Novelist-playwright Ariel Dorfman

The acclaimed Chilean novelist, playwright and human rights activist shares a fascinating passage from his new memoir Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.

Internationally acclaimed for his writing, Ariel Dorfman has seen his work translated into more than 40 languages and performed in more than 100 countries. The human rights activist's work often reflects the trials of exile, including his latest, Feeding on Dreams—something with which he's familiar. After moving to the U.S. shortly after his birth in Argentina, Dorfman's family settled in Chile, but was forced into exile following a military coup. He attended and later was a professor at the University of Chile and, since '85, has taught at Duke University.


Tavis: Ariel Dorfman is an acclaimed Chilean novelist, playwright and human rights activist who served as a cultural adviser in Chile before being exiled back in 1973. He is now chair of literature and Latin American studies at Duke and author of the new memoir, “Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.” Ariel Dorfman, a great honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Ariel Dorfman: Thank you so much, Tavis. I love this program and I love being with you here.

Tavis: I’m delighted to have you here. Because you asked, I will do my best to call you “Ariel.”

Dorfman: I ask that, and I ask everybody to call me Ariel, so why shouldn’t you? (Laughs)

Tavis: Yeah, well, I appreciate it. I have asked – I was about to say Professor Dorfman again – I’ve asked Ariel (laughter) to start our conversation tonight by reading a passage from this text which I think will set us off on a beautiful direction for a fascinating conversation with a fascinating man. So would you do me the honors of reading what I’ve asked you to read?

Dorfman: Certainly, sure. “I had danced in the streets of Santiago de Chile on November 4th, 1970 when Allende had become president, and then danced again once more on November 4th, 2008.

“Thirty-eight years to the day after my fellow citizens in Chile celebrated the inauguration as president of a man who believed in social justice and peace, my fellow citizens in the United States fought along with me for a man who would stop his country from torture in the name of security, chose as their president a man who bore on his skin the marks of a race that had been as oppressed as our Chilean poor had been oppressed from time immemorial.

“So again, I danced in the streets, this time, the streets of this mongrel nation about to be governed like a mongrel like me. I danced even if inside me the specter of Chile was murmuring to be wary of too much enthusiasm, that change in the United States would face, as it does everywhere, the rabid opposition who will not give up their privileges without a violent struggle.

“I knew, of course, even as my body bobbed and weaved and jumped up and down, I knew that the country of Barack Obama would have to tackle many of the dilemmas we lived through in the country of Allende and Pinochet,” who was the general, of course, who overthrew Allende. “In our own unsuccessful revolution and during our own constricted transition to democracy.

“‘If you go too fast, like Allende, you’ll risk a disastrous end,’ I whispered to the president elect, almost as if he could hear me. ‘You may not change the world at all, after all. But if, like the inevitable (speaks in Spanish) of our time,'” people who sort of sell out, “‘you advance too cautiously, Friend Obama, you risk losing your soul. You may not make much of real difference. You will lose the enthusiasm and inspiring vision necessary to fight for any deep and lasting modification.’

“I had seen the Chilean revolution founder in the ’70s because of its inability to create enough support among the people. I had seen the regime of avarice and terror defeated in the ’80s, only to watch how in the ’90s it kept a twisted grip on the multiple levers of power.

“I remembered in every one of the cells of my dancing body how we’d been outmaneuvered by the forces of the past, our desire for true democracy cornered and poisoned by fear.”

Tavis: I think it’s pretty obvious why I wanted to start there, but let me just ask a follow-up question, if I might. Given all that you have been through as an exile and all that you have seen in terms of rebellion and uprising in your life, what do you make, since this is your memoir, or a piece of your memoir, your life and legacy, what do you make of the moment now that you and your fellow citizens are enduring in this country?

Dorfman: Well, it’s strange. This is a book about exile. It’s about losing your country and not being able to go back to it. Now, one would think that that is merely a phenomenon of somebody who, because of political repression, has to go for fear of his life, which was my case and that of so many refugees around the world, right? We live in the age of the refugee, the age of the exile.

But if you think of these young people who are protesting now, they’re exiles in their land. They don’t recognize America. They want America back. In fact, I think it should be called Re-Occupy America. They want the America of their dreams.

