In this talk, I want to go very freely back over some cultural aspects of my literary experience. This might seem like a juvenile thing to say. But I don't know how else to express it. I have dedicated a fundamental part of my life to literature. First as a precocious reader, then later as a literary reader attached, I remember, to the act of reading in a complex adolescence, when it offered liberation and flight from the everyday. And then, in what was clearly a path laid out, a route already written for me, university studies in literature, why not, undertaken at two Chilean universities: The Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile for undergraduate study and the Universidad de Chile for graduate school.
Writing was on my horizon. It was there as a desire and discomfort. Because my excessive readings, my fascinating university studies and their approach to Latin American literary history, had of course wrought havoc and imposed limits on the task of writing that were too rigorous. A space had opened up where knowledge had become inimical. It is possible, or it is certain, that I made the literary into a space that was perhaps totally transcendent. But, in the end, it was what I had. Or, as the Chilean writer Marta Brunet would say, literature was “mine, mine.” A desire had stuck to me, emanating from within a practice of reading that was, as I have said, incessant.
I remember that I thought, when I was ten or eleven years old, after reading Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, the first novel in my history, that I wanted to be a writer. At that same time, I read the books Heart and Uncle Tom's Cabin. These were dramatic, heartrending readings. I read these books submerged in too much sentimentalism, which today seems unnecessary to me. By contrast, Hemingway's novel entered me in another way, as a source of astonishment, as a discovery in the most literal sense of the word. From that point forward, I committed to a path that was perhaps too rigid. Possibly.
This desire to be a writer gradually became more complex. In a certain way more inaccessible. Although I was writing, I wasn't writing what I was writing. I wrote alone, and in my solitary efforts I rewrote what others had written. I knew it and suffered. Until I understood that my greatest limitation involved the writing, not the argument or story, but the writing itself. The central problem wasn't what to write but how to write. In that specific moment, I think I discovered what has since seemed to me to be the spinal cord or lifeblood of the literary system.
Of course, what I am claiming is not a generalizable norm, not at all. I am referring instead to a kind of subjectivation, an agreement, a personal place in which to shield oneself. Reading had already been decided on as my main activity. I could easily establish a series of readings. I was able to discern how certain texts had the power to shape forceful politics, aesthetics, and poetics. I gradually decided on the readings, from a diverse literary range, that captivated me. My admiration was placed in those works that, in one way or another, turned to unexpected strategies of writing, moved signs. Their images were diffuse but powerful. In short, they established new politics of reading. I am not referring to “originality” in the simplest sense of that word, but rather to a rethinking of poetics, as in the novel Pedro Páramo. Of course, Juan Rulfo has relations to many others. This is because, from my perspective, literature, in one of its senses, can be understood as a geological field marked by multiple relations. Or it is a rhizomatic surface that is pulled, covers over others, is uncovered, advances.
I think that by reading a bit of “everything” I was able to decide on certain avenues that became apprenticeships or self-apprenticeships. One way or another, the realm of literature had narrowed, which implied a reduction. I was sure that my task depended on the fullness of the writing, that this was the challenge. The battle with writing took over what would be my first novel.
The military coup and its incalculable and unforeseen effects forced millions of us to reorganize our lives from top to bottom and to change our ways of moving through public spaces. It is still difficult for me to talk about those very ominous years. I have always been afraid that talking about the dictatorship would reduce it, flatten it, and even soften it. Mentioning it in a general way could change it into a set of empty phrases, into a series of commonplaces, into a simple remark. It turns out to be very complicated to talk about that time, which was shot through with rules that came to permeate everything, that took root everywhere, motivated by fear. In fact, I have never recovered from the trauma caused by what I lived through during those years. I am referring especially to their impact on victims, the malice of the hardships of those years, their wounds, the cruelty of their deaths. Women raped by animals, our understanding that the worst inhumanity was fully incorporated into the heart and marrow of the system, that the cruelty was within the country. It is still harrowing for me to see an old photo of a disappeared detainee.
But this was the context, the territory, the everyday life, the displacement, the powerlessness, the set of primordial connections with my friends from that time, the loneliness, that I felt. And the territorial enclosure. I know that I could have left, and I also know that I could not have left Chile. I know that those of us who stayed, stayed, and I know how we stayed. It was precisely in this atmosphere that I began to write my first novel.1 Its setting: a plaza.
