English language never took on the texture of my soul," and so you've continued in your commitment to writing in Spanish. And, of course, that, therefore, suggests that Spanish, the Spanish language, is a soul home for you, maybe a portable soul home. Do you feel interrupted or interfered with by having to live in a culture dominated by the English language and, of course, these days that's not just America, it's the whole world.
MA: Well, just like I said at your first question that it was the choice to kind of become, and I feel this—it sounds very grandiose but it's beautiful—to be like a moral historian of a time. I think that at first when I arrived to the United States, I wasn't so sure whether I had made the choice to write in Spanish, but what I was so sure about was that I felt—and of course, this is not as dramatic as a refugee woman from Sudan or Iraq being displaced from everything—because I felt, I came with my family and I had a privileged life, but I felt that to lose my language was to lose my soul, my being, and again, it's the image of being in a void. I think to be displaced is like in a void almost like, to think of T.S. Eliot, like hollowness, a world of hollowness. So I knew that the only thing that I really had that was truly mine was language, was the Spanish language, in a almost unconscious way because I was about 16 years old, and I knew that that's the only thing that nobody could steal from me, 'cause I even, was even angry at my parents because I felt that they cut me off from my country in the middle of my adolescence and I loved my country. So I could never—maybe this was not a choice—somehow I could never write in English. I couldn't, even, of course I think I am a bilingual person. But the whole idea of taking on another language was as if I would have betrayed who I was. And then I read the beautiful writing of Milosz when he says, especially his magnificent essays, that if he would not write in Polish, he wouldn't be who he is. And I think he kept his language as a way of keeping his Polish soul and his European soul and the World War II soul. And in a way, I feel that language evokes emotion, intimacy, affection. And the emotions I evoke in the Spanish language in my writing or even in my own life with other people are not the same ones as in the English language.
Also, the Latin culture—and we've talked with Eugenia [Muñoz, associate professor in VCU's School of World Studies] about this—is a less guarded culture. And I feel that in this country, there are too many . . . culturally, the whole concept of America on the other, on one hand is extremely free and open, but on the other hand is very much into what is private, what cannot be said out loud. So the Spanish fitted everything I wanted to be, not only in terms of language, but in terms of culture. And the fact that everyone speaks English, yeah, I think that the fact that I live in an English-speaking world where I feel I don't fit is something that torments me. Even though I have lived here more than half of my life, I still feel—and even though I'm married to an English-speaking person and my children were born here—I feel that I don't belong. I feel like a stranger, which is very good for a poet, to feel like a stranger.
GD: I had a second practical question, following up on that. Do you prefer to translate your own work or do you enjoy more having someone else translate it, is that, like, fun? And if you do have someone else translate it, do you like to collaborate with them or would you like to just say, "Surprise me?"
MA: Well, I've never translated my own work. And I like to collaborate with people, and even though it's wonderful to say, "Surprise me," but I really work with them very closely, and I've become fascinated with translation myself because I've begun to do some translations from the English to the Spanish. And I have learned the beauty and the humbleness and the delicacy that it takes to translate one poem from one language to the other. It's really a work of love, translation.
GD: It's a very deep form of understanding, too.
MA: Yeah, yeah. So I work with the people that translate my work, and I've also been fortunate to have very close relationship with these people.
GD: That's, now that seems important.
Jeff Lodge: Back to the notion of not feeling at home in the U.S., I was wondering how it is for you, living in the U.S. for so long now, knowing that these English-speaking people, that some of them, anyway, were in a big way responsible, for example, for the overthrow of Allende, for much of the political and military brutality that's occurred in the 60's, 70's, 80's, and I imagine today in places.
