The Insurrection of Diamela Eltit

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The writer, academic and National Prize for Literature (2018) –author of novels such as Lumpérica (1983) and Sumar (2018)– considers writing to be a act of insurrection: at a time in which every day worries and stresses suffocate people, literature is a rebellion against the productivity of time. Just before leaving Chile for New York, where she teaches, Eltit talks about the disarticulation of public education, the crisis at the Instituto Nacional school, and, in passing, challenges the category “women’s lit”: “the horizon has to be in democratising the letter not the body of the authors”, she argues.

By Jennifer Abate and Evelyn Erlij

You’ve said that writing was a way of surviving during the dictatorship. So what does writing mean to you today?

Writing is a space of freedom. All social structures, from the family to work, are based on obligations. Literature, on the other hand, is a decision that you take: You can write or not write. And once you start writing you go into an “alternative space”, to one of the few places that you can take the decisions. It’s not that writing gives you a happier life, that’s not exactly it. Rather I think that lives today are quite predetermined and that individuals are born to fulfil a certain number of obligations, especially since the frank installation of capitalism in the 18th century. The system is absolutely not interested in literature. The world isn’t wondering why you’re writing. For that reason literature is an insurrection against the system. It’s also a game with time. You have to carve time out of time. Out of time that is already committed to obligations.

Crédito: Alejandra Fuenzalida

The publishing world is more institutionalised now and in some cases it’s clear that there’s a pressure to sell. Do you see that “insurrection” that you mention in certain writers or publishing houses?

I see it in a lot of publishing houses, especially the independent ones. The ease with which you can print books nowadays changed the rules of the game, and it’s interesting to write without a more commercial bent. It’s dramatic because people should be able to live from what they do, but on the other hand it also gives you a certain broad liberty in terms of the structures of the publishing market.

You were part of the cultural effervescence that flourished during the dictatorship and you belonged to CADA, the Collective of Arts Actions, one of the groups that at the time questioned the relationship between art and politics, art and society. Do you think that there are interesting or important things happening in Chilean culture today?

I was recently at a book launch hosted by a pop-up publishing house, a very artisanal book, made from recycled materials, not at all conforming to a passing fashion. That’s interesting: to publish risky texts without hoping to get rich from it, but rather just to get the text out there into the cultural sphere. These collectives are under the radar because of the circumstances, because there’s not much in terms of publicity, because there aren’t many cultural magazines these days. There are some very brave initiatives, but it’s difficult to access them because they all operate quite underground. The pop-up publishing house was something small, and that’s always been where the interesting things happen. There are other groups of people thinking more along the lines of “winners” or “losers”, which are less interesting. I’m interested in culture as a place of interrogation and risk-taking.

“The fight is to democratise the letter. Authority is always behind the letter, never in front of it. The horizon has to democratise the letter, not the body of the authors”.

Recently a group was formed –AUCH, Chilean Female Authors– that defines itself as a collective of a wide variety of women linked to the world of books. In the 2017 Meeting of Latin American Writers in New York you said that “when writing is defined by the genitals, when people talk about ‘women’s writing’, or ‘women who write’, it generates a separation from literature and a complete belonging to biology”. What do you think about collectives or groups such as this one?

I’m always of the mind that anything organised is good. More than 30 years ago, in 1987, we set up the First International Congress of Latin American Female Writers. We thought a lot about the symbols, but it’s always interesting to rethink something you’ve thought about. Today I’d say that if you separate literature by gender, it has various effects, and one of these is that the ghetto just gets bigger, but its barriers remain. Put it this way: “This literature is that of women, and this other one is literature without women”. From my perspective the challenge is to democratise the space, not return to a divide between male and female authors. For women to give prizes to women doesn’t guarantee anything, because we’re fairly well colonised. And in any case it’d be quite dramatic if men started to give prizes to men and women to women, because we’d just go back to where we started.

And the literary criteria are left out.

Of course. The battle is to democratise literature. Authority is always chasing literature, never leading it. Which is not to say that if women want to set up organisations they can’t, actually it’s a good idea. But the aim needs to be the democratisation of the word, not the author’s body. Women must be not essentialised; not all female writers are the same, we don’t all write the same. Quite the opposite, writing has to be seen as a material, as social production. It shouldn’t be made biological. One of the great challenges facing feminism today is that in order to incorporate itself as an alternative reality it has to change the economic system and the institutional order, from the family structure outwards. It’s a huge task, but we mustn’t lose sight of the horizon. Capitalism doesn’t take women into account. The institutions need to be revised and completely re-thought.

In books like Special Forces you’ve reflected on abuses of power. The Instituto Nacional school has recently been in the headlines because of the student demands and the brutality with which the police reacted. What’s your take on this conflict?

I’m surprised by the antiquated and dictatorial style of the Interior Minister’s rhetoric when he uses the word “terrorist” to refer to this situation. His discourse seems to focus on some of the students posing a lethal threat to the country. But the big question is for the Mayor Felipe Alessandri, who let the PDI into the school for such a long time. It makes it seem as like –although there’s nothing to prove this– there’s a concerted effort to weaken the Instituto Nacional. Don’t forget that it has one of the best results at the national aptitude tests, and this hurts the private school because it shows that an education of excellence, publically provided and free, can compete with the expensive private schools. The Instituto Nacional is a thorn in their side.

From the media coverage of this issue you’d think that there’s a serious problem with violent students in Chilean high schools, when actually the problem is with the calibre of public education that is being offered today.

The Instituto Nacional is a sort of “sacrificial lamb”: a historically renowned school, “the beacon of the nation” as it used to be called, is now in disgrace. You have to bear in mind that since Pinochet’s time there’s been a systematic destruction of public education, and the Concertación governments didn’t manage to reverse the trend. The schools in vulnerable sectors seem to deserve to be vulnerable themselves. There’s a huge education injustice and the policy to deconstruct the public education system never stopped. It’s just getting worse, with quasi-caricatures like removing History and Physical Education, in a country that has such worrying levels of obesity. What’s happening isn’t anodyne. I believe that the destruction of public education is on-going.

This interview is dated 28th June 2019, and was recorded for the radio show Palabra Pública, on Radio Universidad de Chile, 102.5.

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