Marjorie Agosín

Chilean-American writer

Marjorie Agosín (born June 15, 1955) is a Chilean-American writer.

Marjorie Agosín in 2017

Quotes edit

  • antisemitism has always existed in Latin America, as evidenced by the many nations that remained neutral during the Second World War. The barbarism of the Nazis was often praised in military circles, and some Latin American countries only joined the Allies because of pressure from the United States. One of the few Latin American intellectuals who stood up against fascism and spoke about the impending fate of European Jews was Gabriela Mistral...
    • Introduction to the second edition of The House of Memory: Stories by Jewish Women Writers of Latin America (2022), translated from the Spanish
  • I think the decoding of things, the passionate intellectual need to understand, is part of Jewish sensibility.
  • Life is sacred, but I also think a book is sacred. The way we bury the Torah speaks in a very symbolic way of the power of words. There is a strong correspondence, and it is the sacredness of beauty and dignity. Although for me, nothing is more sacred than human life.
  • Magic is another way of looking at the world. Magic cultivates the art of intuition and appreciation for the unexpected. Magic interprets the world through signs. In Latin America people live in a state of magic so I inherited this way of being.
  • The possibilities of language reside in the possibilities of faith; they are a form of redeeming and correcting world history and paying tribute to life in all its wonder. These poems were written by a spirit that wishes to be part of a history that does not cover but on the contrary reveals and is clear in the blinding light of every silence.
    • "Death in the Desert: The Women of Ciudad Juárez" in Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean edited by Jennifer Browdy (2003)
  • For me, my exile had nothing to do with an expulsion or with the impossibility of remembrance, because somehow or other one always returns. Dictators perish and borders change. However, the desire endures. The desire for a fragrance or for the way in which certain vines cling to doorways. The desire to wake up and recognize oneself in one's own language but more than anything to be recognized by others.
    • "Death in the Desert: The Women of Ciudad Juárez"
  • Poetry, which is always with me and brings me to privileged horizons and uncertain but always true pathways
    • "Death in the Desert: The Women of Ciudad Juárez"
  • Those devoted to the study of Latin American poetry can identify the names of poets such as Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, and César Vallejo, all twentieth century male poets. It is only because she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945 that Gabriela Mistral's voice is not ignored. Male critics have often ascribed the poetry of women such as Mistral to the ideology that they represent; at other times, they have simply denied or ignored the literary production of women. The poetry of these women, created in patriarchal societies, has not achieved recognition within the canon of contemporary literature. In general, anthologies of Latin American poetry include very few women.
    • Introduction to These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women (2000)
  • Though women have always been close to words, they have often been barred from speaking: Saint Paul, in the Holy Scriptures, ordered women to be silent in church, thus censuring their means of public expression. Numerous cultural maxims that attempt to predispose women to remain silent have been internalized by the female psyche, e.g., "En boca cerrada no entran moscas." ("No flies will enter a closed mouth.") Yet women have continued speaking their minds, often through the sacred language of poetry, where there is an abundance of intuition and the possibility of reclaiming power through language.
    • Introduction to These Are Not Sweet Girls: Poetry by Latin American Women (2000)
  • In the house where I grew up in Santiago de Chile I heard a Babel of whispers, songs, prayers, and languages. Spanish was my language, my mother tongue spoken in the fiestas, in the schools, and in the poetry books I loved and read out loud as poetry should be read. My maternal grandparents spoke German and Yiddish. My paternal grandparents spoke Russian and often sang to the music of a balalaika bought in a flea market at the outskirts of the city. At school I learned Hebrew and songs in Ladino. At first I seemed to be confused with too many languages, but as the years progressed all of these languages were and continue to be a part of my inheritance as a Jew, as a poet, and as a woman. It was truly enchanting to hear and feel the depth of these many languages that embedded the narratives of the Jewish people throughout our history-an ancient people carrying their prayers and their legacy across the earth.
    • Forward to Miriam's Daughters: Jewish Latin American Women Poets (2000)
  • The search for identity and belonging is also a motif for the human condition of the twentieth century-a century defined by displacements and migrations.
    • Forward to Miriam's Daughters: Jewish Latin American Women Poets (2000)
  • Throughout history, women have always been close to language. Transmitters of legends, healers, magicians and fortune tellers, women possess a tapestry of stories that are slowly beginning to be transcribed. Curiously, with the advent of authoritarian governments in Latin America, women have left the private spaces of house, church, and marketplace to begin to poeticize their experiences through the written word that had previously been denied to them. We must not forget that even with the Cuban Revolution and the political effervescence that followed in the 1960s, the arts in Latin America continued to be dominated by men. Women were only allowed to participate through their relationships with men: the "companero," the boss, and the patriarch.
    • Introduction to Landscapes of a New Land: Short Fiction by Latin American Women (1989)
  • These narrators show that written history contains the lyricism of poetry and the rational insanity of passion. They teach us that History and these smaller histories spring from an intimate, delicate conscience where memory attempts not only to preserve the great events of History such as wars, conquests, and triumphs, but also in the daily history that is created in a park, in the depths of the ocean, or in the ancient icon of the family.
    • Introduction to Landscapes of a New Land: Short Fiction by Latin American Women (1989)
  • More than anything, fantastic literature offers territories and spaces for subversion, disorder and illegality by using the only code possible: the