MA: You know, when I was younger I was kind of living through the history, talking about what happened, deeply aware of the U.S. role—the CIA, the Henry Kissinger, the Richard Nixon administrations—but I was more, more militant in my statements. Now, I have a profound sadness to live here, in a way, but, I mean I don't want to be ungrateful, because I'm extremely grateful for what I believe America is and for the possibilities America gave me. But my sadness is the complacency and the willingness to become so ignorant of the misfortunes of others. And before, as a younger person, it was anger, now it's sorrow. And I, even though, you know, I teach at a very privileged school and have wonderful students, and in the outside, it could seem like a perfect life, it is very painful to live here, not exactly because of your question, because of that history. But also what gives me hope is people like Peter Kornbluh who just did this huge book, The Pinochet Files. They're wonderful English-speaking Americans who have become the moral historians of this country, and to know that they exist, I feel less alone.
JL: Many of the books that have your name on them are books that you've edited, work by other people.
JL: To Mend the World: Women Reflect On 9/11, These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry By Latin American Women, and several more. How does that work for you? Why do you do that?
MA: Because no one else is willing to do the most ungrateful work, which is to edit anthologies and to give notoriety to other people. I've done it out of my commitment to human rights and activism and to the question about women, that I don't want women to be invisible. And as you know, White Pine has published them because the big publishing world of the United States and New York world only takes well-known writers because they want to sell, and rightly so. And these women are not well known here. So this is part of my—it was, because I cannot do it anymore; it brought a tremendous exhaustion to gather the material, you know, the whole operation, as I'm sure you know, to do this is exhausting. But I did it, and I'm so glad I've done it because I'm still the only one that has done it. It's tremendous work, and it's work for others. But I also wanted to create communities of writers so that communities of readers would know them. And in the field of Jewish literature, Latin American Jewish literature, with all humbleness, everything I've done is the only thing there is especially in . . . in men there are others, but for women, just my own work.
JL: So giving an audience, I guess then . . .
MA: Yeah, an audience.
JL: . . . in places they wouldn't normally have an audience.
MA: Yeah. In English because . . .
JL: In English, right.
MA: . . . they may have a small audience in Latin America, but they had no audience here.
JL: And I imagine their stories are ones that we need to hear.
MA: Absolutely. To Mend the World is the only book that gives voice to the immigrant experience. And there were few books mentioned in The New York Times that appeared on this topic on the first year of the anniversary, and the reviewer only said that the title was too religious. You'll find this review in The Times. And I thought, you know, "What a pathetic creature this guy is."I don't know who he is, but just to comment on a title when the whole thing about the book was the voices that have not been heard.
JL: Along those lines, the voices that have not been heard. It's been said that you're preoccupied with memory. What role do you think literature has in the preserving of memory, or why, I guess?
MA: Well, literature is the only way to preserve memory. I mean, it's like the queen, the king of the preservation of memory. You look at monuments—I just saw the monument of [Robert E.] Lee—you look at the monument of Sadaam Hussein is gone, a lot of historical monuments are going to be vanished according to wars, earthquakes. The only thing that remains are words.
I am quite informed by Jewish tradition because, not only because I was born a Jew and I am a Jew, but I just find it has some remarkable wisdoms, and I think that the buryings of the Torahs when people were escaping and to kind of think that even now in Europe you find this sacred text, is a way to preserve the literature of memory. And I think that, "How can you preserve the experience of torture?" Only through words. It's impossible, you cannot document it through a film, you cannot document it through a recording, it's the human voice through words. And if we don't record this, through language, I feel memory vanishes. It's like almost—who said that, Virginia Woolfe or someone—"What you don't put down doesn't exist." And that has been my preoccupation, my obsession, really.
GD: In that effort, however, you're not a journalist, you're an artist . . .
GD: . . . and so I wondered if you would comment on the role that—and it must be a complex one when you're writing a literature of witness, as you are—what role does imagination play in that effort?