This America has left them out in the cold. This America has not given them hope. This America has been the country of greed rather than the country of need. Therefore, we find ourselves in a situation where they’re standing up and saying, “Enough is enough.”

So what they’re really doing is they’re coming home. They’re saying, “This is my home, and you know what? I’m ready to defend my home. I don’t want somebody taking over my home,” which is what happened in all the foreclosures. In other words, America’s being foreclosed upon. It’s being bankrupted upon. It’s being nibbled upon. In a sense, it’s being exiled from itself.

So I see a great hope in the sense of a movement of people who say, “I want my country back. I want the country of the dreams that I have for it.” There are always many Americas fighting for the soul of America, and one of the Americas is the America that conspired, in fact, to overthrow the democratic president of Chile many, many years ago.

The other America is the America that’s welcomed me; it’s the America that has fought for the UN charter on human rights. It’s a different America. Now the question is which of these Americas are going to prevail, and I find myself in a very unique situation, having published this book right now, about somebody who was brought up in the States; therefore, I am as American as anybody.

I would go to Yankee Stadium to see Mickey Mantle. I don’t know if that’s going to lose – most of the fans are not going to buy this book – but still, I was a Yankee fan, I was a kid in New York, I like the Dodgers and the Giants as well. I collected baseball cards as a kid.

Then I went to Chile and I became a Chilean revolutionary and I fell in love with that country, I fell in love with my wife in that country, and all of a sudden I find myself, that I belong to two realities.

I speak two languages, (speaks in Spanish) I speak Spanish just like I speak English, and therefore I find myself in sort of a unique position in which I can say to the young when they tell you that it’s not possible to dream of a different reality, that’s precisely when you have to dream of another reality. That’s when you have to not accept the silence that they’re imposing on you.

Tavis: But you were exiled in Chile for dreaming that new reality, that different reality. You were exiled for imagining a different kind of world, a different kind of Chile.

Dorfman: Well, I love the idea when you speak about imagining, because I think that when you’re silent, when you accept reality as it is, it’s a failure of the imagination. We can live with lots of things, but we can’t live without imagination, we can’t live without hope.

So in some sense, when I went into exile what I did is I imagined my country in a certain way. This happens to all of us all the time – we leave our home and we are constantly having nostalgia for home. When we come back we say, “Hey, the turkey’s cold for Thanksgiving. How come this is here? How come the gravy isn’t the one that I remember?” Right? You’re always trying to hold on to that dream.

Well when that dream is one of social justice it becomes very complicated. I returned to Chile and I found out that I had changed too much and the country had changed too much, and in fact I felt in some senses more at home in this conflicted – I speak of a mongrel nation because I think it is a mongrel nation.

I’m a mongrel in the sense that I’m Spanish, English, Latino, Jewish, north, south – all these things are mixed in me.

What we need to understand is that identity is the identity that we need to embrace, the identity that says we are many multitudes inside ourselves. They’re all jostling together, they’re all conflicting with one another, but we can live with that.

Tavis: When you go back to Chile, and you suggest earlier, Ariel, that you have changed too much and the country has changed too much, unpack both of those for me.

Dorfman: Well, you know what? What happens is the following. When I left Chile, I left Chile inspired by the people of Chile who had been fighting for so many years for justice. I took them with me in some sense into exile. When the people of Chile rebelled against the general, they gave voice to me.

In other words they helped me, they gave me a refuge in some sense, while I was wandering the Earth, homeless, very poor, without a job, almost.

Then when I went back, 17 years had passed before I settled in for good, and I had changed so drastically, the world had in some sense impregnated me. It had filled me with all sorts of new ideas. So the way in which gays were treated, the ways in which Blacks were treated, the ways in which Indians were treated, the ways in which children were treated, the ways in which the domestic servants were treated, just riled me up, and I couldn’t keep quiet.

I’m not exactly somebody who keeps quiet, so (laughter) the thing was that I would be in a meeting and somebody would say these homophobic remarks, right, anti-gay remarks, and I would say, “Listen, that makes no sense, for you to be doing that. What you’re really doing is you’re reviling a whole group of people and you don’t even realize that you’re closeting them.”

