In late 2019, as I was taking yet another Twitter break from writing my novel, a short video caught my eye. The little image showed a lively fire in an outdoor grill, the kind of grill my family never used when we went up to Bear Mountain because we always brought a cooler with hard-boiled eggs and ham sandwiches.
Around this fire gathered students. A young woman in an oversized college sweatshirt was laughing, her pale hand at her mouth.
In the fire were books.
Whose books were they? A Latina’s, the tweet said, and I flinched. A Latina author had spoken at this college, and now they were burning her books.
I saw that tweet floating among hundreds of other messages about politics and celebrities. My reaction was not elegant. It was simple: fear. My amygdala reacted as if my body had been threatened. Then came disgust, frustration, and anger. My TMJ disorder activated painfully, the skin prickling viciously around my jawbones.
I looked up the writer: a Cuban-American professor, fair-skinned and dark-haired like me, whose parents immigrated like mine did. In her novel, a young Cuban-American woman struggles to understand her identity and family. In the novel I am writing, a young Chilean-American woman struggles to understand her identity and family. If I had read her work before, I would have looked to it as a guide. But this is how I was first encountering her work: watching it burn.
This was a nightmare scenario that I—a humble, aspiring novelist—could never have dreamed up. I had only ever feared being ignored, but to be destroyed? I gazed at the author’s professional portrait, in which she meets the viewer with a gentle, attentive gaze, her hair blowing away from her face. She looked strong. Was she trembling now as I was? I couldn’t know. (I didn’t have the right to know.) But watching her book burn seared me. It seemed to me that seeing my book burn would be equivalent to seeing myself burn.
My first-ever impulse to write emerged from a stubborn desire. I was eight years old and I wanted more of what I’d been reading, but I also wanted it to be different. The fantasy and science-fiction books on my shelves were wonderful and yet… I wasn’t satisfied. They didn’t scratch that itch. I couldn’t have described to anyone exactly what I wanted, but I had a hunch that if I started typing, I’d be able to fulfill this want. (Need?) I borrowed my mom’s typewriter and pecked out a few pages. I imagined writing dozens of novels. I didn’t realize then how harrowing the writing process could be.
What does it take to write a book?
In an apocryphal story, Michelangelo said of his sculpting, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” He had visited the quarries from which his marble came and involved himself intimately with the tons of metamorphic rock. He got as close as he could to the source. Like him, most artists start with raw materials. But a writer’s raw material doesn’t come from the earth; the writer digs in a place no one else can ever access. We’ll never travel to an excavation site to review a pile of words, phrases, and stories. Instead we must dig inside ourselves—our emotions, beliefs, and memories. Through practice, we must build and expand our own personal mines; we must develop a labyrinth whose walls are rich in raw material. And then, when we edit, we must cut and carve away until we find what’s interesting—what is problematic, risky, humorous, human.
The process strikes me as supremely mortal. When we die, these mine shafts won’t remain; no one else can ever see what we have witnessed within ourselves. When we’re gone, the landscape that we’ve been mining for years disappears.
My parents were teenagers on September 11, 1973, when a U.S.-supported coup toppled Chile’s democracy. In researching the Pinochet dictatorship for my novel-in-progress, I sought out survivor testimony. Both during and after the dictatorship, survivors had resisted sharing their stories, or they shared but kept the worst, deepest hurts, to themselves. They feared many things: being disbelieved, blamed, accused, hurt again. As if telling the truth would cause worse harm—to their families, to their nation. So I drank in the voices in the 2004 Valech Report, knowing they were precious.
I soon saw that the dictatorship had wanted their words—but only certain words. It only wanted the words that fed the dictatorship, that helped the regime survive.
Woman, detained September 1973: “They would take us to the field, half-an-hour daily, so we could see how they killed people, real or mock executions; they always did more to make us talk. What was I supposed to say?
“Should I have made things up?”
She wondered if she should have invented a story to please her torturers. She used that word: inventar. The dictatorship threatened, electrocuted, maimed, raped, and murdered in its hunt for words. False confessions, deadly incriminations. They would have brutalized Scheherazade before she ever spoke.
