I have contributed a chapter in a new book entitled ‘Shared Traumas, Silent Loss, Public and Private Mourning’ published by Karnac this month.
I will participate in a small seminar on the 2nd March to mark the publication of this new volume alongside the editor, Lene Auestad, and other contributors.
The book is available on the Karnac website.
This is the speech I gave on the evening of the launch:
My chapter is based on a play by the Argentinian-born playwright Ariel Dorfman. The play, “Death and The Maiden”, gave me an opportunity to explore shared trauma and silent loss in the context of the devastating effects of political violence and terror in Chile, following the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected Allende government in 1973. As I write in the introduction of the chapter, “Death and the Maiden depicts characters torn by internal conflicts and dilemmas in a way that reflects the shattered certainties of the society they lived in”. The play raises essential questions about the complexities of surviving a traumatic past, of mourning and of restoring trust in the future.
I have always felt a profound connection with Ariel Dorfman for reasons that I cannot totally explain. After all I am from a different continent, I carry a different cultural heritage, I have a different social history, I am of a different generation and I speak a different language. What Dorfman makes me feel maybe simply illustrates one of the most valuable qualities of the arts to connect us beyond all the differences that might separate us. I find Dorfman’s writing extremely powerful and authentic, but also delicate and fragile despite the relentless realities on which it is based. I believe this fragility and vulnerability may be a reflection of the trajectory of his life that he described himself as, “one of exiles” (interview in The Progressive 30 October 1998).
Exile is certainly a theme that defines Dorfman and that runs through all of his work. He worked as a cultural and press adviser for the Allende’s administration, and was forced to flee Chile in 1973. As he writes in his autobiography, exile left him “dangling”, as if he had been pushed off a cliff and narrowly managed to save himself from the inevitability of the fall. Like many of his comrades, he was expelled from a place that was no longer habitable, and forced, as he writes, into “the hidden trauma of separation”. Dorfman describes how exile translates a permanent state of temporariness deserted by all sense of temporality. Being an exiled means being displaced and dislocated like the members of a body that have become disconnected because of a broken joint or bond. It might not be a coincidence that the act of re-membering also expresses an attempt to reintegrate dissociated parts within a physiological structure. For Dorfman, writing was not solely a way of bearing witness to what happened or trying to make sense of the past, but also an important step into recreating a sense of belonging to oneself, others and humanity.
Dorfman describes himself as an “insurgent nomad of the earth”. He was not just left dangling but also wandering the world in search of a home that remained a distant memory and a distant dream. This melancholic search translated a desperate attempt to deny the irremediableness of the endured loss.
Nowadays, millions of displaced people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and other war torn countries are facing the trauma of a similar loss. Them also are left dangling in front of our own eyes as we watch daily news reports that remind us of the desperate situation that our world has created for so many. If exile has become the fate of millions, many of us are indignant by the response of our governments failing the needs of those seeking sanctuary. Beside, a rhetoric of hatred and ostracism has convinced many that confusing the victims for the perpetrators, and singling out or vilifying an other-than-self, would provide an expedient solution to complex problems.
I am thinking here of the words of the American writer Kurt Vonnegut who described himself as “a man without a country” in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Vonnegut, like so many others, felt abandoned as he could no longer recognise himself in a country whose politics, as he described it, was dehumanizing. Vonnegut reminds us of the dual signified of exile. Exile does not only refer to a lack of recognition by one’s own country, but also a lack of recognition in one’s own country. How many of us, today, are feeling a similar sense of internal estrangement and alienation following the inadequacy of political leaders and reactionary ideologies? This profound lack of recognition (as recognising and being recognised) is, I believe, what describes exile. This makes it essential to create private and public spaces where we can share and reflect on our silent traumas, mourn our silent losses, but also, as Dorfman would say, keep “feeding on dreams”.