Writer and human-rights crusader Ariel Dorfman has multiple homes, multiple identities, three languages, at least three countries. Since the military coup in Chile – on September 11, 1973 – he has carried with him the legacy and the burden of survival and multiplicity. After struggling for a brief time to find any voice at all with which to whisper his story, that of his friends and of one of his patrias, he has for many years sounded an operatic wail and a trumpet of hope. Through plays like Death and the Maiden, novels like Konfidenz and The Nanny and the Iceberg, political/personal tracts like Exorcising Terror, through his memoir, through his family life, he has pushed forward, continuously attempting to keep his promise to the dead.
Dorfman, the subject of the 2007 documentary A Promise to the Dead:The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman, (Peter Raymont), has also written several films. Prisoners in Time (1995) tells the story of a British former soldier (John Hurt) who goes in search of the Japanese soldier he believes tortured him during WWII. Dead Line (1998) is a 30-minute film about an Iraqi exile in London desperately trying to call home, while a cast of celebrities read Dorfman’s poems of exile and the disappeared.
That Dorfman writes explicitly about suffering not just his own – not only Chilean, not only Jewish, not only leftist, not only American – proves that greater responsibility he says he feels. In Konfidenz and Death and the Maiden, he doesn’t reveal – at least at first – any particular locale or time. Perhaps he wants us to think this could be anywhere in any decade. That anyone can suffer what he and his friends suffered in Chile.
So, while the date of September 11th took on a blindingly new meaning for most of us in 2001, it seems to have clarified something in Ariel Dorfman’s mind. Now that his homeland, yet again and on the same day, has suffered an attack of terror from the skies, Dorfman sees a bridge appear – one that reaches across hemispheres and decades and reflects in sorrow and horror the bond of commonality he says he’s sought to build for years between the USA and the rest of America. And he sees this period in the USA as one of challenge to not fall into a police state, to not succumb to a culture of fear as Chile did.
The following interview took place during the 2008 Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City:
Remezcla: What comes out of this documentary about you [A Promise to the Dead] is this sense of mission, this promise to the dead, which seems to be very strong and very consistent throughout your life. Even though you’re using these different outlets to express yourself. How has that sense of mission changed over the years?
Ariel Dorfman: I think you’re right that there’s been that sense of mission. Now, I think before my friends were killed and I survived, I always had some sense in which I was speaking with the dead or for the dead or through the dead. So, it’s not as if it appeared out of the coup. For instance, I was always obsessed with my ancestors, with the stories of my great-grandparents.
But, when you’re in a military takeover and then you survive and escape and your friends are being killed, I think you start a different sense of the promise to the dead. In other words, the promise is to specific dead people.
So, when I look at that film, it does represent what my life is, the driving force behind it. But, at the same time it doesn’t have time for the complexity of Death and the Maiden, for instance. Death and the Maiden is not only about a torture victim. It’s about, “Well, can we trust the past? How do we know if somebody’s guilty? How do we know that we’re not guilty of something? Would we do those things? And how does sex get involved?”
Now, there’s nothing of that in the documentary because it’s basically about bringing to Chile a story of survivors and having Chile reject it because Chile couldn’t deal with that at that point. I was pouring salt into its wounds, and then I was pouring acid on top of the salt, and I wanted to be loved. That’s the contradiction.
There are no heroic and easy solutions in my world. And I don’t think that makes me the most popular of all writers because I don’t comfort the readers. I disturb them. I like to perturb them. But there’s a certain pleasure in being perturbed and disturbed and being taken out of who you are and going into worlds which you never would have imagined are in you but that are in you.
I don’t want to be pigeonholed. Now, the central issues are that I’m outraged by injustice but that I have this keen eye for moral ambiguity. And it took me a long time to come to that conclusion. But I think the deepest understanding that I have is that you cannot have movements for social justice without many uncertainties and many doubts. And that it’s just as revolutionary to denounce the injustices of the world as to ask yourself, “How complicated are the people who are denouncing that injustice?” Because we tend to think that because we are against bad things we are necessarily and inevitably very good ourselves.
And I have no doubt that those of us who are against torture are better than the torturers. There’s no doubt about it whatsoever. But to suppose that that, in some sense, exempts us from self-analysis and understanding who we are and our own darkness – well, I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t go into those forms of the darkness. I’ll tell you this: The people who come along on my trip have got a wonderful journey. I’m not saying that because I write wonderfully but because it’s an interesting journey. It goes places where you don’t expect to go. Now, that can be discombobulating, to put it mildly. There are probably not many Chileans who would use the word discombobulated, either. But that’s the way it is.
RE:Talking about not reflecting on ourselves, you talk in the movie about your fear that after September 11, 2001, the United States was maybe going to go down this path. And since we in this country do look at ourselves as the champions of justice and democracy, do we have this hubris, and have we fallen victim to it?
AD: September 11th, 2001, was a great opportunity for the United States to look at itself. I wrote an article four or five days after, published in Other Septembers, the book of essays and articles, in which I say that it was a chance for the United States to abandon its exceptionalism and realize that what it lived that day was what people around the world live precariously through their existence; and, therefore, “Welcome, America, to history and to the rest of the world.”
Now, when you say that, you’re saying, “This is terrible. This terror that has been imposed upon you is the worst thing that can happen to you. And the pain is nothing that I would want for you. But, given that history wanted it this way, what do you do with that pain? Do you turn it into pain of others? Or do you turn it into an examination of who you are, so you create a world where this will never be possible?”