Woman, detained November 1973: “Upon arrival, they made me strip, they made me lie down… This is something I am only now telling…I never told my family.”
Look at me using ellipses. I am afraid to tell you what they did to her. I’m afraid of how you will react if I share it all. I’m afraid you’ll find her torture “gratuitous,” that you would tell me “less is more” and that the art lies in the subtlety. I’m afraid you’ll tell me that this essay is about books not death.
But that isn’t true. This essay is about death and about books. Words are how we shape our lives and the world. With words, the dictatorship renamed its repression “law and order.” With words, survivors showed the world what Pinochet’s government had done. With words, they reaffirmed their existence and their right to remember.
And now these women’s words are encoded into my brain. Their words exist within my body. Over the years of researching and revising, I’ve changed, and so has my unfinished book, each draft a closer approximation of who I am becoming. I am part text, part tribute. I am writing fiction but what I’m writing is true.
The years have piled up. Parents, friends, and colleagues have asked me: When are you going to finish that novel? Aren’t you almost done?
I lie awake at night fearing that the novel will never be done. My throat is tight, as if a ghost were trying to strangle me. I feel guilty for taking so long. I’m responsible to my parents, who are counting on me to tell this story. Responsible to my tío, who lived in exile and encouraged my writing, and who died before I could finish this work. Responsible to every person whose story I have read but haven’t had the courage yet to scream back into the world.
In the midst of the pandemic, my anxiety spiraled. I was haunted by what I reflexively call “bad thoughts.” Thoughts that told me to disappear. These thoughts haunted me when I was a teenager, and now they’d returned in force. Days vanished into their despair. I subdued them with medication and therapy, and with stories.
In writing, I felt both grief and love. I felt connected to my family, my history, this earth.
I realized that this book is me, and the writing of it is an act of living.
On October 9, 2019, Cuban-American writer Jennine Capó Crucet gave a lecture at Georgia Southern University. Her novel Make Your Home Among Strangers had been selected for GSU’s First Year Experience course. During her lecture, Capó Crucet read from her essay “Imagine Me Here, Or How I Became a Professor.” In this work, she discusses how she viewed race as a college student and then later as a teacher. She recalls giving a guest lecture in the South, after which a young white woman accused her of reverse racism and began crying. A textbook example of “white tears.”
Toward the end of her essay, Capó Crucet addresses marginalized students, “This place never imagined you here, and your exclusion was a fundamental premise in its initial design.”
The Q&A at GSU was heated. A young white woman suggested Capó Crucet was being racist toward white people. In a statement released two days after the fire, Capó Crucet reflected on this repetition. “It was very surreal and strange. I answered the question with the same response that I cite in the essay, and mentioned out loud that this moment felt like déjà vu.”
I was under the impression that déjà vu was accidental—a kind of double-take we do when the present inadvertently resonates with our pasts. Yet students had listened to this author’s essay and reenacted its scene. Does remembering the past do nothing to stop us repeating it?
After the 1973 coup, the Chilean military burned books on the sidewalks and roadways of Santiago. Fearing discovery and arrest, families also burned books. In Chile, book burning was both destruction and survival. Book burning smelled of death.
I knew the GSU students who burned Capó Crucet’s words weren’t doing it in order to survive.
I won’t retype the tweets from that night. There are archives. I will share only this fragment directed at Capó Crucet and GSU:
you should’ve expected this
As if to say: You made us do this to you.
As if to say: You did this to yourself.
When I finish my book, will they also not want to hear about “the other 9/11”? Will they not want to hear about Nixon and Kissinger and how their ignorant fear that Chile would become “another Cuba” fueled their desire to destabilize it? Will they ignore the men and women and children the dictatorship labeled “terrorists” and “extremists” in their own homeland? Will they not care to know that sweet, bubbly PepsiCo helped plant the seeds for the coup, or that George H.W. Bush shook the dictator’s hand?