In a previous year, I had begun a story that took place in a plaza. A man went to die there. I returned to my place in the plaza. This time, in this new attempt at writing, there was a woman there. At night. I envisioned the night. I saw it, in fact, because the imposition of the curfew forced us to return home, to shut ourselves into our houses, at first starting at 6:00 p.m., then at 8:00, then later at 9:00, then at 11:00. Later, at 2:00 in the morning. The curfew lasted from 1973 to 1987. Fourteen years in all. During the hours of the curfew, family gatherings with more than ten people in a home were forbidden.
I pause over this aspect of the period because I remember how an image offered me an image. It provided a support, certainty. It put a text in my eye. This image gave me the precise setting for the novel and gave it part of its meaning.
I was returning home and passed by a plaza. It seemed strange, extreme, almost extravagant. The plaza was empty because the curfew was approaching (being outside was extremely dangerous, it meant really running the risk of death), and passing by this space I noticed, perhaps for the first time, the power of its illumination in a semideserted city that would soon cease to exist for its citizens, because it was nighttime in the city under dictatorship. This was their city; it belonged to them, to the military.
That illuminated, perfect, empty plaza seemed to me to be a stage, a site for representation. I imagined that later actors would appear in the plaza to begin performing in a singular play. This was the powerful image that made me return to my place in the plaza. And write about that nocturnal space. It took me around seven years. Insecure writing some sections, exultant writing others, I advanced little by little, because it turned out to be so difficult for me.
I was writing a novel under dictatorship. I knew perfectly well that in those years there was an office of censorship. Every book had to pass through this office and obtain permission to be published. We didn't know who the censor was, or who the censors were, but the office was in the Ministry of the Interior, one of the most dangerous institutions because of the spies who worked for the security agency—because in Chile, as Pinochet said, not even a leaf moved without his knowing it.
It was possible not to present books to the office of censorship, but if these books did not have the documentation proving that they were published and circulated with permission, they could not be in the few bookstores there were at that time. I was going to be published by the press associated with a magazine that analyzed that present. The magazine, APSI, which was often censored, also published books in the social sciences. That year, in 1983, it was expanding and beginning to publish literature. My novel would be its first, and it had to go to bookstores. It was a challenge. I have to repeat (I've said it before) that I wrote with a censor by my side, a censor I knew was there, but I never wrote for the censor. My concern, and what kept me up at night, was the writing. Until today, until this very minute. My novel was approved by the censors. In my papers held at Princeton University, there is an official letter signed by the Undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior, allowing for the book's circulation. It seems incredible, I know, that a Vice Minister would sign an official letter allowing a novel to be published.
From the time when I published my first novel until today, I have been thinking about literary writing, its force, its panic. How to turn language into writing and writing into an image and an image into a site for the proliferation of meanings. Because, in one of its senses, writing refers to a work along nonlinear paths, a work that takes place within a space that is apparently flat, a search on this plateau for the thickness and the multiple surfaces that it can generate. It turns out to be difficult to enter into the appearance of a letter marked by its use, and make it slide toward a less predictable territory. To work on it, think about it, get it wrong, do it again. I am talking about the specific word that arises in the text or from the text to take charge of its success or its failure. After all, it seems unbelievable that the writing of a word could stop time, to the point of projecting a broad, three-dimensional screen in the center of our cerebral activity. To leave a word in or delete it. Many times, it is a matter of just one word. Or of a break that offers a sign, or of the absence of a break to promote a sense of speed and excess.
From my perspective, the first task involves the letter, the search for a writing that will operate in a way that is at once manual and technological, releasing the letter from commonplaces, untethering it from the official apparatus of writing sanctioned by pedagogies of the letter. What I want to highlight is that, over and above any story, I have thought of the letter itself as a plot, a surface or texture. A kind of material mesh thanks to which the trapeze act of writing allows for the risky freedom of contortion, or a netting that lightens your fall. A letter that complies with grammar or that alters it when the text dictates. A writing that falls back on popular speech and its accents. I have always thought that those popular forms perceived as incorrect—tenís (for tienes), haiga (for haya), vaigamos (for vayamos)—are creations of the community, cultural expression. I think that every one of these words is a carrier of beauty and communal plenitude. I also think that these words live in us, those of us who have a more systematic education. That these expressions are lodged in the part of us that resides behind our lexicon, because we understand these words perfectly, and in this sense they belong to us as well.
