Who We Are | Pablo Simonetti
Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson
As I write, I feel a diversity of knowledge, bouyant forces, types of consciousness and layers of memory converge within me. In an attempt to define this state, I would say that the line of our consciousness is buried under our superficial actions, close to that frontier where conscious and unconscious, reason and intuition, intelligence and feeling, the known and the unknown, determination and inspiration come together. We descend, as far as we need, to integrate other elements of ourselves. We cannot go below that frontier; we are bound to a certain practical height by the act of narration and we are obliged, according to Steiner, to fulfill a contract with the world in terms of reference and meaning. The individual is most fully defined at this frontier, formed of exchanges and fuelled by a trade for which one cannot keep accounts, a frontier that is stimulating, rich in new perceptions and perspectives, fruitful questioning and reciprocal illumination; where we reach a state that allows us to wield what Nadime Gordimer called our ultraperceptive intelligence. It is this that I wish to emphasise: the individual nature of the creative act. It is in this state of being that the writer is both fragile and emphatically at one with himself, accessing the Universe that he encompasses.
It is to be expected, then, that writers have another vocation: ‘to be who they are’, to develop their individual thought to its fullest potential. If there is one thing I have learned from literary congresses it is how different writers happen to be from each other, how far they are from any preconceived ideas that exist about writers. A writer’s personality is a work in continuous refinement, making it not more shining but more honest. This is why, through our personalities, lost in our personalities, we are capable of reaching pieces of truth. I often think of two interviews I read on the same day in the Paris Review, one with Evelyn Waugh and one with Alice Munro. When I compared the two I was taken aback: each author responded in their own way, but what stood out was how diametrically different they were, and how far removed from any writerly stereotypes. Their personalities, their ways of understanding and dealing with life and literary work, emanated clearly from the responses of each. Waugh was haughty, believing himself to possess a supreme mastery of language. He did not dissimulate his desire to be thought of as the best writer of his time. Following the death of his wife he had become a solitary, difficult man, renowned as a bon vivant and for his escapades, so at odds with his conservative political leanings. His arrogance was such that he gave the interview from bed, wearing an embroidered velvet robe, in a hotel on the French Riviera.
Alice Munro, on the other hand, showed herself to be a simple woman of rural customs. She has lived with her husband in a house in the countryside for over forty years, far from the big American cities and literary salons that at the time of the interview had already started to nominate her as a Nobel candidate. For Munro, literature was not about big ideas or complex paradigms, her sole concern was the intimacy of the characters that populate her stories–long short stories, for the most part, if I may say. In her private life, a wish that one day be as much like the next as possible prevailed.
It was gratifying to detect such originality and self-affirmation from each author, all the more so when one considers how different their styles, interests and the arcs described by their works are; so different that one cannot compare or say which is better.
It is not surprising, then, that the great storytellers imbue their characters with the breath of life and of originality, a breath that originates in their literary leitmotifs.
Harold Bloom called William Shakespeare the inventor of personality. Bloom claims that characters like Falstaff and Hamlet are immortal because they are unique and individual, and because their destinies are decided by their character and will. For me, they are examples of characters with the capacity to move us profoundly. According to Nabokov, Hamlet and Fastaff demonstrate intellectual rather than physical prowess, they are acutely aware of their respective situations, but without losing their perplexity.
The current of identity that flows from author to reader chooses the course of the characters, but not the plot. It can pique our interest in the future that lies ahead of these characters, but first we must become interested in the characters themselves. They carry us along the story. If the destinies of the characters are decided by their way of being –of subtle understanding and copious reaction, as Henry James wanted them to be– then our interest becomes greater. Literary characters ultimately serve as the pointer of a scale against which we measure ourselves. Or, if the work contains a cohort of well-realised characters, literary characters serve as a hall of mirrors in which we can see various aspects of ourselves reflected, some clear and to scale, others distorted but equally revealing about our nature.
No other art form equals the novel for richness, variety and psychological depth in representations of human nature. And as I write that sentence I think that it is not mine, that I’ve come across it somewhere, but I make it mine because I’ve read it.
Reading allows us to ask ourselves who we are; it stimulates that sensitive nerve that runs through us, whether we read simply for the pleasure of escapism, or to analyse or interpret, or in search of revelation or discovery. In any of these reading states, our identity is beating inside our deepest consciousness, whether seeking fantasy or relief, or intellectual and emotional analysis.