Will they not want to know why it is possible to both hate and love this country, what it means to survive this country?
Will they throw my book into the bonfire at Homecoming?
Will they laugh and drink their beers as they watch?
Books are not human beings.
I’m not opposed to treating books like objects. I’ve damaged books. I’ve spilled coffee, tomato sauce, and sunscreen on books. I’ve deconstructed books, tearing out pages for craft projects. My wedding bouquet was made of someone’s text. I felt only a little bad repurposing these books. What I was making would be beautiful, too.
But what if I truly hated the book’s contents? What if I wanted to show my disgust? In Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, author Jane Smiley reflects on the “bad reviewer.” “[A]s with any other manifestation of ill will, the bad reviewer is indulging in an egotistical display of some state of mind that is supposed to enhance the reviewer’s status at the expense of the subject of the review.” These students were certainly seeking to enhance their status at the expense of their subject. But a bad reviewer is in the business of engaging with the text, and responding in kind. These students brought flame.
They burned her books publicly. They posted photos and tweeted about the burning. They even tagged her. They wanted to crush not just a book but also the person behind it.
I’ve wanted to toss many an underbaked novel into the trash, but I’ve never done so. If I did, though, I wouldn’t take a photo and send it to the author. I know what it takes to write something. Likewise, if someone serves me food I dislike, I leave it on my plate. I don’t upend the dish while my dinner host watches.
Imagine laboring over a Thanksgiving dinner, only to watch your guests set it on fire. I would worry about what they would burn next.
I think about the soldiers who burned books in Chile. Their purpose was to threaten. They were there to intimidate and subjugate. What was in the books—and whether it could be meaningful to anyone—didn’t matter. Their message was that the time for conversation, negotiation, and debate was over.
Although a book isn’t a human being, it isn’t a simple object either. Smiley reflects on a novel she had written, that she herself did not like but that reviewers applauded. Each time a new reader approached her book, they engaged with it uniquely. “It was a multifaceted sociable object, a consciousness that people could relate to that was separate from my consciousness, that was human but not a human.”
It was something human that burned, but it was not a human. The burning was not a death. It only smelled of death.
After the fire, I read Capó Crucet’s novel and essays. I wanted to know what someone else had tried to take from me.
In the fall of 2020, one year after the fire, GSU’s student newspaper asked what, if anything, had changed on campus since Capó Crucet’s lecture. An anonymous student reflected, “[A]ll we got was a simple inclusion email, and I think things should have been done more than an email. And as far as recent events that happened over the summer with racial things, all we got was an email—I’m sick of getting emails…”
I’ve heard it said that the world has changed, that the old world burned, that nothing can ever be the same. Here I am, at the end of 2021, looking at a future that offers, simply, more of the same.
That old world never burned. It was repackaged into an email. The old world was reworded, and we are living in its new language—its rights, its law and order.
After the fire, Capó Crucet put out a statement. Her second reading on campus had been canceled as a safety precaution, and GSU had changed her lodgings. Still she called for the campus to continue the “difficult and necessary conversation that began in the auditorium”—she asked for words after the flames. I don’t know Capó Crucet, but I can only imagine the strength it took to write this, and not, simply, to cry.
When all we have is ash, there is no raising a phoenix. There is only the long descent back into the mines, to extract more of ourselves, to bring it to the light and hope this time it survives.
I anticipate a day when the pandemic has faded, and “never forget” is our cry—never forget the sick and the dead, the injustice and brutality. But is it enough to never forget? Is it enough to know the past, to have lived through it?
In Argentina, the 1984 Nunca Más report investigated the atrocities committed under the junta. Nunca Más is not the same as Never Forget. It means Never Again.
Gina Isabel Rodriguez is currently revising her novel based on the Chilean dictatorship. She is a 2022 LitUp Fellow with Reese’s Book Club and has been a juried fellow at the Saltonstall Arts Colony. Her writing has recently appeared in Electric Lit, and she has reviewed books for the Harvard Review and The Rumpus.