Interview by Kinsley Stocum
It was an unseasonably warm fall day in Pittsburgh when I talked with Chilean writer and activist, Marjorie Agosín, Chatham University’s All-Campus Author and the woman behind nearly forty books, including anthologies, poetry, memoir and nonfiction, and a novel, I Lived on Butterfly Hill, which was released in March 2014. In the living room of the Howe-Childs Gate House, I sheepishly removed several Apple devices of various sizes, one for recording, another for keeping the time, and she asked me about my family. We’d met before. Agosín graciously remembered the time last year I almost drove her and her husband the wrong way down a one-way street. We had a lot of catching up to do. For the next half hour, Agosín and I navigated our conversation through shared territory—of home, memory, and separation in poetry, the value of travel, the smell and feel of the Pacific Ocean when she returns to the country of her childhood. “The problem with Chile,” she told me with a sigh, “is that it’s far no matter where you are.” And so we talked too about this longing, about the clarity of what is left behind. Although I don’t speak Spanish, her native language, the conversation was easy, and I learned that even in our silences, nothing is lost.
Kinsley Stocum: In an interview with Blackbird in 2004, you mention that you write in Spanish because it’s the language of your soul. Do you feel like your work loses some of the emotions you wish to evoke when it’s translated to English?
Marjorie Agosín: Yes. I don’t agree that all is lost in translation, but I think a great deal is lost, especially in poetry, where every word seems to hold a universe. Especially, considering the inner-workings of language, in a poem. The musicality, the rhythm, the juxtaposition of words, all of that is very hard to convey. Maybe a short story—or a chapter in a novel—would be easier. On the other hand, we need translators and I think they’re remarkably important. I think they should occupy a prominent place in the history of literature. I hope I am read by Spanish speakers, but at the same time, I live here, so I hope my work also reaches English-speaking audiences.
KS: You also said that in America—in an English-speaking country—you feel like a stranger, and that that is “very good for a poet, to feel like a stranger.” I know this may be hard to speak to as one who was exiled, but would you recommend a young poet go get lost somewhere, go get uncomfortable?
MA: I didn’t choose to come here, to the United States. Political circumstances led us here, and I came with my whole family. I was fifteen years old—you aren’t independent at that age. But regardless, I do believe— if a poet has the opportunity— yes. It is so important to learn how other people live; to become familiar with a language that is not your own; to feel like a stranger. You will have great empathy for and great understanding of the world around you.
KS: Do you feel like your separation makes your connection to your home country stronger?
MA: In a way, yes, because when I’m here I try to evoke all of the things I miss about Chile. If I had lived in Chile my whole life, I probably wouldn’t find the country so interesting, you know? I think that the distance makes me long for it much more. Maybe if I lived there I would actually be like somebody else—like everybody else—but because I don’t live there, I am in between worlds.
KS: Is there anything you haven’t written about yet that you plan to? Anything you may still be meditating on within that personal silence?
MA: Well, as I grow older I see very close people dying— I want to write a lot about death. I think that’s an issue every human struggles with and every poet struggles with. So I want to write a lot about death. I want to meditate on it, explore it, dwell very deeply within it.
KS: Have you started writing?
MA: Yes, yes. Not something macabre, or fearful, but just…what it is, what happens, what is the bridge between those that go and those that remain. I’m interested in that.*
KS: You do seem to find a very…peaceful joy…even in serious situations, like the overthrow of Allende, your work is still thoughtful and hopeful.
MA: Even though I write about traumatic experiences that people go through, I don’t think my literature has anger; it has more reflection, but not anger. Maybe that’s where you find the peace.
KS: Yes. I think it’s very easy to get angry.
What would you say draws you back, again and again, to write about the land?
MA: Its beauty, its sense of identity, a shared history…I think everybody’s involved with place. Even those that are nomadic, they are always attached to a place, or they return to a place. And I think, deep down, we write about childhood places. Those are the things that are so deeply inscribed in our memories, in our skin.
KS: Do you ever worry that you might run out of things to say about Chile or your childhood?
MA: …maybe. [laughter] But the world is overwhelmingly interesting and mesmerizing. I may not write any more about my childhood, but I will write about death as another country.
KS: Your recollection of Chile often includes food—bread, wine—and that seems to be a way of talking about comfort and home.
MA: I think food is the closest thing we have to memory—to the memory of family gatherings, the memory of your grandmother the cook, or maybe the desire for a certain food you never had. But food is really about memory: the memory of taste, the memory of when you ate the meal. I think a lot of people who left their homelands, a lot of exiles or people who were deprived of food in concentration camps, they always tie food to memory—to memory of who they were.
KS: Do you plan to stay in the US?
MA: I have no plans anymore, because death is so near us. It’s not age—it could happen to young people, to old people—but I think, because I came here as a young woman, and I’m shaped by a lot of the beliefs of this country, I will always live here. And I will always, in some ways, live in Chile. I would like to live in many places. I kind of live in the best of both worlds, but…I wouldn’t want to choose one place.
KS: Do you feel like there’s a difference between looking at the ocean from Chile and looking at the ocean from somewhere on the East Coast, like Maryland?
MA: A huge difference. The Pacific Ocean is ferocious. The ocean has smells. I don’t see the Atlantic smelling very much. It’s very different— the waves— I think the Atlantic is tranquil. It’s a beautiful ocean, but it’s a tranquil ocean.
KS: There are two strong themes that run through your book Of Earth and Sea: themes of speaking and words, but also of silence. You have dedicated your life and your work to being heard, and to documenting memories and histories. Is there ever a time when you feel like silence is the best response?
MA: I feel silence may be the best response, maybe, to a foolish answer, or silence as a way to dwell very deep in yourself. But I don’t like silence that is an accomplice to injustice or to times of terror. Silence is special when you are reflecting inwardly about who you are, but silence as a tool for political behavior—I think that’s always wrong. There are many kinds of silences.
KS: The Western world often seems dominated by the words and deeds of men. Do you think women have a unique role in activism?
MA: Absolutely. I think that women have a unique role in activism because I think women look at the world differently. We’re more empathetic. You don’t see many women soldiers; you don’t see women building armies. There are very few women in congress.The activism of women, especially in Latin America, is borne out of the disasters—the divisions—that took place within families as children were taken away. It is activism related to the personal experience that then becomes a historical experience. That activism is more like the gut; it’s like someone is taking your child away. I think women have a different voice for peace.
*During a public lecture the next day, in reference to this question, Agosín said she would also like to write about Chile’s earthquakes.
Kinsley Stocum is an MFA candidate at Chatham University, and associate poetry editor at The Fourth River.