I know that my view might suggest a mania, a constant settling of scores with writing. I also understand with a certain, relative clarity that this is a matter of subtle vigilance and that it could go unnoticed in a text that is already complete. But it is here that, in what is by now my now long practice of writing, much of my literary energy has been concentrated. It is also here, in this zone, that a breach is opened between the desire to write and the writing itself: a hiatus, a void in which we see a failure founded in impossibility. But it is this impossibility that sustains the desire that impels us to try again.
This gap seems to generate an eternal present that is always unpredictable, another time that is introduced by the materialization of the letter and that allows for attention to detail, to the centrality of the miniscule, its status as an articulation of the whole. A hole held open or held up in an expanse of time become space. It would be easy to think here of a kind of metalwork, but I'm not sure, because entering the letter implies entering the history of the letter and its meanings; it is an encounter that seeks to remove the letter from its stupor and bring it into contact with, or rub it up against, realms that are overlooked by dominant logics. It is an impulse that wants to lead the letter to a moment of full perfection. Without this perfection's having borders or definitions. It is an abstraction, a sort of indeterminate, transnutritional hunger. A form of persecution that is blank, circular. Perhaps dramatic. Because in this gap between the desire for the letter and the letter in its materiality, time passes and slips away in a surprising and necessary way. Perfection, I know, will not arrive. It is a horizon, an open sign in the distance. The limit.
I have never stopped thinking about writing, its rhythms, its pause, its fatigue. I am sure I never will. Just as I have thought of the body as an ambiguous, elusive, intangible zone, I think of writing as a body that, in the madness of its dispersion, falls to pieces and is made of pieces. Of traces, inundations, irregular and imperfect edges. In a phrase. I have spent so many years writing that I know how elusive writing is.
Meanwhile, I think of what I imagine could or could not be a book. This is a matter of impulse, of something probable and improbable that comes over me. Or rather, a desire for a book that circulates in me without yet being writing. I think of a book about encounters. That way of wandering in or arriving some place and encountering precisely what you were looking for. A precision that is perhaps activated by that unconscious that Freud thought about so much. Lately I have dwelt on this, on encounters that turn out to be crucial. I mean that there are surely encounters that went unnoticed and that could have changed the course of your life or of your writing, which is almost the same thing. It is possible that these unnoticed encounters did not become part of anything but implanted a certain nostalgia, left in their wake. And I have also thought about encounters that became missed encounters. But the most resonant thing for me is the unexpected, the kind of unexpected thing that subdues you and sets in motion a multiplicity of thoughts. Astonishment.
I have already said that the plaza presented itself to me at night. I encountered the plaza and the night and the dictatorial city. I did not know that night that the novel would be called Lumpérica or that it would take me seven years to write it. In the same way, in 1983, while I was wandering through the city together with Lotty Rosenfeld, we found “My Father” in a deserted place.2 It was so incredible, moving, astonishing. He was unique, poetic. The encounter gave rise to one of the books of mine that I love most, for many, many reasons, ranging from the cultural to the personal, from the political to the poetic. The literary. His survival in the midst of destitution and homelessness, his speech in the absence of interlocutors. I wrote that book of which I am and I am not the author. It is his and it is mine. It is his because it belongs to him materially, and it is mine because it belongs to me passionately. But that book was made possible by three encounters, the first of them totally astonishing. This was a linguistic vertigo that I have never again experienced since. I found him, or he found me, I'm not sure, in a public street, in a deserted place, a wasteland within the city. So. It happened the way it had to happen.
I didn't know either that in 1986 I would start working at the Universidad Tecnológica Metropolitana, thanks to recommendations from the poet Eugenia Brito. Or that I would meet the brilliant Oscar Aguilera. Oscar was a linguist who spoke several languages, and his main project at that time involved the creation of a dictionary of the Kawésqar language, spoken by an indigenous people living in the southernmost part of the country.
In the late seventies I had collaborated with the anthropologist Sonia Montecino on the publication of testimonies by Mapuche women. Of course, since the Mapuche are the most numerous indigenous people in the country, I knew and admired their history, and I was very committed to the work that I carried out. But the truth is that when it came to the Kawésqar people, I had only a bit of vague information. It was Oscar who talked to me. He talked to me and even led me to read this people's history. He recommended books.
It was moving to read about how they were gradually exterminated, going extinct. Oscar invited me to work with him on the interpretation of certain Kawésqar stories related to plants and animals. The texts were in Kawésqar, and Oscar translated all of the descriptions. My role in the collaboration was simple. It consisted of producing an interpretation of the stories. This was published in a journal at the university where we worked. During those years there were only around forty Kawésqar people left, and from an anthropological point of view the Kawésqar were already extinct. Oscar traveled constantly to Puerto Edén.
