In June 1979, when well-known Vancouver playwright and actor Carmen Aguirre was 11 years old, her world changed forever—for the second time in her young life. The first momentous event was in 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet’s coup forced her family to flee Chile for Canada. But then, six years later, her mother and stepfather decided to take and her younger sister away from their comfortable school life here, and move back to strife-ridden South America to join the underground resistance.
The ensuing seven years found Aguirre bouncing between Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina via arduous mountain passes, chicken buses, and overnight trains. She had to drop all contact with new friends every time her family moved on, living in a constant state of dread that her parents would be arrested. Eventually, at just 18, Aguirre put herself in further peril, joining the resistance against Pinochet’s right-wing regime herself.
The years of her tumultuous teens are evocatively detailed in her first book, Something Fierce (Douglas & McIntyre), a new memoir that illuminates what it’s like to come of age amid terror. What it is most certainly not is a political treatise or a book about heroism or martyrdom. What you get is a brutally honest and wryly funny story, told through the eyes of a girl young enough to yearn for cork-soled platforms and steal kisses with boys but old enough to know the people arriving at her parents’ safe house in La Paz, Bolivia, are limping and exhausted because they’ve been tortured.
“A lot of books written about revolutionaries, for lack of a better word, portray people who do this kind of work as heroic, as superhuman somehow,” says Aguirre, sitting over ceviche tortillas at Havana on the Drive, and bringing the same warm, upbeat tone to the serious subject matter that she does in the book. “And I wanted to do the opposite—to portray myself and those around me as completely imperfect human beings who decided to give their lives to a cause, and the toll that that takes psychologically, emotionally, and physically.”
Despite the joy that came from revisiting her memories of Latin America, a part of the world she loves, writing the book was an exceedingly painful process for Aguirre, who started putting pen to paper eight years ago. When publishers Douglas & MacIntyre asked for pictures from the era, she realized while looking through them how young she was to be living around such danger and upheaval.
“I thought, ”˜Wow, that’s what 11 looks like.’ I had a lot of compassion for that kid that I was. I’m sad for that kid that had to go through all that,” says Aguirre, who has extra pangs as a mother herself these days, to a four-year-old boy. “But when you look at the big picture, you say, ”˜Well, whose fault was all that? It was Pinochet, not my parents.’ My parents were victims of his.”
Aguirre says she lost a lot of sleep over the past few years trying to decide whether she should reveal what she calls her family’s biggest secrets. There was the anxiety that, amid today’s anti-terrorism fervour, she’d be putting herself, or her son, at risk. In Something Fierce, she is careful never to give the name of the movement she and her family joined; she also refers to the things she and others carried over the border into Chile as “items” and “goods”.
“When I was writing the book, the entire time I had insomnia. I thought, ”˜You have a kid and you’re a single mother here. What are you doing?’?” What convinced her, she said, was a series of conversations. One was with her Canadian stepfather, Bob Everton, who had been detained in Pinochet’s infamous stadium in Santiago right after the coup, and who later had several close calls while making runs over the border into Chile. Before he died in 2004, he encouraged her to write the book. Another was with a friend who was still in the resistance in South America: “I asked her about what she thought about the security risk of me writing the book, and she said, ”˜Well here’s the thing: it’s not your story. It’s everybody’s story, and it is your responsibility to tell it. You’re being so self-centred. You’re going to inspire and help people like me.’ She said, ”˜Whenever I was underground, it was only reading books like that that got me through.’ ”
Penning the memoir has been a huge learning experience for Aguirre, who says it was liberating not being confined to the taut format of plays, of which she has written 14, including The Trigger (a disturbing, deeply personal look at the so-called Paper Bag Rapist). In Something Fierce, she could go into lush details: Lima is a city where “flies landed on the papayas as fast as the vendors could peel them”; Santiago’s streets are “jammed with buses, taxis, ice cream vendors walking through the traffic and hundreds of necking teenage couples.”
Writing the book has been so positive that Aguirre is already thinking about her next one. But that’s not to say her acting and theatre work have slowed down. She’s been playing a maid named Alcina in the TV series Endgame, and in less than a year she’ll start touring a one-woman show called Blue Box across the country (in a Nightswimming–Neworld Theatre production), with the local premiere at the Cultch in May 2012.
“Coincidentally, a lot of the content of Blue Box is similar to the book, but it’s written in a different voice, for sure—it’s more satirical, more adult. It’s sparse, and the actor in me wrote it, not the writer,” she explains.
At the same time, she’s been teaching acting at Vancouver Film School and, in her role as playwright in residence at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, she’s also knee-deep in the first draft of a new play called The Tina Modotti Project, about the 1920s revolutionary photographer.
Almost as much as her identity has come from her sociopolitical past, which stretches back to a childhood steeped in struggle, a great deal of Aguirre’s strength has and continues to come from the theatre. She credits her stage training, starting with “kick-ass” Studio 58, with teaching her the discipline and multitasking ability it took to get her first book done. But it also gave her some of the fearlessness that helped her not only to boldly reveal her secret past but to face the response when the book comes out.
“As an actor, you’re basically buck naked, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically, on-stage or on a screen making a complete ass out of yourself. You’re basically in the business of humiliation, and it’s 90 percent rejection and bad reviews and people telling you you’re a piece of shit,” Aguirre says. “If you’re going to write something like that,” she adds, referring to her book, “you better be willing to take a risk and to really, really, really reveal yourself, and I think that again comes from my acting training.”
Aguirre may have gone through pain and worry over taking that risk with her memoir, but she’s come to terms with her past and is at peace with her decision. And here again she refers to the theatre, likening the book’s release to opening night. “It’s done, let it go, give it away, that’s it. So all the grief that’s happened in the rehearsal is over and this is it. Whatever will be will be.”
Something Fierce’s launch is next Thursday (May 19) at the Rhizome Café, where Aguirre will do a reading and sign books.