An Interview with Carmen Rodriguez
August 5th, 1999
To begin with, I want to thank you for your time.  You know, I'm not a professional interviewer.  Carmen, when did you start writing, and how did it begin?
It's hard to remember because it was a long, long time ago when I was a little girl, and also mainly when I was a teenager.  I don't know about Iran, but Chile is a country where there are many, many people who write, many people who are poets, even though they may not publish.  I don't know what it's like now-because I know that things have changed too much-it used to be that, you know, probably %90 of teenagers would write poetry-not poetry, right- and with my friends we used to do that, and, looking back, I realize that it must?ve been really bad poetry: we copy it, it was like complete plagiarism.  We used to copy almost literally.  The classics, and we would study the Spanish poets, the Latin American poets, the Chilean poets, and then sort of copy from them and just changing a few things here and there.  So, I didn't really start writing seriously until maybe my late 19th and early 20th and my first short story was published when I sent it to a national competition-thePaola Magazine.  Chile had a yearly national competition which was quite prestigious, and it won an honorary mention.  So, that was the first serious thing that I wrote, and the first thing that got published, and that was in 1972.
Was that an incentive to write and send more?
After I left Chile after the coup, I didn?t write for a long, long time.  You know, life took on a different course.  Probably, if I had stayed, I would've continued to write, but having left, I didn't write for a long time, and it was not until maybe 5 years later that I began to write again, but not very much, like after the day was done, and in between things to do, I would write a poem or a short story here and there.  And I didn't begin to write seriously again at least until 1988 or 1989.
When did you begin to write in English, and how is it different from writing in your mother tongue-Spanish?
I didn't begin to write in English until the book of short stories practically-the first draft-was done, and it was done in Spanish, and as I say in the foreword to the book, I had always to switch to Spanish, and I would always find somebody else to translate the stories or the poems for me.  Like the book of poetry prior to this one was translated by Hidee Newful Rain, a friend, and I helped her to translate it, and then after I published that book, I began to get together with a group of friends who were writers-four of us-and we would meet about once a month to share our writing and give each other feedback.  So, every time you know, if I meeting, I would try to find somebody who would translate my work, and it was always a hassle, and I was never happy with the translations.  And you know one day my friend said why don?t you do it yourself.  So, I tried.  It was hard in the beginning, but as I say in the book, also what happened was that I started to actually write in English because it began as the translation, but then something would happen that gave me new ideas and I would keep on going in English, and I realized that I had already written a whole other sections to the stories in English.  So, that was the beginning, you know and that book when was actually written in both languages, going back and forth between the two languages.  Since then, I have written things in English, directly in English, but mainly non-fiction, like articles, or reviews, things like that.  The novel that I just finished I wrote completely in Spanish.  You know, in a way the book of short stories which is about Chile and Canada and back and forth, the writing was a sort of the reflection of that same process, but in the case of the novel, it is a very Chilean novel, and it all came out in Spanish and in a very Chilean Spanish.
Carmen you compose poetry too.  How is the translation of a poem different from translating something like a short story?
I don't find it too different.  Because obviously in poetry rhythm and sounds are very important, but I find that in my short stories and even in my novel rhythm and sounds are also very important.  So, for me it's not only translating the meaning, but also translating in such a way that it sounds the way that I want it to sound.  It's hard because obviously they are two completely different languages, and the sounds are so different, but somehow you find the way of communicating not only the meaning but also the sounds.
What are the main turning points in the history of your writing, or I may say, how and why has your writing changed?
Well, I think the main turning point has to do with changing my life which was coup in Chile and leaving Chile and coming to live in Canada, and that huge change in my own life is also reflected in my writing, and all my published writing and most of it because it has happened in the last 7/8 years, reflects that huge change: it is about exile, and it is about living in a different culture, and all of that. 
Do you think that political changes are more important than changing in your life as being a young woman, and then maturity reaches, and....
I think that in my case it all goes together because when I left Chile, I was 25, I had two little daughters, and the changes in them and in my own situation are tied to this huge change in life because of the political circumstances.  I think it's all blended together.  It's all part of the same thing, and who knows many times I wonder what would have happened if the coup had never happened, and we had never left, and there's no question to me that I would?ve still been a writer, and obviously I would've written about other things who knows what, right?
That's right.
I have no idea, but I would have still been a writer.
Why do you write?   Fame, money, people, working class, spiritual satisfaction,...?
Fame and money yea, that's right (Laughter).  It's an urge.  It?s necessary.  I had a full-time job at Douglas College, which I gave up so that I could write.  And it was a really difficult thing to do because you must know that as an immigrant and as a refugee, you know, most of us spend a long time you know 10 years at least being a janitor, cleaning lady, whatever.
