by Ariel Dorfman
During the first week in November, 1998, a series of colloquia took place in Chile -- in Santiago, Valparaíso and Valdivia -- on the topic 'Writing the Deep South'. Participants included internationally renowned writers from Chile, South Africa and Australia. The idea of an encounter of writers such as André Brink, Nadine Gordimer, Zanemvula 'Zakes' Mda and Mongane Wally Serote from South Africa, Peter Carey, Helen Garner, Thomas Keneally and Roberta Sykes from Australia, together with several Chilean writers, was the brainchild of acclaimed Chilean writer and academic Ariel Dorfman and former Chilean Ambassador to South Africa, Jorge Heine. In the following article -- the text of Professor Dorfman's keynote address -- the writer refers to why this gathering is of such great importance, not only to the writers present and their readers, but also to all those who live the new realities of the world's Deep South. For a report on the conference series, please see page 52 of this journal.
In order to come here we have had to travel from far away, from a distance that is not merely geographic. Our three nations, Chile, South Africa and Australia, have coexisted for many years in the same zone of this planet's hemisphere and yet have never attempted an intellectual interchange, an exchange of experiences, such as we are initiating now. It is insufficient to blame the gigantic oceans that divide us: the more crucial and real distance derives from the self-fascination we have felt with our own immediate continents, the omphalos of our own world, not to forget our incessant attraction to the immense culture to our North and its languages, which predominate in our speech and writing. Even so, what I have declared is not entirely so, because this first meeting of the writers of our countries is only possible because we have been interconnecting through our imagination over many decades, our books have preceded us to this room in Santiago. More than the fact that we are global neighbours, that all three of us face Antarctica, the possibility of even conceiving the term Deep South is due to our having anticipated in our disparate and coincidental literary work the hint of a tentative common identity.
Given the extraordinary emotional and intellectual wealth of our guests, the vast interior worlds they have assembled from the fragments and fractures of the outer countries they inhabit, it is difficult, now that our bodies share this physical space here in Santiago for the first time in history, to forecast the ways in which our interaction will modify the imaginary space of this New South. I would like, however, to make a prediction. Our guests, as well as the spectators who have come to listen to us, question us and themselves, will find themselves pulled between two fundamental human experiences: what in Spanish I would call extrañeza on one hand and familiaridad on the other. The English equivalent of the latter, familiarity, easily translates the idea that we recognize and discover that which joins us, but extrañeza, though literally the act of feeling strange, also contains the notion of estrangement, a process of extrañamiento, to become alien to something, to let it surprise us. If I predict that we will plunge into these simultaneous and conflicting processes, it is because that was the dual and contradictory educational adventure that marked my own visits to the two countries whose writers have now come to confer with us in Chile. And I can think of no better way to welcome them, than to briefly divulge my own early approximation to South Africa and Australia, voyages of discovery that are culminating in this new encounter, now in my own country. It is also the opportunity to state that the elaborate conspiracy that has allowed us to gather in Chile could never have succeeded without the work of Jorge Heine, the Chilean Ambassador to South Africa. Without his tenacity, devotion and intelligence, we would not be in this place but rather would have continued dreaming our Deep South in separate ways and divergent longitudes. And if we had not been sure that we could count on the talent, friendship and hospitality of Antonio Skármeta, we would never have even tried to gather this group in Santiago.
As to my experiences, I will start with South Africa, the recent visit which unchained in Ambassador Heine and myself, the intuition that it was necessary and perhaps even viable to accomplish a project called Writing the Deep South.
It was in June of last year. The sun was coming down on Pretoria and I had arrived in South Africa a mere few hours earlier. With my friends and hosts, Jorge Heine and his wife, Norma, and their son Gunther, we went out for a long walk through the suburban streets of Pretoria where the Ambassador resides. A few blocks away we passed the high fence of a golf country club. Behind the fence, everything was green splendour, impeccably, immaculately British. Outside the fence, on a no-man's-land overgrown with weeds and wild flowers and rank with floating remnants of garbage, a group of jobless South African males, all black, had improvized a small blaze. They were heating their hands up, laughing, passing along a bottle, not looking at the nearby street chock-full of trendy new cars.
This scene, completed by several black women who resolutely walked along, returning to their far-off homes after a day's work as maids in the neighbourhood's mansions, seemed to me, all of sudden, incredibly familiar, almost routinely customary and recognizable. This wasn't South Africa. It was Chile, my Santiago. I have passed in the same way by the Prince of Wales Country Club in the barrio of La Reina. I had seen that resplendent green grass and these same men with their knitted caps over their ears and their tattered clothes and this same smoking fire and that same woman walking toward her remote home after caring for children she had not given birth to; all this duplicated a time and a space that I had already lived, that mixture of the time and a space that I had already lived, that mixture of the native and the European, of poverty and opulence, of those who were included and those who were excluded, two nations in one land divided by centuries of visible and invisible barbed wire. But right away, underneath that sensation of a human landscape being replicated inside me, another sort of certitude swam into my mind: this interlocution with South Africa had been prepared for me during decades, not merely because this country was a mirror of my own country, but more crucially because this imaginary place had been loaned to me already by South African literature, literature had announced with words the split and cracked streets I was now strolling through, the gestures and openings I was recuperating. I had visited South Africa in Cry the beloved country and in the works of Nadine Gordimer and André Brink, J M Coetzee and Athol Fugard, Wally Serote and Dennis Brutus, Breyten Breytenbach and Allister Sparks and so many other friends; they had sent me the multiple gift of Mandela's land that I could now smell, touch, devour with my eyes and, yes, recognize.