Reading is a powerful catalyst for this thinking/feeling, this love/hate dichotomy that Gordimer recognises in Writing and Being, this exercise that not only yields pleasure but brings us –unaware– into the intimacy of our own mind, where rules and regulations give way to the sovereignty of the self. We do not read outside of ourselves, as some claim. Rather, we do so through the interplay of emotions. Even the way in which we read, usually in solitude and always with concentration, contributes to the free flow of emotion. We can pause to savour a passage, to ponder an idea; we can read on as a storm of stimulation is unleashed in the mind, soon to rain down on the expectant fields of the consciousness.
- Lawrence said that “when it comes to the meaning of anything, even the simplest word, then you must pause,” because there are two different meanings, one for the masses (“mob-meaning”) and another for the individual. And it is for this reason that literature has always been subversive, because it does not accept the dominant discourse but calls upon the reader to develop his own individual thought, removed from the habits of the masses and protected from the alienation that unchecked power or ideology can bring about.
One of the few literary memories I have of my childhood is of waiting impatiently for the arrival of the new instalment of the Larousse encyclopaedia. I had only one intention: to read the Divine Comedy. Printed in columns towards the end of the volume, headed by a pre-Raphaelite style painting, was an episode from Dante’s work in prose form.
The boat crossing the Acheron loaded with the souls of sinners; Dante and Virgil descending through the circles of hell; the slow beating of Lucifer’s wings freezing all around him; the enormous stones that the sinners in purgatory had to push uphill; these images remain vivid in my memory. However, my most intense memory is that of Virgil, tasked with guiding Dante along the paths of Hades. For me, Virgil represents literature’s role in the development of individual identity. Literature guides us down the paths of that which is human, showing us all its tones, its accents, its subtle variations. Literature, like Virgil, shows us the landscape of humanity’s spirit, feelings and actions, a landscape that changes from story to story, a landscape that can provide us with valuable revelations about our lives.
I would even go so far as to say that literature is the custodian of human diversity. He who today thinks of himself as strange, out of place, inadequate, he who is not part of the clique or has few friends, can open a book to find many characters who suffered that same uncomfortable existence and grew to become great men and great women.
Literature is like an immense greenhouse housing the most rare and valuable plants, the wisest ancestors. Today there is widespread concern for biodiversity, but we must also undertake to conserve and encourage human diversity.
There is no more fertile a field for a man or woman than that of his or her reading. Reading allows us to develop a better awareness of our identity, and all the benefits that self-knowledge brings. It is simply a matter of stopping for a moment to think how you would respond if someone were to ask the question who are you? For me, the only response that comes to mind is to start to tell a story. And this is how reading, through those unforgettable characters, created by enraptured, fiercely original authors, helps us to tell the story that defines and distinguishes us from others.
Considered from this perspective, freedom for authors and for readers is an essential ingredient in the ancient yet always new alchemy of literature. This freedom cannot be threatened by even the slightest peril.
I spent my adolescence in a country which had no freedom of expression, where fear gave rise to many different levels of self-censorship, where the press colluded with the Dictatorship in covering up atrocities committed against my compatriots, who were stripped of their rights to life and dignity through disappearances, cold-blooded murder and the chilling practice of torture.
The arrival of democracy did not bring an end to all forms of coercion, especially with regard to the expression of LGBTQI identity. At the first press conference held by community leaders in 1992, speakers had to wear masks in order to avoid retaliation: losing their jobs or homes, rejection by their families, even being sent to prison for promoting sodomy, which until 1998 was a criminal act. I think now of the Arab and post-Soviet countries.
In 1993, three years into his term as the first democratically elected President of post-Pinochet Chile, Patricio Aylwin made a state visit to Denmark. A politician of the progressive centre-left, Aylwin is admired to this day for the intelligent manner in which he led the Transition. In Denmark, same-sex Danish couples had been able to enter into civil union since 1989, to protect their status as a family. When, at a press conference, a journalist asked our President about progress made under the democratic regime in the area of gay and lesbian rights, Aylwin looked at him, taken aback, and said: “We don’t have that problem in Chile.” Is there any greater censorship than public invisibility? This is why LGBTQI writers are important in each of their respective countries, to break the curse of invisibility. I think again of the post-Soviet states.
Shortly after democracy was established in Chile, funds were made available to encourage creativity in order to foster a cultural environment, which up to that point had been suffocated by a lack of freedom. I remember the day in 1994 when the headline of an evening newspaper read in large red letters: “Cultural funds for gay art”. There was a major scandal and widespread calls to dismiss the woman who administered the fund, something that happily did not come to pass. Providing a grant to an author to write a book of stories with gay characters was seen as an attack on the common good, on the deeply-held idea that there was one way, and one way only, to live a good life.
