Diamela Eltit speaks to the young people facing a dictatorship that is far away from them. The Chilean writer was 24 years old in 1973 when a military coup overthrew the Government of Salvador Allende. “We had to learn to recode ourselves. The city no longer belonged to us ”, he explains. In those years, he co-founded the Collective of Art Actions (CADA), which intervened in public space with political and poetic messages against the Augusto Pinochet regime; He also published his first novels, and did not leave the country until 1990. He remembers the disappeared, the murdered, the political prisoners, the exiles: “I absolutely do not wish anyone ever for any reason to live under a dictatorship, or young, not children, not adults, not old. It is intolerable ”.
Dozens of teenagers, moderated by the poet Rocío Cerón, attended at the beginning of December to listen to her at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, in Mexico, where this year she received the Romance Literature Prize. There they asked her about her past as an artist, about her present as a writer and about the future of democracy in Chile. This December 19, the far-right candidate, José Antonio Kast, faces the left-wing, Gabriel Boric, in the second round of elections. Eltit responds: “We are with the possibility of an ultra-right representative whose obsession is bodies. This madness finds complicity because the body, we know, is one of the most besieged places ”. For over an hour, he wears them through the curfew nights of his youth; by the geography of his city, Santiago de Chile, or by the search he made for his own writing. Every time she is clapped, she claps.
NO +, artist before writer
In Chile we had a disastrous situation: in 1973 we experienced a coup d’état. We went violently from a democratic situation to a dictatorship. We never thought it would happen to us. It was dramatic. I do not want to speak for myself, nor for all my colleagues who survived this time, but for the detained-disappeared (which was a concept that we did not know), the murdered, the thousands of political prisoners and the almost million people who they had to go into exile.
We had to learn to recode ourselves and live under a dictatorship. For example, universities became run by the military. In this context, we began to group together several artists in a transversal thing where there was theater, poetry, visual arts … Thus we formed a group that we called Art Actions, which made public art. The city no longer belonged to us, it had been privatized by the new regime. We had to do something: we would go to the city, we would intervene and we would withdraw.
Within that, I want to remember the NO +. Just 10 years after the coup, which lasted 17 (25 if we add that during the transition the dictator remained as senator), we went out at night and scratched the walls “NO +”, with the sign because it was faster. We bet that citizens were going to complete that and they completed it: “No more dictatorship”, “no more deaths”, “no more parents” … It depended on who was in charge of that NO +. Today is a current motto that is still used in all demonstrations. It no longer belongs to us. Politics swallowed the sign of art.
Stolen youth. Living under curfew
We were having fun too. But the problem we had was that the parties were from curfew to curfew. I mean, you couldn’t go home at three or four in the morning because you couldn’t go outside. If you were going to a party, the word dream had to be erased because you had to leave when curfew was lifted the next day. Within that, of course, there are memorable parties. We had to stay in the same place and that generated communities and, of course, also hostilities in people who knew each other for longer than it was necessary to know.
Chile today, the future of democracy
Democratic systems fall very strongly on their inhabitants and basically on young people. There is a certain pressure and oppression on them beyond the system they inhabit. Of course, all democracies are imperfect, but it is so far the best form of government.
In Chile we are at a crucial moment. We are with elections and with the possibility of an ultra-right representative whose obsession is bodies. That is its great theme. The economy, the most favorable to the business world; the rest, the surveillance on the bodies. [El candidato] he wants quite crazy things: in his speech, people have to be heterosexual, married … That madness finds complicity because the body, we know, is one of the most besieged places. Even democracy has restrictive zones. For example, the legal system takes over the womb of women. An organ becomes state authority: it can be aborted, it cannot be aborted.
The body is an enigma. In general one never experiences it in a complete way. It is always inhabiting it in pieces. On the other hand, it has always been built by institutions. And within the institutional construction, the most besieged body is the female, which is changing: the Renaissance body is not the same as that of the 20th century. The body of Marilyn Monroe today is a body that does not correspond because we have to have another. The discourse on the body never fits with the real body of each one.
Men’s bodies are designed by gyms. That of women, by the chemical or medical industries. Of course, we all have hopelessly flawed zones. Failed versus whom? In front of the discourses of the body. When the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi was asked about the burqa that some Muslim women wear, she said yes, it was complex, terrible. But he added: “Size 38 is the burqa of Western women.”
‘Lumpérica’, the novel of the besieged city
I wanted a type of literature that I had a hard time finding. I searched, searched and searched. I tried several scriptures, but felt that none of them belonged to me until I found a place. I had to move narratively the space of a square, nothing more. And on that I wove a fiction that could be performative. I did everything I could and worked all kinds of languages: from fragments of native languages to haute couture or Baroque language. In those years of dictatorship, it seemed interesting to me to break the issue of private space, which was generally connected with women – their space, their reproduction, their family, the bourgeois space – and work on public space.
An image emerged when I was quickly returning to the house. I was going through the square and the lights were on, but no one could enter the squares because there was a curfew. For me, they became spaces for a performance. That was the matrix of the novel. I have always worked very limited territories. They force me to expand the small space with thoughts, metaphors, memories. It took me seven years to write Lumpérica. I wrote it slowly, with great uncertainty. Uncertainty that accompanies me with each book. I felt good about finishing it, but also insecure, of course, and scared.
Writing and freedom
I have always considered writing as a space of freedom. Let’s put it another way: in my case, it has been an area of freedom. I have been very fond of the production of texts rather than the social part of those texts. I have left the world of work and the world of family – a world that I love very much, but one needs to get out of for a little while – to enter the world of writing. It has been hard work, but there is also a joy factor. It has been a privilege to write.
Teach to write
I have taught writing classes for years and the important point is what I have learned from the young people. It was a question of interesting truth and not rhetoric. I think about the academic relationship because I am very interested in communities, even if they are brief. I’m not saying homogeneous communities, by no means. There is value in heterogeneity. In that sense, I do not want to give advice but to point out that writing is a search, it is never given. We all know how to write, but you learn to write, nobody was born writing. Writing literature is also learned. The meaning of that literature has to do with the aesthetics that you manage to articulate. That is the great task: to establish a personal poetics. It is not possible to think of a politics without poetics. Not a friendship without poetics. Not an emotional relationship. It is a matter of putting on, working and finding poetry. That’s what it is all about.
The funny thing about my creative process is that you think of writers as private and, in a way, solemn. But nobody ever respected me: if I was writing they would knock on my door and enter. I can write anywhere, at any time, as long as I have something to write. If not, it is not necessary and I am going to see my favorite series.
Advice to my young self
I have a utopian desire that accompanies me: I would like to talk to the girl I was. With the 12-year-old, 14-year-old, or 15-year-old girl I would like to talk to her. Surely we would have disagreements, but at another point we would have full agreement. I would say to her “write.” And she would say to me “I will.”
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.