Two events coincided at 12:01 p.m. last Wednesday.
One was the start of President Reagan's embargo on trade with Nicaragua. The second was the beginning of what aspires to be "an ongoing process" of interchange between writers and cultural captains from around the Americas: or, as the organizers of this first-ever conference of writers and artists from Canada, the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America termed their effort, a Dialogo de Todas las Americas .
"We think of the dialogo as the process of bringing together the voices of culture and helping to assert the role of artists and writers in influencing and shaping relations in the hemisphere," said Hamilton Fish, publisher of the Nation, which with its companion, Nation Institute, organized the four-day series of meetings.
"The cultural relationship between north and south is undervalued," said poet and human-rights activist Rose Styron, who helped sponsor the gathering, along with Mexican novelist/diplomat Carlos Fuentes, award-winning U.S. author William Kennedy and U.S. artist Claes Oldenburg, among others. Too often, she said, "political and military considerations dominate and distort the relations between our countries.
"Privately," Styron added, "we still like to think that the voice of the writer and artist can influence policy."
Twenty-two Latin Americans and six Canadians succeeded in, as Panamanian writer Rogelio Sinan put it, "getting through the immigration bureaucracy in this country" to meet with nearly 60 of their counterparts from the United States. Among other objectives, as novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. observed, the conference sought to put the term American writers in proper perspective.
"Now we in this country call ourselves Americans," Vonnegut said. "One United States citizen in a million perhaps realizes that the name is not as specific as it could be." This "sloppy national nomenclature," Vonnegut suggested, "might lead the masses to think we own the hemisphere."
But in the view of Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe, the concerns of North and Latin American writers and artists not only transcend hemispheric borders but in a way unite them. For example, said Wiebe: "I have written about the native people of Alberta and the way in which the native people of my country were displaced by the white people who settled it." In "exactly the same context," Wiebe said, "I am involved and interested in what is going on in Latin America."
In joining with fellow writers and artists from around the Americas, Wiebe said: "I think first of all we are people sharing our common humanness. I think that has to do with the way people see themselves. I mean, we are not, first of all, governments. We are first of all human beings."
As "creative people," Wiebe said, "we are affirmers of our common humanity. Writers are in a sense the conscience of their nations. They call attention to things. Why do you think writers were the first to be banned in Nazi Germany?"
Or in Latin America, where, said novelist/essayist/journalist Ariel Dorfman, "I can hear the footsteps all the time." That sound, said Dorfman, follows "not just the writers," but also "the readers, or those who cannot even aspire to readership because of illiteracy and misery": the sound of "the man, somewhere, who is waiting for us," the man "with a hood over his head so we cannot recognize him."
Said Dorfman, more bleakly than bitterly: "If we are silenced and persecuted, if we suffer exile and jail and censorship in vast sectors of Latin America, it is because the people in power are afraid of our words."
Double Cloud of Exile
Dorfman, after all, has lived under a double cloud of exile. Born in Argentina, Dorfman was raised in New York after his father fled the generals of his native country. Settling in Chile as a young writer, Dorfman, too, was forced to flee by political exigencies. For so many Latin American writers and artists, said Dorfman, censorship, repression and rank terror are constant companions. As such, "our relationship with writers in the United States will be, to begin, a lopsided one."
Still, Dorfman said, "it is only by recognizing these distances, and exploring them, that we can ever hope to really understand what joins us. . . . The point is, we are beginning something which will eventually be something which belongs to the people of the Americas."
And so there was talk of the "interrelationship between indigenous and European cultures": an exploration of how politics and history and popular culture have conspired to affect the artist, his voice and his audience. Illiteracy, and the special vulnerability of newly taught readers to exploitation by mass media, was a topic for U.S. author/educator Jonathan Kozol, Costa Rican poet/novelist Carmen Narranjo and Nicaraguan playwright Alan Bolt. One panel discussion focused on censorship, human rights and ideological exclusion, while a breakfast with Rep. Theodore Weiss (D-N.Y.) probed the status of and procedures for the formulation of U.S. policies toward Latin America.
At yet another session, held in the Versailles-like splendor of the Center for Inter-American Relations here, U.S. novelist E. L. Doctorow introduced a discussion of the "poetics of engagement, the poetics of solitude": in short, how writers and artists relate to power. "Just to confound things," Doctorow began by talking about the Russian writer Tolstoy, who eventually "used his talents to militate against the overwhelming injustices of the czar."
Theoretically, Doctorow said, "there is for every writer a point at which he or she might reach the same conclusion as Tolstoy." However, "with certain exceptions, I think American--" Doctorow paused, clearly mildly embarrassed, "--forgive me, U.S. writers have tended to be less vulnerable and less giving in to their consciences."
And U.S. essayist/critic Susan Sontag agreed: "It is true," she said, "that the ambition of most of the contemporary North American writers is a small ambition, however long the books.
"Most North American literature reflects the shallowness and moral paucity of North American society," Sontag declared, blasting that literature as "trivial, selfish, vulgarly psychological, cynical, stupidly sentimental--in short, a consumerist literature, the product of a consumerist society."
Whereas for the writer in Latin America, said Argentine novelist Luisa Valenzuela, "I think I have lived the experience of many Latin American writers in that you first start getting involved in politics without wanting to, because it is a matter of life and death, and little by little this involvement seeps indirectly into your literature.
"It is always a matter of life and death with us," Valenzuela said. "The balance is very delicate."
As for the conflict between "engagement" and "solitude," said Valenzuela, "the literary animal in each of us demands solitude, but the political animal does not allow us to withdraw."
Literature, she said, "is a merging of waters, the murky and the clear, where nothing is precise in its place because we do not know the place. We are looking for it in our writing."
Even in the most scorching of political climates, Valenzuela said, "literature does not pretend to remedy anything. It seeks to instigate. It is a great disturber of ideas, because ideas should never remain stagnant."
Rescuing the Past
And if Latin American writers "are obsessed with rescuing our past," Ariel Dorfman said, "in my five years here, I have been fascinated by the manner in which North Americans forget their past, cover it up, reinterpret it to get rid of the nightmares, turn it into an advertisement for the present."
In fact, poet Rose Styron conceded as tempers and artistic temperaments continued to flare around her, the same conversations might have been held between writers from the United States and writers from nearly any politically beleaguered region of the globe.
"Why not Czech writers?" she asked. "Why not, indeed."
Nonetheless, said Styron, "we had better start at home, in this whole hemisphere. I mean, these are the Americas."
And "as far as I'm concerned," Styron said, "the benefit is to have these writers sit around and talk to each other and get a feeling for what is happening inside their countries artistically and politically, so they can join voices and be heard.
"I am a great believer in face-to-face talk." Besides, said Styron, "Definitely, I will make a speech somewhere" as a result of this dialogo , "definitely, I will write something, whether in terms of a poem, or a public polemic, I don't know."
Can such gatherings actually move governments, change policy? "I doubt it," Styron said. "On the other hand, the more we know, the more we know each other, and the more we exchange ideas and ideals, the better."
It is "tremendously valuable culturally to have these exchanges," Hamilton Fish contended. "It is not mere intellectual self-indulgence. These artists are people who write for millions of people, who shape the values of the societies they live in. The more they are exposed to contrasting values, the more it is reflected in our immediate culture."
Indeed, said Dorfman, as writers and artists of Latin America plead their plight to a North American public, "We need to break the indifference barrier, the barrier of studied ignorance, the barrier of 'call tomorrow, come back some other time,' the barrier of 'there's just no space for that problem.' "
Finally, Dorfman said, "we need to break down the silence barrier in the United States."