The book opens in a food court in the Los Angeles International Airport in 1979. Eleven-year-old Carmen Aguirre and her ten-year-old sister Ale, who have lived in Vancouver, British Columbia for the past five years, are eating a McDonald’s lunch with their mother, when she informs them that they were not, in fact, going to Costa Rica as she’d led the girls to believe. Rather they are headed to Lima, Peru, and she can’t tell them more or further ahead than that. If someone asks where they were born, they must say Vancouver (a lie) instead of Chile (the truth). Their stepfather, Bob, would now be their blood father to anyone who asked. And so the lies, the tremendous pressure, and the secrecy of Carmen Aguirre’s double life began.
The book is Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, and it won the 2012 Canada Reads competition. At 274 pages, it’s a slim volume, and riveting enough that it flies by. What’s astonishing is that it’s true. The author, Vancouver actor and playwright Carmen Aguirre, did not have the typical Canadian childhood. Instead, that day in the airport signified the beginning of years or tumult, uncertainty, fear and lies as she and her family participated in the resistance in South America against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the 80s. She has written and co-written 20 plays, but this is her first book.
The story is outwardly, overtly dangerous – illicit border crossings, items and goods sewn into linings of luggage, bribes we pray the guards will take, and much more – and emotionally tense to read as a result. But perhaps even more painful is the more understated, slowly developing realization that the real story here is one of Carmen and her sister growing up a constant, relentless part of something they did not choose, forced to live and carry the burden and choices of their mother. Forced to lie, forced to move constantly, forced to conceal who they really were – all of which contributed to a loneliness and isolation, and a fractured sense of home and normalcy. Two sisters, close in age, growing up in the same household. Aguirre herself, upon reaching early adulthood, chose to forge further and deeper into the resistance of her own volition, taking flying lessons, learning to pilot small Tomahawk and Cessna planes with her then boyfriend (also a resistance member) in order to complete highly dangerous deliveries into Chile. At a heightened moment – their mother has been missing a week, feared captured or worse – Carmen’s sister Ale, age fifteen now, reveals that she has asked another family to adopt her. Later, in the book’s acknowledgements, Aguirre thanks her sister for accepting the book being written, “even if her version of the story is completely different”. Two sisters, both profoundly, fundamentally affected by their mother’s choices, struggling under that burden and making different decisions.
It’s hard, when reading the book not to both admire and be furious at the mother – when her daughters go hungry, when they are unable to make real, lasting friends who truly know them, when they are put in acute danger repeatedly, when they are forced to lie to protect their family secret and more. At times her choices seem noble and above reproach, and at times they seem selfish beyond reason, that she would allow and force her children to live this way.
Something Fierce is in no way a simple read, and it stays with the reader after completion. It is thoughtfully written and beautifully executed, and is guaranteed to create some thought and some questions.
Read on for an interview with Carmen Aguirre, author of Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter.
AbeBooks: In May 1986, in Lima Peru, at 18 years of age you finally took the resistance oath yourself. Part of that oath was “I will never speak of the organization or my involvement in it to anybody.” Where did you find the courage to break the silence and write this book?
Carmen Aguirre: There are no memoirs written in English about the Chilean resistance. And I think there are many reasons for that: we lost the struggle (most memoirs about revolutionaries end in triumph), it is considered self-centred to write about one's self, and there is still a lot of fear, as Chile is under ultra right-wing rule and repression of the Mapuche and student movements is fierce. I felt that the story of the Chilean resistance needed to be told before its members all passed away, taking the stories with them. My late stepfather, Bob Everton, urged me to write the book. That was the final push I needed.
AbeBooks: Is there any danger for you now in writing it?
Carmen Aguirre: I don't know if there is danger. I felt very afraid while I was writing it, not knowing until the last minute whether is was wise or foolhardy to publish it. I think most of it is paranoia on my part, but we do live in interesting times, and there are good reasons why people don't write these stories.
AbeBooks: When you revealed your intention to publish this book, was the notion met with support and encouragement, anger and disbelief, or both from your family and friends? Did you ever doubt you would write it?
Carmen Aguirre: Most people supported and encouraged me when they heard about the book. Some were afraid, for obvious reasons, but even they offered support. I did not doubt that I would write it.
AbeBooks: What made you decide to pursue a career as a playwright and actor?
Carmen Aguirre: I found my calling as an actor when I was three years old. I believe that you can only be an actor if it is your calling, otherwise you shouldn't do it. It's a life filled with instability, uncertainty, and it's ninety percent rejection. I didn't know that I would become a playwright until my mid-twenties, when I realized that as a Latina actor in Canada I would get very little work, and usually stereotypical roles at that. So I decided to tell the stories of my community through playwriting. It was about creating space for the complexity of our stories to be told.
AbeBooks: In the book you mention that to get through dangerous border crossings you practiced the skill of “killing your heart” - steeling yourself to show no emotions or nerves. Do you call on those skills in your acting career?
Carmen Aguirre: Absolutely not. Acting is the art and skill of being completely open, present, and vulnerable in front of strangers. It is the opposite of showing no emotions.
AbeBooks: The story has two distinct layers – the overt, dangerous violence of the resistance, and the more subtle, developing and evolving relationship between mother and daughter. Did your mother do the right thing, joining the resistance, taking you and Ale along?
Carmen Aguirre: I think that ultimately my mother did the right thing in taking us with her. I'm very happy that my mother joined the resistance, and, through her life, provided an example of how to follow your passion, one hundred percent. I'm very happy I didn't stay in Vancouver.
AbeBooks: Some readers have had a very strong reaction to your mother's choices in your book. Did your relationship with her suffer at that criticism at all?
Carmen Aguirre: My relationship with my mother is still strong and has not suffered.
AbeBooks: In the acknowledgments, you thank your sister for accepting the writing of this book, “even if her version of the story is completely different.” Does she remember the years as factually different, or is it just her opinion and overall feeling about events?
Carmen Aguirre: My sister's version is different in the sense that she feels it was much worse than what I portrayed. My relationship with her is strong.
AbeBooks: As a reader, what are some of your favourite books (both fiction and non)? What are you reading right now?
Carmen Aguirre: There are many books that I love and have left a lasting impression on me, particularly the ones I read as a young person. Fiction: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Those books left an impression on me as a a young teen.
Non-fiction: Let Me Speak by Domitila Barrios de Chungara, The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Those non-fiction books left an impression on me when I was a young teen. Recently, I have enjoyed the following fiction: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, Small Island by Andrea Levy. I also like anything by Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, to name a few. Non-fiction I have read as an adult that has left an impression on me: The Autobiography of Malcom X, co written with Alex Haley, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, the memoirs of Lillian Hellman, Every Secret Thing: My Family My Country by Gillian Slovo, The Country Under My Skin by Gioconda Belli, anything by David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, James Baldwin.
Currently I am reading the novel 2666 by Roberto Bolano.
What's next for you – what are you working on?
I am currently working on adapting Something Fierce into a screenplay, as well as the first draft of a play called The Tina Modotti Project. I am also ruminating on my next book, which will most likely be a novel based on the lives of my three fascist great-aunts who make a memorable appearance in Something Fierce.