Newspaper man
Exactly.  And I did that too.  And I had to go back to school because my degrees were not really valued here, and it was a long process and a lot of work connected until I was able to work in my own field at the level that I was capable of.  I enjoyed it, I mean it was good, but at the same time I started feeling this real need to write and it was practically impossible because it was a very demanding job, and plus family and all that it was hard.  So, things happened in such a way that I wanted to have more time to write.  And you know, then I'd be able to get other kinds of short contracts for work for money, and they were more flexible.  So, it was a really hard transition and my income dropped probably about half, but I'm happier.  So, definitely not for money, but because I feel very strongly that I have something to say, and I can do that, and I know that I can write, and also in a way, I don't speak for anybody else, but at the same time, I know, that when I tell my stories, I'm also telling the stories of my community.  And that is very important to me.  So, it's because I feel strongly that there is something that I can say, and I know how to say it and I have to do it.
What adjectives would you use to describe yourself as a writer?
Committed, hardworking, disciplined.
Do you have a certain, separate message in each story, or do you try to convey certain beliefs, morality, or principles in your writings?
Not consciously, no.  I have no idea when I'm writing a story or when I'm writing something I'm not very conscious of the message or what the readers going to understand or grasp in terms of a message.  I'm just telling a story.  I think the key word is honesty.  I tried to write from the very honest kind of place: no clichés, no fake.  Honesty.
How does the process of formation of a story start in your mind, you know, the beginning the end?  Do you know everything, who is who, who the characters are, what they're going to do, the plot, etc.
I have an idea, but not everything, not at all.  I have an idea for a plot, but mainly I have an idea about the people, and about the facets of the person, but I have no idea how it's going to end or what's really going to happen.  That happens as I write.  Sometimes, I have one idea about the plot and it turns out completely different.
So, the story that you have in hand might change?
Oh, completely.
I have some questions about the coup, and I think it's a very important incident in the history of Chile and in your life too.  In the story of and a body to remember with, one can feel the presence of one single incident-the coup in Chile on September the 11th, 1973.
How did it affect you as an intellectual and as a writer?
I wouldn?t have called myself a writer at that point.  I was a person, who wrote, but I used to teach in a university, and it was my name thing.  That was what I did, and had a family and everything.  I think it affected me in the way it affected everybody who was on the left, and who was committed to an idea for a socialist country.  It was an over night sort of complete change in our lives.  It was a change from being able to speak, and write, and talk, and meet, and express your opinions, and act on your opinions, to a complete lack of freedom, and complete lack of democracy, and this happened over night.  A lot of the people who were my friends were jailed, some were killed, others disappeared.  Personally, I was not in jail.  I was interrogated, and my house was raided.  But I was lucky.  I was fired from my job.  But it became quite clear that Chile
had transformed to a completely different country.  Then, we were lucky that we belonged to a middle intellectual class that had some options.  We were able to leave, but other people, working class people that didn't have those options, they were either killed, or they had to stay, or some walked over the mountains to Argentina.  But we were privileged that way and we were able to leave.  First we went to the states where we had friends who invited us, and we became students in California for about 6 months and in the meantime we were able to get our paper to come to Canada.
Recently CIA released some documents that clearly show the active role of the USA in the 1973 coup in Chile.  How do you feel about this?
It's just a confirmation of what we knew all along.  It's interesting that so many years later they're releasing the documents, and obviously they're doing it now because they know that at this point, so what?  But we knew all along that the CIA had intervened directly in the coup.  But it's also good that they're finally releasing them because you know the whole Pinoche incident going on in London now.  So, it helps to show more evidence, although it makes you also wonder how many people actually have access to these things because I know that people can access them through the Internet, but I haven't seen anything for example in the papers. 
Actually, I saw a documentary movie.  It was great.  The movie showed that they plotted the assassination of one of the generals who worked for Alende ?
It started even before Alende took the government.  First of all it started during the campaign.  They pumped incredible amounts of money to the Christian Democrats, and hoped that they would win.  And when that didn't happen, and to the right, when Alende still won, then they started plotting right away how to stop.  Because there's a period between the actual election and then there are a few months between that and when he actually took power according to the constitution-turn around period.  And during this period, they plotted and killed General Schnider, and they did all kinds of things to get the military to do a coup then.  And then the media, they practically owned them.  El Merqurio which is the main national newspaper that has been around for over a hundred years.  They took control of El Merqurio, and they dictated.  You know, El Merqurio was the first newspaper in the world even before any of the USA newspapers that had a completely computerized system paid for by the CIA which allowed them to manipulate very easily, you know the format, all the ways that news was displayed.  This can be very subtle.  They can use subliminal messages to convey what they want.  There have been studies that show for example how El Merqurio which show? It was the first paper with full-colored front pages.  For example, there would have a full-colored picture of an open-heart operation, bloody.