Perhaps the most serious issue of the 90s in Chile, a decade celebrated for its openness in other areas, was the denial of the AIDS crisis. With a President who claimed that Chile did not have “the problem” of LGBTQI people, you can imagine the State’s slow reaction to the AIDS epidemic that so recently besieged my country. I think of my African colleagues who now must deal with the health crisis in their own countries, one of the many scourges wrought by religious fanaticism.
To anyone who wishes to read further into the history of sexual diversity in Chile, I recommend a historical essay of the upmost literary quality by Óscar Contardo. It is called Raro [Weird], una historia gay de Chile.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I want to emphasise that when we talk about freedom of expression for LGBTQI people, we are not just talking about defending their freedom to write about their world, or their freedom to read whichever they please so as to find themselves. In fact, we are talking about human lives. Lives of young people lost to suicide, lives of men and woman truncated by religious persecution, lives of those locked away in prison, lives lost to illness due to lack of support or information.
I myself had a difficult experience due to the unspoken censorship around LGBTQI issues in my country. In 1997 –please note that in my story the years have passed and little has changed– I submitted a story to a prestigious competition, organised by Paula, a women’s magazine that had forged a reputation over the years for its relationship with culture and women’s rights. My story, Santa Lucía, was the winner. A few days after I received this news, the director of the magazine called me to organise a meeting in her office. We had a problem. Paula was distributed to over 100,000 readers of El Mercurio, the most politically and institutionally influential newspaper in the country. In those days the traditional media maintained its power, concentrated in the hands of an elite few. The owner of this newspaper was the uncle of the magazine director and during a conversation en famille he had told her that the story could not appear in print. However, the rules of the competition stated that the winning story would be published in the magazine with no exclusion clause of any type. The story told of a married man’s anonymous sexual experience with another man, in the very centre of the city, Santa Lucía hill, where Santiago had been founded. Such sin! At first the director tried to convince me that it would be best to renounce publication. However, when she realised that neither the jury nor I would accept such treatment she took our side and fought against her uncle the titan. In the end, the story was published, but not inside the magazine. Instead it was printed in a separate booklet distributed inside an envelope which read: “Advice for families: Content not recommended for readers under 21 years of age.” You can imagine what happened next. Most people who received the magazine along with the Saturday paper read the story. Firstly out of morbid interest, of course, but then with real social, literary and psychological curiosity. Some people burned the story in front of their children –this I know first hand– but for most it made palpable the suffering of men who had to hide their homosexuality, simulating a harmonic life with a woman, and the misery of women married to men living a double life.
If my story had not been published, many Chileans would have continued to live their lives in denial. Once it was printed, however, it was clear that the country was ready to read such a story, and ready to open a path to inclusion. Just one year later sodomy was decriminalized. This is why we must fight; so that citizens of our countries can read what they want to, so that a small minority who believe they possess a higher morality do not decide what others should and should not read. For me it was a gift to go from a handful to a multitude of readers, but more than that, it was an expression of the extent of the damage that this one act of censorship could have caused.
We have seen a vast improvement in the LGBTQI situation in Chile thanks to the Antidiscrimination Law and the Civil Union Law, an excellent piece of legislation that respects the dignity of couples as families. But there is still work to be done: Gender Identity Law, a public body to fight discrimination, equal marriage. But above all, we still have to combat the extensive and stifling censorship imposed by Christian churches in schools and universities. Both Catholic and evangelical churches battle every day in Congress and in the public and educational spheres to limit the fundamental rights of LGBTQI people. In this regard, they tried to stop the progress of the anti-discrimination law at all costs precisely because it specifically mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories. To name these categories –and this is an essential point for those who fight for freedom of expression– means to concede their reality.
We must name, we must tell, we must read. This is the only way that each and every one of us can respond to that invaluable question of who we are.
Pablo Simonetti was born in Santiago, Chile, 1961 and he is a member of Chile PEN. In 2004 he published his first novel. Madre que estás en los cielos ‘Mother in Heaven’, which has been translated into several languages and has become one of the most sold novels of the last ten years in Chile. In 2007 he presented his most popular novel, La razón de los amantes ‘The Reason of the Lovers’. La barrera del pudor ‘The Barrier of Shyness’ (2009) and La soberbia juventud ‘The Arrogance of Youth’ (2013) were published in Latin America and Spain, both with an enthusiastic reception from critics. Jardín ‘Garden’ (2014) was highlighted in the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio as one of the best novels of the year.