Howls from a thicket of blood

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Howls from a thicket of blood

Times Higher Education

April 10th 1998.

Ariel Dorfman has spent his life fleeing tyrants. Here he tells Jennifer Wallace how the guilt of survival and his nomadic life have inspired his writing.

When Ariel Dorfman was nearly three he made a momentous decision. Finding himself alone in a Manhattan hospital, he decided to abandon the Spanish of his parents and his first three years in Argentina and to adopt the language which he heard spoken all around him. From now on he was determined he would speak and answer to English only, and when his parents came to collect him from the hospital a few weeks later he had already become a resolute New Yorker. “I disconcerted my parents”, he remembers, “by refusing to answer their Spanish questions, by speaking only in English”.
“border crossings, globalisation, hybridisation, the discovery of the places in between and the meeting places – and I like that a lot because I am one and I’m in fact probably the embodiment of all those things”Ariel Dorfman
This act of youthful linguistic rebellion, recalled in his new memoir Heading South Looking North, is typical of Dorfman. All his life, he has wanted to belong, to feel part of the culture in which he lives. Even today, at Duke University, North Carolina, where he teaches in the center for international studies for half of each year, he sports all the trappings of a true stars-and-stripes academic. He wears the scruffy corduroys of the professor. He fills the shelves of the colonial, clapperboard international studies building with Death and the Maiden, Widows and some of his other plays and novels. And when we set out for lunch, he leaps into his jeep and drives through the luscious, golf-course green campus to our reservation at the big pull-in restaurant.

Yet despite appearances and his best efforts, Dorfman can never really feel at home anywhere. Born in Argentina in 1942, brought up until the age of 12 in New York, expelled during the McCarthy purges with his family to Chile and then sent into exile from Chile for his own safety after General Pinochet’s coup in 1973, he is, as he admits, the “embodiment” of the hybrid. The latest interest in the academy, he says, is “border crossings, globalisation, hybridisation, the discovery of the places in between and the meeting places – and I like that a lot because I am one and I’m in fact probably the embodiment of all those things.” Even before his frequent border crossings began, his parents had made global journeys of their own. His mother, originally Yiddish-speaking, fled aged three the threat of violent pogroms in what is now Moldova; his father emigrated to Argentina from the post-revolution civil war in Odessa, Ukraine, with his parents who spoke Russian, English, French and German. Their courtship was conducted in Spanish, and their life in Argentina lasted until his communist father fell foul of the new Peron-backed military regime in 1943 and they escaped to America.

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