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Writers’ Rooms: “Memory’s Homeland”

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November 29, 2005

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Author and human rights activist Marjorie Agosin’s background defies easy categories. Her ancestors, Austrian and Russian Jews, perished in the Pogrom and the Holocaust or fled via Vienna for Chile. Raised in Santiago de Chile until her teens, Agosin herself fled the repressive Pinochet regime, after it ousted the government of Salvador Allende and began a reign of terror Chileans are still reckoning with today.

In the brief reflection that follows, the author of Dear Anne Frank and many books of poetry and non-fiction launches a new Guernica series on writers’ work spaces. In Writers’ Rooms, a sort of literary MTV Cribs, writers of all stripes examine their process through a simple description of the spaces they work in, which—in Agosin’s case—has everything to do with her lineage of exile, and therefore can’t be about a specific place at all.

For the author living in exile, where the language she lives in is not the language of her work, it is necessary to speak of a space and ways of writing in an alternative light, in which the location is far from the actual writing and the author’s sense of belonging is always being doubted.

My family is a lineage of diasporas; my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and I, all escaped from various countries, bringing with us our remnants of belonging, most importantly, language.

When I think of where I am writing, I think of how I am writing in Spanish, the language of my senses, my first love. I write in Spanish—in its traditions—and not necessarily in a specific place.

I always choose to write in a well-lit, solitary space. I enjoy writing at high altitudes. For example, I write in attics. But, they must have large windows so that I feel close to the sky. Writing at these heights inspires a feeling of distance or not belonging, a feeling of displacement and perpetual movement.

I write surrounded by very specific books; Gabriela Mistral accompanies me because she, like her poetry, is a wandering soul. She was a foreigner and a guest in so many countries, especially in her own.

I enjoy writing next to the ocean or thinking of the ocean. The ocean molds to passion and therefore to writing. It is placid, but also viciously wild. When I write next to the ocean, I return to Chile, to the coasts of South America and to the memory of crashing waves, a sound similar to the flapping of wings.

I must always write in a solitary space, in a very specific place, because I am a poet of impermanence, of continuous travels, of imprecise cartographies. I write from the imagination. I think of the clouds and their forms. I return to the memory of another place, another language, and at this place, I come closer to memory. This is where I am myself, where I write and dream.

The poet Agha Shahid-Ali once said, “Memory is no longer confused, it has a homeland.” From the aperture of memory—always fluid, arbitrary, dynamic—I write, dream of words, meld them with water, undo them, remember them and then begin to weave them all over again.

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[translated by Jennifer Rowell]

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