Still, science, but it was the image that you saw with blood, and open body, and together with that something to do with Alende, or something to do with the government.  Your mind as a reader associates these images and news.  And those were the subtle ones, and then all kinds of overt ways of intervening.  So, it was not a surprise, it was just a confirmation of what we knew.
I was thinking that after 30 years they have to publish these documents of what they have done, but what's interesting is that they never criticize themselves, and I think this is arrogance.
I don't expect them to.  It's their job.  And if they have to do it again, they will do it again.  They're doing it today everywhere.  That's what they do.  Their role isto make sure that things, politically, and economically are the way they want them to be, and if there is anybody anywhere that would want to change things radically, they will do anything, anything, and anything to stop that.  They will kill, they will torture, they will manipulate, and they will do anything.  That is their role.  They are doing it right now somewhere.
Actually, some people think that it?s a sign of democracy, and I don't think so.  I think it's the power they want to show: we did that and so what, who can do what.
It's just a gesture so that they can say that see this is a democratic country.  It's not true.
How did the immigration to Canada affect your writing, and what kinds of problems did you face as an intellectual?
The main thing back then was survival, both economically in terms of the very basic stuff, and emotionally.  For many years I didn't write, and then I started writing very little here and there and as I was saying it was not until many years later that I decided to write seriously.  So, I don't know.  I'd have been ----if I had stayed in Chile, I would have continued writing steadily, but there was that long period of interruption because of all the changes.  So, who knows what kind of changes it really did for me.
One of the characters in a body to remember with in the story "black hole," Estela De Ramirez, goes through the identity crisis.  Was that somehow a personal experience too?       
Yea, I think it was probably the experience of a lot of people.  People go through different stages, and I know that in the case of my community, we went first through the stage of denial. OK we are here for only a little while, Pinoche will be overthrown, and democracy will return to Chile quickly, and what we have to do here is do everything to help that happen.  So, we dedicated ourselves as a community to what we called solidarity work, and I was part of a singing group, and we spoke everywhere, and we went to public meeting, and we held things called beniya which were like gatherings with music, food, and talk, just letting people know what had happened in Chile, doing everything, putting money together to send to the resistance.  Everything right?  It was like we didn?t live here or we lived in a ghetto, because we saw everybody in our community like every week or everyday.  Most of our friends were there, and our Canadian friends that we did make were through the solitary works where the Canadians wanted to help.  So, it was a few years of that kind of complete denial of being here, and not wanting to be here, or just we're just here for a little bit, and we'll go back anyway, and then there is that period in which you realize that no that it's not true, it's going to be a long time, and you can?t go back because in my personal case, which is what I also gave to Estela, I couldn?t go back.  I was blacklisted.  So, you live in a place, no place, a place that you don't like, and you can't go back there anyway, so you're like a limbo, you're nobody.  You still don't speak the language too well, here you don't feel completely comfortable you start forgetting word, images, or places, because you know that you can't go back anyway so you erase it, you try to put it somewhere else.  And you find yourself in a complete limbo, and I know that a lot of people went through that and little by little most people came out of it.  And you actually start looking around, and you actually start liking it.  It's also a way of survival.  You have to like it, because otherwise you die.  So, you start looking around and you start liking it, and also other members of your family like your kids who become a part of this society more quickly, they help that way, and then finally you sort of settle here, which is what happened to her (Estela), but she completely denied this fact this character, and it was sort of to take it to an extreme, what I did with that story was to take it to an extreme.  So when she is told that she can go back, it creates a complete chaos in her mind again, because she had her way of surviving had been to completely forget, to just live the moment live for the present, so when she is told that she can go back, then it's huge turmoil for her again.  In many ways, that happened to me and happened to other people.  But in the end, I think that also what most people come to see it is that you can belong to the two places, but it takes many years: you can like it here, you can like it there, and it's OK, and emotionally you are able to do that.
You returned to Chile, and I think the story "Laughing and Crying at the House in the Air" is the result of your personal experience.  How did you feel after so many years going back to your country, seeing your old friends?
It was neat.  I really liked it.  I wasn?t able to go back for 14 years, and when I finally went back, I felt at home, even though it has changed a lot, and it?s a different country altogether, and I am a completely different person.  Every time I go back, it feels good, it feels like I belong there.  It doesn?t mean that I like it any more or any less than here.  I just like it.  There are certain things like nobody ever asks me there where I am from.  I look like anybody else, and there are little things like the way people speak, their behaviors: they are so familiar, and you realize that they are so ingrained.  They are just part of you, and it?s comfortable to be in that kind of situation, very comfortable.  So, actually we are going to go, and live there for 6 months at the end of October and see what happens, because every time I?ve gone, it?s been for a short time, a month, a month and a half.  And it's been sort of as a tourist, and it?s different when you go and live there.  So, we are going try and live there again see what happens.