But it turns out that you have a person who is a war criminal as your president. And, when you have that, an incredibly insecure, sad, sorrowful, ex-alcoholic, who wanted to prove something to his father – and now I’m doing a Shakespearean analysis of somebody who isn’t worthy of that. But, when you think of that in those terms, it was a terrible tragedy for the world that you couldn’t have somebody at least reflective about that.
I’m not saying that the feeling of the need for retribution isn’t absolutely human. It is. We all have that. Anger is not a good counselor. You shouldn’t live your revenge because it will devour you. And the United States acted out of hubris – precisely – and strangely enough, you know, conformed to all the worst caricatures of it around the world. Some of which were true, and some of which are not necessarily true. But it’s a complicated thing that happened. It’s a very sad thing that happened because an opportunity was missed. And there was more terror created.
So, I see my task in relation to the politics of the moment in calling attention to the fact that there is this place called Chile where the United States was very involved in destroying our democracy and raining terror down upon us and training our military to torture our people. But we didn’t go and bomb Washington. We didn’t go and blow ourselves up in Washington. We didn’t go and invade the United States.
Now, it would have been very stupid of us to do so. But, on the contrary, the only person who set off a bomb in Washington was the monster the United States created, which was Pinochet. He created the first terror act in the history of the United States in Washington. He blew up Orlando Letelier, who had been Allende’s foreign minister and defense minister, along with the U.S. citizen Ronni Moffitt. So, there. You want to go after terrorists? You should have gone after Pinochet and extradited him.
Maybe if you’d extradited Pinochet then bin Laden wouldn’t have existed. Maybe Saddam Hussein wouldn’t have existed.
I don’t trust any leader who has no self-doubts whatsoever. I especially don’t trust any leader who thinks that god is speaking to him and getting rid of any doubts that he might have had. So, I do what an intellectual is supposed to do, which is I ask questions. And they’re difficult questions. And I try to do so in as gentle and non-aggressive a way as possible but with as much firmness as I possibly can.
RE: Well, one of the really fascinating moments of A Promise to the Dead is when you’re standing outside of the Hospital Militar in Santiago and watching these supporters of Pinochet, crying and voicing their love for him. And your very brief interaction, afterwards, with the one woman who had been doing that is totally stunning. What was going through your head?
AD: I just went and did what I felt. And I may have been wrong. Maybe I should have demanded of her as a precondition for talking that she should repent. But, there’s a reason why I’m with Obama. Right? The sense that you don’t put preconditions with your enemies. You sit down, and you speak to them. And you especially make them feel that you mean them no harm.
If I live in a country with this woman, I have several alternatives. One is to kill her. That’s an alternative. Lot’s of people think, “Let’s get rid of the dissidents. Let’s get rid of the people we disagree with.” For me that’s not an alternative. I’m against killing. And I’m against the death penalty. And I’m against harming other people. I just don’t want to do it. As a kid, if I stepped on an ant I would cry.
The other possibility is, “Let’s seclude each other. Let’s segregate each other and go, ’There’s you, and there’s me, and we don’t ever meet.’” And the other possibility is you push them. You break down the walls. Because I believe that the person who has more consciousness, who is more conscientious, who knows more is more responsible. That woman, in some sense, is blind. I’m seeing. So, if she’s blind and I can see, shouldn’t I be helping to guide her? Shouldn’t I be opening a path for her?
RE: So much of your experience in life, which is obviously reflected in your work, has to do with this sense of multiculturalism, of multinationalism, of multilingualism, whatever it may be and however it may manifest itself. Especially for the demographic I’m writing for, we’re all people who feel like we exist on several sides of different borders. Looking at the political environment in the United States right now, immigration issues and other issues, what’s the future of multiculturalism and of borders?
AD: Well, I think the first thing we need to understand is this is inevitable. It’s demographically inevitable. We are multilingual as a species. This is something that is very important that we understand, that multilingualism is, in many parts of the world, something obvious.
And now I’ve become this hybrid person, this person on all sides of the border who feels very comfortable in both languages. Puedo hablar así. I can speak like that, you know. And who is also, as I said, able to understand that if I’m a Latin American, well what am I doing writing a film, Prisoners in Time, which is about a British prisoner of war who was water-boarded by the Japanese 50 years ago? I mean, why should I be writing about that? “Hey, hey, Ariel. Aren’t you Latino? Aren’t you supposed to write about the Indians in Bolivia?” Well, no. In fact, no. I can write about the Indians in Bolivia, and Graham Greene can write about the Mexicans and his priests who are full of sin and guilt in Mexico. But why can’t we put our characters anywhere we want? Because, basically, when I do that I’m saying the stories from Chile that I have learned I will then apply to all of humanity.
So, you tell the stories that need to be told. And the stories go over borders and over frontiers. Just like our bodies do. Except of course cash goes across borders, and messages go across borders, and people seem to be scared of bodies going across borders – except if they’re trafficking in sex slaves and in children. Or in organs. Then they’ve got no problem with pieces of bodies or bodies, anatomies, going across borders.
But when it’s people with their families who want to work and in fact build the country up, then you have to discriminate against them and destroy them. And of course I find that hateful. And I would like a world where there were no borders. Where there were no border guards, no customs agents, etc. But for that you’d have to have a world of real equality. So, I’m really looking for a land as bilingual, multilingual, multicultural and open as I am. And I probably won’t find it. But the United States at least has the promise of that. And let’s hope that it lives up to its promise.