They would say, “Oh, so now you became gay outside, right?” I said, “No, listen, I’m straight, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel bad about the way in which you’re speaking.”

It was a sense in which the country wasn’t ready. I think I could have lived with all that, lived in the sense of constantly struggling in that sense, because Chile now has become a different place, but the real problem was that the damage in to the country was so large because of the dictatorship. A dictatorship contaminates you, damages you.

Then what they do is there’s sort of a sense in which you say, “We don’t want to think about the past anymore. We want to bury the past. Stop talking about what happened.” But you know as well as I do, Tavis, that if you don’t speak about the past, you don’t bury it well. If you don’t turn your dead into ancestors so that they’re well buried, you will not end up – you know what you’ll do with the dead? You turn them into ghosts.

It’s really strange – you can’t kill a ghost. You can kill a man or a woman or a child or a grandfather. You can’t kill a ghost. So you’d better be sure that you do bury the past well. When I mean bury the past well, I mean look at the past.

Look at the habits of the past, find out what you don’t want to repeat from that, so the dead will leave you alone, will rest in peace, and so that you will rest in peace many years from now when you are dead, and when the struggle continues for a better world. It’s a strange, almost mystical vision on my part.

Tavis: I’m with you every step of the way here, and this is getting really, really fascinating for me. Contextualize for me, then, where we find ourselves. I want to go back to your story in a second.

Dorfman: When you say “we,” you mean?

Tavis: The United States.

Dorfman: The United States, yes.

Tavis: Give me a sense of where we are in this country now, in this moment, vis-à-vis not burying our past so well around these issues of economy and poverty, et cetera.

Dorfman: Well, if you look at the history of the United States, it is the history of the struggle for memory and the prevalence of amnesia. Over and over again the United States – not all of the United States, but many of them, especially the most powerful people here, are constantly saying, “Don’t look at the past, look at the future,” this idea of Horatio Alger.

We don’t exist in relation to the past, we look – and the past is always sort of made sweet. They sweeten the past, right? So I think that to reclaim the past, the real past, with all its struggle and its complexity, because we live in an age of extreme simplification, and I am, as a writer, somebody who believes in complexity and believes in ambiguity.

The idea that there are many sides to an issue and it’s complicated, we have to think our way out of the crisis. One of the things that I most like about Obama is that he is very smart. He thinks. Some people may say he thinks too much, right? That’s a different story.

But he’s somebody who sees the complexity of an issue, and I think his greatest moments are the moments when there’s a crisis, and instead of sort of waving the flag only, he unfurls the flag and he looks inside it. He takes the bits of it, he begins to think about these things, and I really like that of him.

I have other criticisms of him, as many of us do, but I do feel as if this is a country which needs to come to terms with the fact that there is a past that has not been well buried.

Not to speak of the past of Reconstruction, for instance. Nobody knows what happened in Reconstruction, what happened in those times, right? Or Martin Luther King, who was lionized for his human rights work, and everybody forgets that he was in Memphis because of the garbage collectors.

Tavis: Sanitation workers, yeah.

Dorfman: Right, the sanitation. So he was – and his crusade was for economic rights, because if you do not care about the economic wellbeing, if there’s not fairness in the system, people lose faith in the system. They tune out, right? The same thing happens in South Africa.

Last year I gave the Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg and I met the great Mandela, and I had an hour with him. He was in pretty good shape. He remembers his childhood and his past. We talked about the idea of how economic development, in other words, the fight against poverty, has to go hand-in-hand with the fight for democracy. They’re the same fight.

You can’t say that we are going to have political democracy and you don’t have economic democracy, meaning that people don’t have a chance. Somebody who works their whole life, there is no reason why that person should not have some security. There’s no reason whatsoever.

There’s no reason for starvation in a world where we have a surplus of capacity, biologically and botanically, to create that. It makes no sense. It may make no sense, but it seems as if to say that is class warfare, and the real class warfare, of course, is when a very small percentage of the people get incredibly rich and an enormous amount of the people are incredibly poor.

Now, that is class warfare, that the people who are incredibly poor then say, “Excuse me, could we have just a little bit of crumbs of the pie?” That’s not class warfare. That’s justice.