    • "Reflections on the Fantastic" Translated from the Spanish by Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman. In Secret Weavers: Stories of the Fantastic by Women Writers of Argentina and Chile (1992)
  • The fantastic, whatever genre it occupies, has the option or, better said, the desire to act through what has been culturally defined as forbidden and marginal. By talking and writing about the forbidden, about zones of silence, fantastic literature resides in the area of the always possible.
    • "Reflections on the Fantastic"
  • For the majority of readers, Latin American fantastic literature operates under the tutelage of the great masters: Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez. However, although few are acquainted with their works, many women began experimenting with this genre well before their male counterparts and were the true precursors of the form, though their names remained on the shelves of oblivion, without the recognition that they deserved. María Luisa Bombal, for example, wrote the fantastic nouvelle, House of Mist (1937) before the famous Ficciones (1944) of Borges, and the Mexican, Elena Garro, wrote Remembrance of Things to Come (1962) before the publication of García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).
    • "Reflections on the Fantastic"

Interview (2023) edit

  • Almost half of the world believes in wars. Why not change that and make people believe in poetry? Believe in kindness? Believe in encounters? I think it’s our responsibility to invite others and make them feel like they can transform the world.
  • Spanish is not only the language of my soul, but it’s the language of the memory, of my emotions, the first language I began to write and to think in.
  • One of the difficulties that a lot of people have is that they long for certainty and long for making sense, but few things make sense in the world. Everything is filled with uncertainty, so we have to acknowledge uncertainty in every aspect of our life and especially in writing.
  • every writer – or every person that aspires to write – has to become a reader. There’s nothing more beautiful than engaging with a novel, a poem, or an essay. You should not write for others, you should write from the point of authenticity, from your own self, from what you know. You hope that others will be enriched by your writing, but you don’t write for financial reward, recognition, or hitting the “best-seller” list. If you are worried about these things, you’re a different writer, not so much committed to what I think really matters, which is to capture your own voice, to release it and to share it. The most important, what we all struggle with, but is essential, is to be ourselves. As writers, as humans, as friends – to be ourselves.

Interview (2019) edit

  • I don’t agree that all is lost in translation, but I think a great deal is lost, especially in poetry, where every word seems to hold a universe. Especially, considering the inner-workings of language, in a poem. The musicality, the rhythm, the juxtaposition of words, all of that is very hard to convey. Maybe a short story—or a chapter in a novel—would be easier. On the other hand, we need translators and I think they’re remarkably important. I think they should occupy a prominent place in the history of literature.
  • It is so important to learn how other people live; to become familiar with a language that is not your own; to feel like a stranger. You will have great empathy for and great understanding of the world around you.
  • I think food is the closest thing we have to memory—to the memory of family gatherings, the memory of your grandmother the cook, or maybe the desire for a certain food you never had. But food is really about memory: the memory of taste, the memory of when you ate the meal. I think a lot of people who left their homelands, a lot of exiles or people who were deprived of food in concentration camps, they always tie food to memory—to memory of who they were.
  • Silence is special when you are reflecting inwardly about who you are, but silence as a tool for political behavior—I think that’s always wrong. There are many kinds of silences.

Interview (2015) edit

  • Poetry has the ability to explore subjects that are often too difficult to simply talk about — for example, torture, violence, and especially gender violence. Poetry is intimate and searches for the essential in the human condition, so topics that have to do with human rights are central for poetry. Poetry is also an art form that searches for truth and justice.
  • I think I am a bit like Mistral: always a foreigner, always from somewhere else.
  • I grew up in a secular Jewish home. What was so important for us was the ethical values of Judaism and the central principle of our lives, Tikkun Olam (a Hebrew phrase that means “healing the world”). My father did not believe in organized religion, so we did not belong to a synagogue, but we led a Jewish life filled with traditions and meaning in a more unconventional way. Almost my entire family on my mother’s side came from central Europe, especially Vienna. All of them perished in the Holocaust, with the exception of my great-grandmother and her son. Also my grandfather, because he had arrived to Chile much earlier. For me as a writer, the stories of the Shoah are very important. They are central to my writing, which you can see in Dear Anne Frank and also I Lived on Butterfly Hill, in which one of the principal characters, the grandmother, is a survivor of the Holocaust. I also try to invoke in the readers the universal importance of social justice and tolerance. I believe these are not only Jewish teachings but fundamental human ideals. Yet I feel I was and continue to be shaped by growing up in a Jewish home that emphasized these values.