During the weeks that followed, this recognition of a society that resonated in me and seemed to belong to me, was accentuated. In meetings with Bishop Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in visits to Soweto and the Market Theatre and to a church in Cape Town, in dialogues with students and writers, in concerts, in endless conversations, in a novel by Zakes Mda that I began to read, I felt that the South Africa that had fought against its own dictatorship and now was making the arduous journey to democracy exhibited an array of resemblances to the Chilean situation that drove me dizzy. I even came to believe that I felt more comfortable and at ease in South Africa than in my own Chile, given that South Africa was exploring in an open, public, almost desperate way, its multiple identities, while Chile, in my opinion, was more interested in hiding its wounds and contradictions rather than revealing them.
In spite of this affinity and attraction to the country I was visiting, I slowly began to realize that, even though the political, social and cultural challenges of our nations were similar, it was dangerous and reductive to proclaim that we were in effect identical. It dawned on me that what was most valuable about my stay in South Africa ended up being that which was different and new and surprising, with the novelties and surprises accentuated by surfacing from within a reality which I perceived as profoundly parallel.
If my exposure to South Africa was born under the sign of an excessive familiarity and evolved toward a consideration of its mystery, my relationship with Australia developed in a symmetrically opposite way. When I visited Sydney in 1993 my first hallucinated hours were spent noting how dissimilar this country was from mine. I must admit that I was influenced by the fact that a Chilean essayist, Joaquín Lavín -- who is now the mayor of Las Condes and one of two right-wing presidential candidates -- had written an article called 'Adiós, América Latina' (Goodbye, Latin America), in which he suggested that Chile's economic takeoff allowed our country to abandon its Latino and American destiny and position itself internationally as an equal to the Asian 'tiger' countries as well as to Australia and New Zealand. Now that I was entering Sydney's bay over that breathtaking bridge and I began walking around the modern and vibrant city, a city without beggars or blazes in front of manicured gold resorts, now that I could see a functioning democracy that had not suffered the abuses and crimes of my poor Chile, now that I was surrounded by intriguing and exceptionally strange birds and trees, I confirmed that Lavín did not know what he was talking about, and that is precisely how I spelled it out to the Foreign Correspondents Club when I addressed them a few hours later as their lunch guest. 'It ain't so,' I told them, using that colloquialism to emphasize that Chile was definitely not Australia, despite the prophecies and desires of the enthusiastic entrepreneurs of my country. And if in the next two weeks I was able to explore and accentuate even further these differences, I gradually started to comprehend that Chile and Australia did echo each other and had deeper analogies than were apparent at first, though the approximation did not rise as much from political or social equivalence as from a series of uncertainties about identity which Australians were posing to themselves, cultural challenges that sistered us, both countries entangled in similar dilemmas of colonization and history. Beneath Australia's functional and superlative modernity, I registered a swamp of questions which implied that not everything was heavenly in that country. Questions about racial minorities and their millenary contact with the earth. Questions about the solitary connections between men and women on the edge of the planet. Questions about how language and fantasy change at that edge when you confront a dissonant world. Questions about the relationship with remote and seductive Europe and with a nearby threatening Nature. Or was it Nature that seduced and Europe that was a threat? What was sure was that these problems and puzzles had been anticipated by my previous readings of Patrick White and Tom Keneally and Peter Carey, I had seen them in the films written by Helen Garner and David Williamson and so many more -- and I had not yet even come across the work of Roberta Sykes, whom I was to discover, thanks to our Conference -- what was sure was that what Australians were discussing and trying to understand was marvellously close to my own intellectual and emotional predicament, wondering, nevertheless, if this proximity was due to my being a Chilean or if it originated in the simple fact that I belonged to the human species and nothing should be alien to any of us.
It was that sort of wondering that resurfaced four years later when I walked on a beach in Cape Town with Jorge Heine. We were arguing passionately about how alike and yet divergent Chile and South Africa were. And during those hours when we doubted whether these similarities, these disparities, were rooted in history or in geography, if the racial or the economic issue could explain these distances and affinities, or if perhaps what was crucial in both cases was the need to copy a faraway Europe in a promised land that resisted easy interpretations and categories, I think it was then that Australia started to timidly smuggle itself into our conversation, we realized that a dialogue between Chileans and South Africans would be infinitely enriched by the triangular presence and singular destiny of that other country of the South. It must have been then, in that South African location equidistant from Santiago and Sydney, that the need for our gathering to be of all three countries, rather than two, it must have been then and there that the mystical number three dawned on us.
We now modestly add to those encounters that have been the foundation of what differentiates us from other societies and also what inserts us in the whole of humanity, we now offer this new confluence, this new manner of vindicating and imagining a South that belongs to us and alters us and that we are building at this very moment, modifying right now, learning and redefining right now, a South near and far to which we will all return different and identical, ready to continue writing it together and apart, hopefully more extrañados and more familiares, like the dispersed and distinct brothers and sisters of the same family who gather for the first, but not for the last time, in history.