Tavis: What’s fascinating for me listening to you, speaking of America and your love for it and how you fit better here than you do in Chile, what’s fascinating for me is, which we’ve not gotten to and we will now, is that the reason why you were in Chile at one point is because you got kicked out of here.

Dorfman: When I was 12 years old, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, exactly, but it’s a fascinating story, and I want to let you unpack this for me, of how it is that one comes to love a country, the U.S. of A., when you got kicked out of it years ago.

Dorfman: What happened is that my dad was a left-wing person who was working at the UN. McCarthy took a real dislike to him, and it was very strange. I make a joke in my first memoir, “Heading South, Looking North,” where I say it’s very strange that Joe McCarthy was depriving me of Charlie McCarthy, right? (Laughter) The puppet, right, who I loved, with Edgar Bergen, right, I think it was.

So I was an American kid, I went to Chile against my will; I didn’t speak hardly a word of Spanish because I had repudiated Spanish. I wanted to be only – I wanted Ethel Merman singing to me. I wanted to be an all-American kid.

I went to Chile, fell in love with Chile, fell in love with my wife, who was the embodiment of Chile, in some sense, fell in love with the Spanish language, and embarked on the social revolution, the peaceful revolution of Allende for fairness and justice in our society, and equality.

Then, strangely enough, that country that had been my country, that I loved so much, America, that I still love and still loved then, then was conspiring in the CIA with Nixon and Kissinger, to overthrow the legitimate democracy of another country, right?

This wasn’t a tyrant that they were overthrowing. They were overthrowing somebody who had been elected by their own people. It’s as if somebody from Chile came in and decided to overthrow George Bush or Barack Obama or Clinton, because they don’t like him, right?

Tavis: We’ve done that a few times around the world.

Dorfman: Yeah. So the fact is it’s an exercise in hypocrisy. If you say you’re exporting democracy, then democracy means you have to accept what the majority of other people are deciding to do.

Tavis: That’s right.

Dorfman: So leaving Chile, I decided that I didn’t want to come to the United States, because they had overthrown this government. But at the same time there was no place that I felt more at home, because it turns out that when I first came to Washington I would walk through the streets and I would say behind those facades of the Pentagon, of the Treasury Department, is where they conspired to destroy my democracy that I was coming from.

Then it was very strange that this happened to me – then a street vendor would put up his radio, and it was singing Ella Fitzgerald singing either Cole Porter or George Gershwin.

So you might have the Pentagon, but you’ve also got Ella Fitzgerald. (Laughter) So I’ll take Ella Fitzgerald over the Pentagon any day.

Tavis: Right, right.

Dorfman: Now, if you can have the Pentagon taking care of Ella Fitzgerald, and making sure that the Ella Fitzgeralds of the world have a chance of going up, as happens very often in the U.S. military, which is one of the stepping stones for many people of color, right? It’s a strange country, in that sense.

So I felt this ambiguity about America, which is the same one that I mention here, right? I danced in the streets, and then I danced again in the streets, and I can dance in the streets of Santiago and I can dance in the streets of Durham, North Carolina. I can do that.

But of course there’s always a sense of ambiguity. Now, here’s the thing. I think – and I use this concept of exile again, many Americans feel as exiled and alienated from their own country as I do from the United States. So I’m not alone. When I’m with people like Van Jones, for instance, who’s a friend of mine, and who was here in this city, right, he was working against police brutality – that’s why I know, because I put him in a play.

I meet all these people who I put in my plays, right, because I have a play called “Speak Truth to Power” that I did based on Kerry Kennedy’s book about speak truth to power, and we’ve done it all over the world.

So when you have somebody like Van Jones, well, he’s America for me. Now, it turns out that this is a country in which America is also Dick Cheney, who orders torture and who says torture is fine and who goes against the covenants the United States itself has not only signed but tried to make a worldwide convention on it.

So the struggle for the soul of this country is ongoing, for the soul of all countries. I hope this book will contribute to that soul-searching, because here you have somebody who’s gone into exile, who’s lived through all these phenomena, and at the same time has been able to transform himself.

I transformed myself through exile. I lived through migration. The world expanded in me, and I became a different person than this young man who’s holding his fist up. I’m now this man, who’s sort of thinking, what’s happening here.