I Lived on Butterfly Hill (2014) edit

translated from the Spanish by E.M. O'Connor

  • The blue cloud finally opens-just when the bell rings to let the Juana Ross School out for the weekend. (first sentence)
  • Sometimes remembering means to live a moment in the past again, and in that way survive the present.
  • “I have been so busy asking for faith that I forgot to ask for patience.”
  • “Everyone is always learning something new," my father would remind me when he checked to see if I was doing my homework and found me gazing out the window at the stars. "If not, why be alive?”
  • Maybe once you are an exile, you always are an exile. Always missing somewhere else, always carrying a bit from here and a bit from there and always with a bit of a broken heart.
  • A refugee - a beautiful word, a beautiful thing. An exile. That means I am a traveler of the world and I belong to nothing but the things I love.

Interview (2004) edit

  • I think that too many people are thrown into history, but remain accomplices, which means [they] are silent. I think what I like to say, and this is something I am the most proud of, that I made the choice to become a witness of those times. I made an absolutely conscious choice that I was going to be that, and I continue to look at the world with the same passion and commitment for social justice as when I was 17 years old, and sometimes people cannot believe it. They think I am this crazy idealist, but I am the same, even more now.
  • My whole view of the world and my sense of language and understanding, it's informed by my understanding of poetic language... It's the poet that informs, describes, feels, and understands.
  • I've always struggled to retain what I have lost, and I've tried to retain it through writing, but then I realize that not even writing can hold to this tremendous loss, and that's why it's so fragmented.
  • Women and women artists are looking at a place to belong in the world and to call home in a very particular way. I think that women are looking for a place that will allow them to be visible. I think we live in very conflicted gender times, and most of it is the possibility for visibility: visibility as creators, visibility in the home. If you look at the whole scope of the human rights situation, you see how women are always hidden, even the veil is a form of hiding. So I think that home is to become visible.
  • I felt that to lose my language was to lose my soul, my being, and again, it's the image of being in a void. I think to be displaced is like in a void almost like, to think of T.S. Eliot, like hollowness, a world of hollowness...I feel that language evokes emotion, intimacy, affection. And the emotions I evoke in the Spanish language in my writing or even in my own life with other people are not the same ones as in the English language.
  • I've become fascinated with translation myself because I've begun to do some translations from the English to the Spanish. And I have learned the beauty and the humbleness and the delicacy that it takes to translate one poem from one language to the other. It's really a work of love, translation.
  • literature is the only way to preserve memory. I mean, it's like the queen, the king of the preservation of memory. You look at monuments—I just saw the monument of [Robert E.] Lee—you look at the monument of Sadaam Hussein is gone, a lot of historical monuments are going to be vanished according to wars, earthquakes. The only thing that remains are words.
  • if we don't record this, through language, I feel memory vanishes. It's like almost—who said that, Virginia Woolf or someone—"What you don't put down doesn't exist." And that has been my preoccupation, my obsession, really.
  • when 9/11 was taking place in the U.S., few journalists, except people like Ariel Dorfman, few of them mentioned that there was another 9/11 that took place in Chile created by the terrorism that the United States government, in a way, was supporting through the CIA...this country is having very similar patterns of dictatorial regimes, and I feel somehow I am like in a little dictatorship here under disguise of this democracy. And George Bush is creating, has created, the ideology of fear, and saying, "If you do not vote for me, you will not be protected." And I think there is paranoia, the levels of alert, and that's exactly what General Pinochet did...The Patriot Act is just a disgrace to American faith in the world, and I am very frightened for this country. I have been through a dictatorship, and I think we've all complied to so many things, and what is really scaring me is this whole defeatist attitude that there's nothing that can be done, and I think that's wrong. There's much that can be done.
  • Multiculturalism as an ideology has been a possibility for maybe creating diversity, but I think that it has become a very intolerant concept. And I think it's been really appropriated by people from the left that have very fundamentalist views of the world just like people from the right, and I consider that absolutely dangerous...I like to believe that I'm a person that crosses borders, that I am in the thresholds of places, but I am also rooted in the Spanish world and in the Jewish world. Those are the anchor of my world, those two worlds, and then that's where I speak from. You have to have a platform where you can speak from. It's like you cannot be all over the place, and I think multiculturalism is like being all over the place.
  • you can be a Jew so rooted in your history and in your values that in a way God becomes secondary. And I think that's an amazing thing that Jews have been able to say. But what has linked my Judaism to my experience as a writer are two fundamental things. I think that Judaism has always understood the world from an ethical point of view, and I'm not talking about contemporary Israel or politics, but I'm talking about the Ten Commandments and the necessity, this old Talmudic concept where the title of the book comes from, "to mend to world": to create justice, if you save one life you save the world, is basically saying if you are a decent human being, you are really doing decent things in the world. So the ethics of Judaism and the struggles for social justice have been what I have wanted to take from that Judaism.
  • I don't by any ways believe that we are the chosen people—but what is so amazing is how we have blossomed in the diaspora and that we are still here as a people in spite of centuries of discrimination and genocide, even from the expulsion of Spain or even before the destruction of the second temple. And I think what has kept the Jews together is the idea of home and the idea of memory, which is the ideas that I write about: home as an inner center, and memory as giving voice to the invisible and becoming a witness.

