Fear And The Word

| May / June 2004

Even where speaking out can be fatal, the truth gets told. What's our excuse?

One morning in early September of the year 1983, I found myself in my brother-in-law's small house in Santiago, Chile, urgently speaking into a phone. Although General Augusto Pinochet was still at that point the absolute ruler of my country and I had only been back home for two days after a decade of forced exile, I was already trying to inform the world about my impressions. On the other side of the phone line was a machine in a faraway office at The New York Times that was recording words of mine that would be published the next day on the opinion page.

My article, hurriedly scribbled that very dawn, tried to explain to foreign readers, and to myself, the strange experience of returning after such a long banishment: how the same birds of yesteryear awoke me in the morning and the same familiar smell of bread drowned my senses and yet how everything had also changed irrevocably, the dread in the streets, the country plundered for the sake of a tiny minority, the signs of resis-tance that were spreading everywhere. My words were harsh, blunt, calling things by their names, lamenting the blood and the pain and accusing the military of murder. This was the way I had written, outside Chile, for the last 10 years -- it was, after all, to be free in expressing myself with unequivocal clarity that I had left my country. I told myself that now, when the dictator had allowed me to rejoin my homeland, I should not let any changes creep into my style or my vocabulary. I had to prove, more to myself than to others, that I could not be silenced.

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