Tavis: I’m with you on the soul-searching, and I think this book can, in fact, contribute to the soul-searching that America needs to do, but it seems to me that soul-searching has to begin with – earnest soul-searching has to begin with being willing to tell yourself the truth, being willing to face the truth.

Dorfman: I agree.

Tavis: Being willing to wrestle with the truth, to be unsettled by the truth, and I wonder whether or not we are a country at this moment that is willing to do that, and maybe this moment is better positioning us for that. You tell me.

Dorfman: Well, just to say that this is full of startling revelations about myself. The things that I do – when you go into exile – I’m explaining that and I’ll get up to the answers.

Tavis: Please, please, please.

Dorfman: But when you go into exile, when you’re fighting a dictatorship, the temptation is that you’ll become like the dictator. I’ll just give you an example of this so we realize what it means.

When you are fighting somebody like General Pinochet, when he is torturing your friends, he’s executing people, there’s censorship, the country’s a prison, what do you do at that moment? You’d do anything to get rid of that man.

That means that you see a rich old woman and you in some sense see her not for what she is – perhaps a woman who’s got trouble – you see her as somebody who’s got money and you would use that money for the cause, right?

Excuse me, this is the same thing that probably happened during the civil rights movement, it happens during every movement, right? But I used people. I don’t do that anymore. I try not to do it. I’m not saying I’m perfect anymore. I’m as imperfect and fallible as anybody else. But I lived through the process of doing things that do not make me proud, because very often, in order to combat immorality you do unethical things.

Now, there is a line that you have to draw there, and I had to discover that. It wasn’t easy for me. I went through a terrible crisis, which is in the very middle of this book.

I’m saying this because though it is a collective process, it’s also an individual process. When you speak about being unsettled, well, it’s strange, because settlement is the opposite of exile. So in some sense you have to exile yourself from yourself. You have to look at yourself with a distance, and I think you have to do it with gentleness and with love.

You have to be able, for somebody to criticize you and say, “I understand what you’re saying.” Now, the problem is when they criticize you and they do it to destroy you, you immediately answer with aggression. So it’s strange, because this whole story is about how I left Chile with enormous rage, and I discovered that rage is very good, or it’s almost inevitable to survive, but you can’t build a life with it. You can’t live in rage.

It can help you through difficult moments, right, and rage has to do with courage, rage, (inaudible) courage, corazon, the heart, right? You have to go to your heart in that sense. You have to be unafraid, and the one thing I realized about the United States – this I realized way before 9/11 – this is a country that I thought was riddled with fear, fear of the bombers that are going to come, fear of the terrible things that are going to happen, fear of the plague, fear of themselves, fear of ripple effects.

There’s no reason for this country to be scared. There are reasons for other countries to be scared of this country, but for this country to be scared, that scared, that because we had these 3,000 unwanted and innocent dead, we should then visit upon innocent people in foreign countries thousands and thousands of corpses and mutilated lives, it makes no sense.

Is that security? In fact, the United States becomes less secure the more adventures it has and the more fear it has. When you are without fear, you are really secure.

Tavis: This has been a free master class with Ariel Dorfman, courtesy of PBS – another reason to make a contribution to keep fine programs like this on the air. Where else do you get this kind of conversation for half an hour with one of the great minds in this country and indeed the world, and I still have not done justice, I promise you, to what you’ll read in the new text from Ariel Dorfman.

It’s called “Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile.” This has been an absolutely delightful conversation, and I want to thank you for it.

Dorfman: But you’re the one asking me the questions, so the answers come from your soul as well, Tavis.

Tavis: Somehow I got to get down to Duke and just sit in on your class. (Laughter)

Dorfman: You can come and teach my class.

Tavis: No, no, no, no, no, no. I’ll take a back row seat any day. When I come down Durham way again, I’m going to come find you.

Dorfman: Come and find me, please, and we’ll have some North Carolina barbecue, which is very different from the barbecue from Texas.

Tavis: I’ll make it happen. I’ll make it happen.

Dorfman: Absolutely.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Dorfman: Thank you so much. Take care of yourself. Thank you.

Tavis: “Feeding on Dreams,” the book from Ariel Dorfman.

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Last modified: November 2, 2011 at 1:10 pm