Alicia Partnoy: All we can rescue of our humanity is in our artAlicia Partnoy is currently in Kathmandu for the adaptation of her memoir into a play—being put on by One World Theatre from March 9-17 at Kausi Theatre in Teku. In a conversation with Pranaya SJB Rana, Partnoy spoke about writing, memory and the pursuit of justice.
In 2012, Alicia Partnoy walked up on stage at the theatre of her former university to testify before an Argentine commission that was investigating gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity. She recounted the experience in a poem, Testimony: “I, in my turn, coil around / my bowing accomplice, / this microphone. I urge action as a prescription, / information as an infallible antidote/ and, one every knot is untied, / I recite my verses. / I resist. I am whole.”
As a 20-year-old, in 1976, Partnoy was taken from her university and jailed by the brutal military dictatorship. She became one of the 30,000 disappeared in Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. She spent more than a hundred days at The Little School, a concentration camp, bound and tied, beaten, molested, starved. In 1979, she was forced into exile in the US. Partnoy recounted her experiences at The Little School in an eponymous memoir, which was used as evidence in the trials against the generals who led the junta.
Partnoy is now a poet, writer and professor at Loyola Marymount University in the US. She is also a human rights activist, collecting stories from Latin American survivors of war and conflict. Partnoy is currently in Kathmandu for the adaptation of her memoir into a play—being put on by One World Theatre from March 9-17 at Kausi Theatre in Teku. In a conversation with Pranaya SJB Rana, Partnoy spoke about writing, memory and the pursuit of justice. Excerpts:
First of all, what brings you all the way to Nepal?
Deborah Merola, who is the director of One World Theatre, reached out to me a couple of years ago. She wanted to do a play adaptation of my book, The Little School, which is about being disappeared in a concentration camp in Argentina. She had become familiar with the book about 20 years ago and had even taught it. I was very moved by the fact that Nepali actors were taking the roles of my friends who were killed during the dictatorship in Argentina. I had wanted to be an actor, which never happened, but I was courageous enough to ask Deborah to be an actor and she agreed. So now I play a memoirist who remembers everything that happens.
So in a way you are playing yourself.
I am playing my old self and my daughter Eva plays my younger self, the consciousness of the younger self. There is also another character who’s performing myself. All the action is non-existent for Alicia, since I am blindfolded and my hands are tied for 105 days. We needed some more action so my daughter is there doing the things that Alicia the character cannot do.
Were you involved in adapting the play?
Yes, I was involved. I was very impressed that Deborah got almost all my words in there. But she brought it to life with some dialogue. I was impressed that she could respect my original work. I told her that she can chop since this is a different media. But she said no, this is what she does, she respects the original work.
You’re a writer, a poet and now also involved in theatre. How has art shaped your life and experiences?
I grew up with my mother who is a painter. She is in the play too, as her work is on stage. I started writing when I was nine years old, so I grew up writing and expressing. I studied literature but the military dictatorship closed my major in my university so I couldn’t continue studying. I also studied theatre for a short while. But later, I did a PhD in literature.What I do is I study the work of survivors and their relatives. I’ve concentrated in Latin America but I’ve also made connections with Holocaust survivors and Palestinian refugees. Now, after coming here, I went to see 14 Stories, the exhibition about the disabled survivors of war. I can take that back to my field and make connections to how we survivors tell our stories and how we make a strong denunciation of what happened to us.
How much have your experiences during the Dirty War influenced your writing?
When I was young, I wanted to write revolutionary poetry. But they were awful. They sucked until I went to prison. But I don’t recommend prison as a workshop. I spent three years as a political prisoner—105 days at the Little School, 52 more days disappeared and then two and a half years in a prison for women political prisoners. There were 800 of us from all over the country. The disappeared were about 30,000—1 per 1,000 of the population of Argentina of that time. In all that I do, I incorporate not only my experiences—I find strength in the experiences of others. My last book was about the life story of my friend and colleague, a transgender woman. She suffered—for being poor, for being Latina and for being transgender.
Before that, we put together the poetry of a mother from Ciudad Juarez. There is ‘feminicide’ ongoing there. We call it feminicide, not femicide, because it’s like genocide—women get killed with total impunity. Her child was killed and she started writing poetry after people tried to kill her for seeking justice for her daughter.
I make all these connections. In Kathmandu, I got in touch with Story Kitchen, an organisation that collects the stories of women who have suffered gender violence during the war years and after. I have been very impressed with the work Nepalis are doing with memory. You are so close to your trauma. It took us much longer to work with memory. Justice is much slower.