MA: It's a great question, and you know there's so much debate about what, especially with Holocaust text or even with the controversial Rigoberta Menchú, that wrote about the testimony, what is real, what is imagined. And yes, writers, fortunately we are not journalists, although there are wonderful journalists that are wonderful writers, imagination does play a tremendous role. But memory's also about imagination, because no account told by anyone will be the same. And maybe you interview a survivor from Auschwitz or a survivor from Pinochet, and you interview them in the 80's and they may respond in one way and at 2000 will respond in a different way to the same event because memory's ambiguous, and it's not static, there's a fluidity to it. But the other thing that I think is quite clear is that writers do not have to be fixated with factual truth. That's the role for journalism and for history. But we also know that history is also a humanist discipline. So imagination is important in memory. And when I wrote A Cross and A Star, it's about my mother, but there's a tremendous amount of it that is quite imaginative, and people say, "Why did you say this? It wasn't true, and why did you create this character?" And they don't understand that it's fiction.
GD: I think one of the more interesting moments when you revealed that about your writing was when you talked about how, in some cases, dreams are the places where the dead can meet again with us, and dreams can cause the resurrection of memories to which we might not have any other access.
MA: Yes, yes. And I think that memory is also about giving a space to the dead, allowing for the voices of so many people that have been submerged to be, like you said, resurrected. And I think that when I say dream also, it's almost a symbol or a metaphor for a place that is also ambiguous because the dream world is, by nature, ambiguous. It's evocation. It's almost in the zone of remembering and not remembering because you can never quite remember the dream.
GD: Memory and the absence of it is something that we've touched on a little bit with relation to the United States. One of the things that I find myself often talking about in trying to explain America to friends from Europe and other countries, South America, is that it's a country that has a tremendous innocence, and it's actually, then, ultimately, a kind of a dangerous innocence. During Pinochet's brutal dictatorship in Chile, which drove your family into exile here in the U.S., you've suggested in some of your writings that fear motivated many people to keep silent or to ignore gross violations of human rights, and it strikes me that fear is part of our contemporary atmosphere in the United States and that it is potentially creating another form of undermining human rights or a sense of social responsibility. And I wonder if you would care to comment on the current situation with Pinochet slithering out of his responsibilities and also, perhaps, things that are going on here in the United States.
MA: Yeah, yeah. A few things of this question . . . many things of this question. Your first question about the innocence of America, I think that, yes, the innocence of America has allowed this country to dream, to be daring, to be creative, to make it a dream for immigrants, and it is still a country of immigrants even if they are closing every single possible border. But when this innocence becomes an excuse for ignorance and for not knowing what we Americans have done, it becomes extremely dangerous. It becomes the ignorance of the fool, the innocence of the fool. I think that you can have innocence but at the same time understand what is just. And I think the 9/11 attack on this country was not so much the death of innocence, was the fact that America is no longer protected from the dangers of the world and that America will join the suffering of the world. And then another part of that with 9/11 is that when 9/11 was taking place in the U.S., few journalists, except people like Ariel Dorfman, few of them mentioned that there was another 9/11 that took place in Chile created by the terrorism that the United States government, in a way, was supporting through the CIA. So it was a time where you could see how one particular nation was completely ignored and how this other nation, this nation, created a whole mythology based on 9/11. I honor each one of the 3000 people that died in the Trade Center and everywhere, but if you think of all the millions of people that have died in wars elsewhere, we are still very blessed, and I don' think retaliation to Afghanistan or Iraq was the answer.
Now the question about fear—and this is my own personal thought, which I truly support and believe in—this country is having very similar patterns of dictatorial regimes, and I feel somehow I am like in a little dictatorship here under disguise of this democracy. And George Bush is creating, has created, the ideology of fear, and saying, "If you do not vote for me, you will not be protected." And I think there is paranoia, the levels of alert, and that's exactly what General Pinochet did. Now, Dorfman wrote a wonderful editorial in The New York Times, an op/ed about two or three days ago, and he said that Pinochet's dirty dealings with his money were found because through the Partiot Act they discovered that he had money in the Riggs Bank, and he became like a terrorist that stole $8 million, but he also says that it was the same secrecy that Pinochet governed that allowed him to steal the money. So secrecy is dangerous no matter how you look at it, and he was talking the secrecy of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act is just a disgrace to American faith in the world, and I am very frightened for this country. I have been through a dictatorship, and I think we've all complied to so many things, and what is really scaring me is this whole defeatist attitude that there's nothing that can be done, and I think that's wrong. There's much that can be done.