Most of the main characters in and a body to remember with are women.  Is this a conscious choice of character?
Because that?s what I know most of all, and I write about what I know.  It's my truth, it's my view of things, and it's my world view, and I'm a woman.  So, up to now, I had no intention of pretending that I know how the male point of view is, and I know that I will at some point I will want to try that and we?ll see what happens.  But up to now that's what happened and I've created these characters that in many ways are based on myself and the women that I know.
In structuring your stories you use poems, letters, memories, dreams, quotations, list of items, and so on.  Why such a colorful structure, such a variety?
Well because I try to go as deep as I can, and I think that form and content are very close together.  There are certain things that need to be said in a certain way, and there are things that you need to say in the form of a poem, or in the form of like a stream of consciousness, just thinking, and other things you can say by telling the story from the perspective an outsider. Another things you need to say from the third person?s point of view.  So, I think that in a way it's an attempt to tell a story in many different layers, in many different ways so that the reader has a chance to really grasp it from all of these places not only from one perspective.
My next question is about the changes in technology, and how this affects writing and the medium of paper and books we are so much used to it.  What do think will happen in the future: can we put the book aside? What the writers are going to do with this changes that computer and Internet create.       
I cannot see a world without books.  I think that a book is an object: something that you can take in your hands, you can feel it, you can lie in your bed with your little book there.  You consider anywhere: you can go to the beach with your book, you can go on the bus with your book, and it transports you to a different world.  It's a very intimate relationship between a book and a reader, and even though there are many, many people around the world who cannot read, I know that there are even more people that have no access to technology.  This whole technology thing is a very North American, European and then upper/middle class or intellectual middle class thing in the third world.  So, I cannot really see the end of books.  I don't think it's replaceable.  It's a different thing.  It's not that I'm against technology.  I think it's great.  What could be better than being able to go on the Internet and read those CIA documents.  What could be better than being able to communicate with very little money with all my friends around the world.  Or what could be better than writing a novel on a computer, instead of writing it by hand, and the change that this has made in people writing and in my writing, you know, just the fact that you can change a whole paragraph, put it somewhere else: all those little thing.  I can't even remember what it was like to write by hand.  I do remember that I used to write a lot with scissors and tape.
Or the paper would look awful with all kinds of arrows and crosses.  Now, with a computer it's so much easier, and I'm sure it's changed in some way the way that we compose writing.  So, I'm not against technology at all, but I don't see the contradiction.  I know that people talk a lot about paper and books are going to disappear.  I don?t think so.  They are completely different things.  Being able to read something on the screen doesn't mean that you're not going to be able to read something in a book.  Now, it's too bad because there are only so many hours in the day I'm sure that the people that are more technologically inclined than I am for example, spend more time in front of the computer screen than with a book.  It's their choice, and I'm sure that we will always have books around and there will be always those of us who would rather spend our time with a book.
Tell us a little about the problems that you encountered to have your book published in Vancouver.  How did you manage to do that, because I know some of the writers who have been trying to publish their books, but can?t.  I think it is a very competitive world.
Fortunately, I think I have been lucky.  I did send this book, you know with the poetry book I knew it would be hard because not a lot of people publish poetry because unfortunately in this country poetry is not very widely read.  So, for any publishing place to publish poetry is a big risk and they have to sort of balance it with the publication of other things so that they can survive.  But I was also lucky that Women's Press became interested in the book and published it in a bilingual format, which was something that I really wanted.  With the book of short stories I did send it to many places and all of the main stream, big publishing places rejected it.  Some of them it was obvious that hadn't even read it.  It was obvious that it hadn't even been opened.  And rejection letter basically saying that they only take books that are come through Asians or through other means.  They don't take just any book from anyone.  And others did read it and probably found it too political or something, I don't know.  But there were a couple of smaller presses that waged
and still in the end I was very happy that I went with the Arsenal Pulp Press here in Vancouver.  They have been very, very good, very proactive, and promoting the book.  They really believed in the book, so it's been good so I don?t have anything to complain about.
I want to thank you again.  If you have anything else to add you can do so by all means.
Well, I want to thank you, and I want to thank Sharvand-e Vancouver for becoming interested in my work.  I'm sure that there are many Iranian stories that are similar.  Even though we're so far away geographically, I'm really moved to know that that these stories which are so specifically about one place and about Chilean people and Chilean exiles here in Vancouver can reach a completely different part of the world, and a population from another part of the world.  So, that feels really good.  So, I want to thank you for taking time and the huge work for translating them, and the newspaper for publishing them, and for showing interest.
Thank you.