“Political torture — when we are speaking of imprisoned women — implies a sexual relationship’,’ says Marjorie Agosin, the author of Zones of Pain (Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press. 1988). a spare, elegiac, hallucinatory collection of poetry about female torture victims in Chile, Treblinka. Argentina and elsewhere. “It’s an unspeakable evil, a sexuality of evil. I am a woman, a Jew and a Chilean. That is how I come to write about repression and torture, including sexual torture.
“Yes, I’ve been totally privileged and spared the political violence that I write about!’ she continues. “But my work is autobiographical in terms of my empathy, I know many female survivors of torture, families of desaparecidos, my Jewish family was among the first to come to Chile. Pogroms are in my soul.”
In Chile, the dictatorship that seized power after the murder of Salvador Allende in 1973 tortured, mutilated and murdered not only those who opposed their regime overtly, but also artists and other “subversives;” women were particularly victimized. Chile was not alone. In Argentina, during the military junta’s reign of terror from 1976 to 1983, activists and non-political people alike were kidnapped, inluding pregnant women. (See “My Children Are Disappeared” by Aviva Cantor, LILITH, Summer 1986.)
Agosin’s non-fiction books — The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo: The Story of Renee Epelbaum (Stratford, Ontario: Williams-Wallace Publishers. 1989) and Scraps of Life: Chilean Arpilleras: Chilean Women and the Pinochet Dictatorship (Trenton, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 1989) – explore similar motifs as her poetry. Proceeds from her non-fiction support the women about whom Agosin writes.
Having left Chile — by choice — in 1972, Agosin now lives with her husband and two-year-old son in Wellesley, Massachusetts. A tenured professor in the Spanish department at Wellesley College, Agosin’s courses reflect her ideology: “Literature in Human Rights.” “Legacy of Hispanic Women” (which Agosin describes as appropriate for “writers, painters and activists”), and “Witnesses for the Persecution: Women Writers in Comparative Literature.”
Agosin’s message to her students is “to understand that our situation of privilege is a tool for changing the world, but not through paternalism. We must work through ‘circular understanding.” that is, we must come to know that the Mapuche Indian woman has much to teach us, that women of the Third World know more than we do about what it means to be human, to be kind.”
To Jewish women. Agosin suggests, “become comfortable with your identity. When you are comfortable with that you become universal!” With these words as a political backdrop, it becomes easier to understand why, for example, a single Agosin poem invokes, without pause, both Anne Frank and Sonia de las Mercedes.
“It’s time for Jewish women to see the Holocaust as a people’s issue, not just a Jewish one. Why did I get involved in human rights? Because I have a Jewish vision, everything about being Jewish has made me care about injustice!’ She adds, “North American Jews should take a closer look at Latin American Jewry as well. Many of us live under repressive dictatorships.”
Agosin dedicates her book: “A mi hijo que nunca pudo ver el cielo” (“For my child who could never see the sky”), explaining. “There were many, many women who were tortured while they were pregnant, and these mothers aborted….
“If the convictions of a country supports torture!’ she continues, “it must be denounced. I write about these issues because the violence in Latin America is everywhere. It is impossible not to see it.
“Yet,” she says bitterly, “most people don’t see it. That is why this world is so rotten.”