I came across an interview of yours with NPR. In response to the interviewer asking if your writing had helped you come to terms with your trauma, you said that you think ‘healing is highly overrated. Could you elaborate?
Because people are uncomfortable with our pain. We try to manage it but we never completely heal. We try to keep our wounds clean so they don’t infect, I guess. We are damaged; our children and our families are damaged. My brother killed himself. These are the silent victims. Everyone is traumatised. What we can do is soothe our pain. But I am not going to close this. I am connecting with others who helped me create this community of survivors. We lean on each other.
Can there ever be closure for something like this? On a national and a personal level?
When they disappear people, it’s strange because you never think the disappeared are dead. There is no mourning. We cannot have a burial. What happened to me happened in 1977. So in the trials, I testified in a theatre at my university, in 2012. This was real justice. The perpetrators were sitting in the second row behind me. When I finished testifying, I couldn’t stop crying. I felt like all my friends had died at that exact moment. I didn’t expect that at all. I was seeing a justice that I didn’t think I would ever see in my life.
So I think we did more, more than all the Latin American countries—in terms of monetary compensation, in terms of memory and in terms of justice, as we sent many of the perpetrators to prison.
So you’re saying Argentina has dealt with its past properly?
Yes, because there was a government that had the will to help. We had a lot of support from the international community. We didn’t do this by ourselves. But there are some things we couldn’t achieve. For instance, I witnessed a birth in the concentration camp. We’re still looking for the baby.
In Nepal, it has been more than 10 years since the war ended and yet, justice—for those who suffered rights violations and for the disappeared and their families—has been elusive. What can we learn from Argentina’s experience?
I’m afraid of this question, because I don’t know your country that well and I don’t know your experience. It would be too arrogant to just start giving recipes of what you can learn. I’ve seen the movement working here. You’re finding a lot of obstacles. That happened to us too. Look at how many years it took for us to get justice.
In Argentina, there were trials for the truth. We told the truth but there was a pact of silence among the perpetrators. There were 500 children in the detention centres, either born there or taken from their families. We want to know where they are. Sometimes they were appropriated by the families of the perpetrators. We had the generals in prison but they blamed everything on the lower ranks. If only the lower ranks had some kind of incentive to say where the disappeared are. But they didn’t, so they are all in jail now.
Here, there are victims who favour prosecution and a legal approach to justice, but also those who believe that truth, reparations and memory should take precedence over prosecutions. Did you have this difference in Argentina?
In Argentina, it was a very different type of conflict. It was a military government that took over after a coup. They killed and terrorised. It’s very clear cut. There was a resistance movement but there wasn’t a people’s army of the size you had. They destroyed the lives of the people and the economy. They were corrupt and genocidal. They wanted to destroy any sign of solidarity in the people. But victims are human beings. We want different things. I don’t believe in forgiveness. I am not going to forgive the people who tortured and killed my friends. But some people do. Some people say I just need truth and I will be at peace. For many, justice is necessary. Without justice, there is impunity. With impunity, you don’t have safety.
Reparations are also necessary because they destroyed our homes and took years of our lives. In Argentina, a group of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo say ‘we don’t want money because they will think we can be bought, we only want justice.’ But other groups say ‘we want money and we want justice.’ You will find all these different positions in human beings.
The generals who led Argentina’s dirty war are dead or imprisoned. In our civil conflict, the generals and commandants who led the war on both sides are alive and even in government. As a society and as individuals, what can we do in the face of such impunity?
I see what Story Kitchen is doing, what Voices of Women media is doing. They are collecting these stories and disseminating them. That’s evidence. For me, it took almost 40 years. I’ve found myself telling the mothers of the disappeared of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, write it down, record everything. You might find justice eventually.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about the relations between stories and justice. How important is the telling of people’s stories, through prose or poetry or any kind of art, to empathy and the pursuit of justice?
The perpetrators of these crimes want the people to see victims and survivors as non-human. The only way to get away with this violence is to consider the person you are destroying as non-human. All we can rescue of our humanity is in our art. The reason why I wrote The Little School is I got very scared. I didn’t want to read the Amnesty International report—torture after torture, fact after fact. I know people get tired of reading those things. I wanted to grab the reader’s attention with something that has to do with how we connected as human beings, how we resisted as human beings, how they didn’t destroy us as human beings.
This book of mine was published in 1986 in the US. I wrote it in Spanish but it wasn’t published in Argentina until 2006—20 years later. So the memory work you are doing after just 10 years is much stronger than what we did in terms of memory in Argentina. I am very impressed by it and I am learning more.