The following introduction is written by Marie Arana, curator of “La Voz Latina”; literary advisor to the Library of Congress; coordinator of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction; and literary director of the National Book Festival.
This past weekend, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, we were thrilled to present “La Voz Latina,” a series of three programs about Latin American and Hispanic American literature, the result of an unprecedented collaboration between the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress. In it, we explored friendships across cultures—the lifelong bond between American poet Langston Hughes and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, for instance, movingly re-enacted by former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas. We featured an extraordinary array of handmade books by Cuban artist Rolando Estévez, whose fanciful, one-of-a-kind chapbooks comprise 200 volumes in the Library’s Rare Books Division.
The centerpiece of the series, however, was “La Voz Latina: Five Literary Stars of the Americas,” a cavalcade of prizewinning authors whose roots are in Central America, the Andes, the Southern Cone, and the Caribbean: Sandra Cisneros (Mexico) Rodrigo Hasbún (Bolivia), Ariel Dorfman (Chile), Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru), and Esmeralda Santiago (Puerto Rico). All are immigrants. All tell us something unique about the Americas. And all are brilliant practitioners of their art. The question we put to them was: “How does your heritage and your country of origin influence your work?”
We offer here the imaginative response by Ariel Dorfman—world traveler, literary chameleon, and certainly one of the grand masters of Latino American letters.
IS A PUZZLEMENT
By Ariel Dorfman
Wondering how to start today’s intervention, the first words that sprang to mind were not solemn literary allusions, Neruda’s sube a nacer conmigo, hermano or Sappho’s what cannot be said will be wept. Instead, what came to me was a phrase from the musical The King and I, the humorous words, Is a puzzlement. A way for my subconscious to remind me that popular culture, musicals and Philip Marlowe, yellow submarines and historietas/comics, are as much a part of my heritage as the most refined verses. And, besides, those ungrammatical words, Is a puzzlement, express my perplexity at having to summarize in seven minutes what I haven’t been able to figure out during my whole existence.
How does a baffled story-teller like me get rid of puzzlement? By passing the problem along to characters I create. On this occasion I decided to narcissistically invent an editor tasked with writing my obituary. I can see this Dostoyevskian double, this personaje straight from the works of my heroes and maestros, Julio Cortázar or Harold Pinter, I can hear this editor complaining out loud, I can’t do it. It’s not enough to consign Dorfman’s three entangled countries, not enough to mention the Argentina where the author was bornand his Jewish parents and grand-parents died; not enough to highlight the hopeful Chile he fell in love with as an adolescent, not enough to focus on the United States where Ariel grew up as a child and to which he returned as an exile many years later to settle down permanently. Because the only country he entirely belongs to is a country called Angélica, his wife, anchor and sanctuary.
And what about the multiple countries of the imagination to which Dorfman swears allegiance, the alter ego editor says, a vast humanity of cultural avatars, the inheritance of Gilgamesh and Mishima, Rumi and boleros, Elie Wiesel and Ella Fitzgerald, James Baldwin and Spinoza, Sor Juana and Antonio Gramsci, Francisco Quevedo’s miré los muros de la patria mía, and Emily Dickinson’s I dwell in possibility. And so we come to Dorfman’s bilingualism, the Spanish and English that have perennially battled for this author’s soul, cries out the editor, indulging in a bit of Latin American melodrama, the need to explain that he has switched between these two languages his whole life, renouncing one and then the other, until finally, says the editor shaking his head, exile beckoned after the coup against Salvador Allende’s peaceful revolution and Ariel was forced to admit that it was a blessing and not a curse to be owned by two languages, made him realize, the editor says, that he could not escape his hybrid fate, that he was destined to make space in both languages for the ignored and ravaged stories that swirl around and inside him, so many lives that are twisted and silenced, inspiring his most well-known work, Death and the Maiden, the Donald Duck book, the memoirs, the novel Widows.
Though what’s most interesting about a writer, exclaims the mischievous escribidor of my obituary, is not any writer’s most popular work but the transgressive, unexpected projects that break the rules. Consider his latest ventures. A story about Kafka’s arrest by two thugs written from the perspective of K., the character from The Trial. A story about a young soldier in Chile who witnesses the pain and terror inflicted on the woman he loves, forced to face a reckoning. And yet another story about a meeting between Shakespeare and Cervantes in Valladolid in 1605, told by their interpreter, a spy who has sacrificed himself to save these great writers from the intelligence services of their respective countries. Or Dorfman’s latest novel about human zoos, Darwin’s Ghosts, which explores American innocence through an adolescent in Massachusetts who embarks on a voyage of discovery to find out why an unknown native has robbed him of his face. A similar obsession with the past and the dead is expressed in poems where Petrarca, Cristóbal Colón, William Blake, Hammurabi, Picasso, speak to us from the other side of death, echoed in comments using Melville, Faulkner, Mary Shelley, Martin Luther King, Heraclitus, San Martín, Mandela, José Martí, James Buchanan, el rey Felipe Segundo, García Lorca, Proust, José María Arguedas, to offer guidance in our perilous times. But not all is immediately political either, says the editor. What about the chutzpah of his latest novel in Spanish, Allegro, where Mozart narrates how he goes about solving the mystery that surrounds the blinding of Bach and Handel by a picaresque eye doctor? Or a story told from the point of view of a mosquito that, having bitten two lovers, knows they are about to leave each other, a mistake it would like to help them avoid? Or a film, written with his youngest son, Joaquín, about a wannabe writer in Italy who must destroy every copy of his deplorable novel because it contains references to a tumultuous one-night stand with a woman who is now a nun? Can the same author have written with his other son, Rodrigo, a screenplay for the BBC about a Turkish doctor in London who has 24 hours to stop his terrorist son from blowing himself up along with many innocents? Or a play that gives voice to human rights defenders but also opens the door to Beckett-like uncertainty and experimentation?
How does it all fit together, says the editor, is a puzzlement, says the editor, I can’t do this, says the editor, not even Ariel Dorfman could successfully elucidate how his heritage and his countries of origin influence his work, not even the author himself could answer that question, I am as much at a loss here as he would be, as even Borges in his library of Babel would be, sorry, Ariel, I can’t help you out, says the editor making believe he’s a character in a Pirandello play rather than my creation, hey, man, the editor kvetches, take responsibility for your own life and work, you’re the one on stage, not me, you’re the one who accepted this invitation, not me.
And I reluctantly agree to absolve the editor of the mission I have unfairly imposed upon him, this man who is, after all, mon semblable, mon frère, I accept the challenge of containing multitudes and constantly reinventing myself.
Here’s my final statement, then: I come from the country of the compassionate, ambivalent, playful imagination, that is my heritage, my origin, mis orígenes, and, I would hope, mi herencia, mi legado, my legacy.