GD: One of the things that you have taken on is a concept that—and I think it's actually another form of contemporary, dangerous innocence—is the concept of multiculturalism. You have insisted that you are not, yourself, multicultural.
GD: You're, maybe the correct word would be "intercultural"? Is that a better word?
MA: Yeah. I think that, for example, the very controversial writings of Ilan Stavans—do you know the critic Elan Stavans?—the whole idea about the bilingual Spanglish? He believes there is such a language as Spanglish. I have trouble believing that. I think there is either Spanish, and there's English. We may mix some words, but I don't think Spanglish is a language. Multiculturalism as an ideology has been a possibilty for maybe creating diversity, but I think that it has become a very intolerant concept. And I think it's been really appropriated by people from the left that have very fundamentalist views of the world just like people from the right, and I consider that absolutely dangerous. And you know I am a person of the left, but I cannot support Castro. It's just, I cannot believe that Cuba is a democracy, and it's just very frightening how Castro is constantly praised and [Hugo] Chávez is considered to be a manipulation from the right, and that's why he's not allowed to govern. I mean, I have problems with that. There are so many problems about, like, what is Latina literature in English? Is it, is it the English literature written in English by Latina immigrants? Where do you divide the lines? Where's the heritage of the past? So all of this multicultural world is very complex to me. And the fact is that still this is a monolingual society. I think that even more intercultural is, the idea that we'll talk about today, is I like to believe that I'm a person that crosses borders, that I am in the thresholds of places, but I am also rooted in the Spanish world and in the Jewish world. Those are the anchor of my world, those two worlds, and then that's where I speak from. You have to have a platform where you can speak from. It's like you cannot be all over the place, and I think multiculturalism is like being all over the place.
JL: Is part of the problem with multiculturalism that with the two languages, or inherent in the two languages, is a different way of experiencing the world? Do the languages reflect that? When you're thinking in Spanish are you seeing the world different from when you're thinking in English?
MA: Yes, absolutely. That's why I don't believe there's one language called Spanglish. When you look at, when you're thinking in Spanish, the world is different, even, you know, when Spanish speakers are talking to one another, even their physical proximity is different than when you're speaking in English. It's a whole way of decoding and coding a world. So language is identity.
GD: Something remarkable in your work and the work of many Jewish writers, but particularly in your work, you don't just have that portable identity that comes through having Spanish as a spiritual home, but you also have that particular identity that comes from having Judaism as a spiritual home.
GD: And I wondered if you'd comment on how you think that has affected your understanding of your own family history and also your current experiences.
MA: I come from a non-traditionally religious family, but a profoundly Jewish family, and I think that if you understand the Jewish world, you will see that is not a contradiction, in the sense that you can be a Jew so rooted in your history and in your values that in a way God becomes secondary. And I think that's an amazing thing that Jews have been able to say. But what has linked my Judaism to my experience as a writer are two fundamental things. I think that Judaism has always understood the world from an ethical point of view, and I'm not talking about contemporary Israel or politics, but I'm talking about the Ten Commandments and the necessity, this old Talmudic concept where the title of the book comes from, "to mend to world": to create justice, if you save one life you save the world, is basically saying if you are a decent human being, you are really doing decent things in the world. So the ethics of Judaism and the struggles for social justice have been what I have wanted to take from that Judaism. Also, and I think David Grossman has said it beautifully, he says that "All writers are Jewish," and I think in a way it's true because the whole idea of the Torah and the whole idea of biblical interpretation is about decoding and coding the world. And I think that anybody who is in the writing business decodes and codes the world.
And I also think that—I don't by any ways believe that we are the chosen people—but what is so amazing is how we have blossomed in the diaspora and that we are still here as a people in spite of centuries of discrimination and genocide, even from the expulsion of Spain or even before the destruction of the second temple. And I think what has kept the Jews together is the idea of home and the idea of memory, which is the ideas that I write about: home as an inner center, and memory as giving voice to the invisible and becoming a witness.