Invisible Dreamer: Memory, Judaism & Human Rights (2002) edit

  • I want literature to be a means for creating humility. (Introduction)
  • children are a universal treasure...I believe that the best way to determine if a country is defending its human rights is to see how the children of that country live. (Introduction)
  • As a child I would always be asked whether I was Jewish or Chilean and, thus, my identity became always conflicted, always a matter of either/or and seldom both. ("Jewish Women in Latin America")

Prologue edit

  • Home, for many Jews, was their existence in the Diaspora, their perpetual state of homelessness. Home was that place where they sought refuge from persecution and discrimination. However, the Jews are not and have not been alone in
  • Only while in nature's perfection—where there is no difference between the outside world and myself and, at the same time, my own indifference—have I truly felt that I belonged.
  • We are what we remember and we understand heritage and belonging through our own passion to remember. Home is a living scrap-book of memory that we carry as we move about, as we remember the vanquished and their respective passions and sorrows. Memory can never reside in abstraction. Memory must be cemented into concrete, must be worn like a dress, must be lived in like a home of differing levels, textures, and colors.
  • Home is understanding and being understood.
  • If America is a grandiose melting pot and multicultural society, then it is also a place that has not fully welcomed its immigrants, especially those of color. It is a place that used to prohibit the speaking of native tongues, and it is a place that racially profiles those whose origin is from elsewhere. A friend recently asked me why I seem so critical of this society that has given me so much. I think that to be critical is to be American. Freedom, complete freedom, includes the right to a dissenting opinion, the right to question an election. However, considering that only 30% of the citizens of the United States vote, it is fair to call the political culture dormant.

The Alphabet in My Hands: A Writing Life (2000) edit

translated from the Spanish by Nancy Abraham Hall

Chapter Seven: Words: A Basket of Love edit

  • In literature I found the caress, the unguarded pleasure, and the voice that had eluded me in this new country. I turned to books with a passion, almost in desperation, because they consoled me. I saw myself criss-crossing the hallways of the library, ransacking in particular the Spanish section and shelves. I discovered the warmth of words, words that belonged to me alone. I paused along their hills, invented the destinies of those exiled like myself. Above all I loved dictionaries, faithful guardians of my language. Through books I crossed borders. Wasn't Latin America an immense shawl united by a free and beautiful language?
  • To write meant to always be awake, willing to take risks, full of magic and happiness, eager to create and undo, because life was that way, like words.
  • Writing is bewitching, like a song or cadence. I arrive at words the way one arrives at spells. Poetry is a story that attaches itself to my feet, my being. Sometimes I will lie down on the earth, invent poems about lost love and fear. Writing is a form of love, of loving and being loved. These aren't words, syllables, or useless alphabets launched by chance or an obsession with speech. Each word wants its own freedom to transform reality into wonder, to create another story, to uncover longings, happiness, the astonishing world between the pen and the shattered paper, limber and fragile. Writing is a way to truth, to telling the truth and tieing it to books, to stone walls.
  • To be Jewish in Chile was to be above all a foreigner
  • The words, such ample, respectable ladies, were fraught with the possibility of love beyond diminutives. I never stopped writing in Spanish because I could not abandon my essence, the fragile, divine core of my being. It would have meant becoming someone else, frequenting sadness, losing a soul and all the butterflies. I always spoke Spanish, even in my most solemn dreams. I did not want to translate myself.
  • I dream the dream of stories not yet told and my lips begin to tell them out loud.

External links edit

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