The Kawésqar were nomads, and they lived in the far south of the country. They sailed along canals together with their families, and their work involved fishing and the selling of furs. In the 1940s, President Pedro Aguirre Cerda relocated them to Puerto Edén, which was set aside as a reservation for them. He did this because, according to the official version of the story, many members of this indigenous people were sick. Other versions of the story pointed to an effort to deprive them of fish and the ability to sell furs.
But this cultural change was disastrous. They remained on the island, literally isolated, without any work, living off of what the ships that occasionally passed provided. For its part, the state supplied them with totally insufficient means for sustaining themselves. I think that there was perhaps a “good intention,” but this state action did not account for their history or the history of their resistance. The canoe could not simply be exchanged for dry land because the form of life that centered on the canoe entailed a language, a family, and a landscape.
I also thought that they were exterminated in the midst of a social silence that was terrifying. Perhaps the most beautiful book about the Kawésqar was written by a French archeologist, Joseph Emperaire: The Nomads of the Sea, a book that should have formed part of school curricula, but the truth is that we knew so little of those peoples that it was as if an unconscious form of censorship had been imposed. Oscar Aguilera, at that time a young linguist, was devoted to the Kawésqar language, and I spent hours with him, talking and, more importantly, learning.
In 2015 and the summer of 2016, I was working on a book that brought together literary essays and various texts written during the previous ten years.3 The texts that were going to find their way into the book mainly addressed questions of literature, art, and politics. I was having trouble with the structure of the book, which seemed rigid, uninteresting, monotonous. Although I had selected the texts, the book didn't convince me at all.
That was when I remembered the work that I had done with Oscar and that involved the Kawésqar language. I decided (with permission from Oscar) to use these old texts as a guiding thread in the book. And to bring my own essayistic writing into contact with the Kawésqar language, naming that language's spaces. I think the most important thing about the book came from that process. It gave the book meaning. I started thinking again about the painful extinction of the Kawésqar people.
That same year, in 2016, I traveled to give my classes at New York University. At that very moment, women in Argentina had begun to circulate the slogan “NI UNA MENOS,” meaning “NOT ONE LESS,” as a response to the numerous and systematic femicides that kept happening. The slogan caught on quickly in several countries, including Chile. When I was in New York, Susana Draper, a professor at Princeton, wrote to me and told me that there would be a protest in Washington Square, called by Ni Una Menos.
When I arrived in the plaza, a group of people were gathered there, and I stood next to a young woman who turned out to be a Chilean scientist whom I didn't know. Suddenly I saw a man advance toward her, and she introduced me to him. He's Carlos Edén, she said, he's Kawésqar.
Today very few members of the Kawésqar people survive. Some ten people who are considered “Living Human Treasures” by UNESCO. And there in the street, in the middle of a plaza in New York, I met one of these people. It seemed like something close to an impossibility. I told him about my interest. We agreed to meet the following week. He knew Oscar Aguilera. Oscar also knew him. He's deaf, he told me. Carlos Edén and I met one another once a week during the months when I was in New York. Had hours of conversations.
During these meetings, I got to know his story. The story of a very precarious life. From Puerto Edén to Santiago, from Santiago to Mendoza, from Mendoza to the Bronx. And I cannot stop thinking about the fact that I met Carlos Edén, who is eighty years old, while he was responding to the call of NI UNA MENOS. It was paradoxical. I feel as though that day time and space came together in a passionate plot, as though that day, for once, they were of one mind.
This is the text of a talk given by Eltit at the University of California, Berkeley, on October 11, 2018. I would like to thank Professor Natalia Brizuela for the invitation to participate in an important series of events organized by the Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. I would like to acknowledge as well my dear friend, the critic and professor Francine Masiello, and all of the people who attended the event.
Translator's Note: See Diamela Eltit, Lumpérica (Santiago de Chile: Ediciones del Ornitorrinco, 1983); translated into English by Ronald Christ as E. Luminata (Santa Fe, NM: Lumen Books, 1997).
Translator's Note: This is the figure at the center of Eltit's book El padre mío (Santiago: Francisco Zegers, 1989). The book features an introduction by Eltit, followed by transcriptions of three speeches given, or monologues delivered, by the homeless man described here.
Translator's Note: See Diamela Eltit, Réplicas: Escritos sobre literatura, arte y política (Santiago: Seix Barral, 2016).