Interview by Mauricio Fuentes for Interdram.
Translation by Cristóbal Pizarro Schkolnik.
April, 23, 2020.
“I steal those stories that keep on shining over our heads. And as I’ve got the vocation of a forensic pathologist, or a medium. I like investigating those corpses, putting them on the autopsy table, reconstituting the crime scene, listening to their dead voices...”
Nona Fernández. Photo by Sergio López Isla.
I’ve met Nona Fernández off stage as many times as I’ve seen her on stage. In both, she is charming, playful, and has an overflowing sense of humor. Nona Fernandez is one of the Chilean narrators that has portrayed a generation that lived its infancy and adolescence in the ’70s and ’80s. Her writing has been translated and published in many places around the world. She is a professional actress, and after a long journey through prose, she came into playwriting to make a stand. Her plays are staged by her own company, where she acts, and Marcelo Leonart, her partner, directs. Our last encounter was in Buenos Aires, when she came with La Pieza Oscura, to present El Taller (The Workshop), at the Temporada Alta Festival in Timbre Cuatro Theater. Once the show ended, there was a Q&A with the audience. Then there was a closer conversation, where we were able to share experiences regarding theater and discussing writing, the dictatorship, and Chile’s social uprising.
At the moment, we are going through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many intellectuals, like Zizek, Byung-Chul Han or Harari, have expressed diverse speculations on what could come in the future, as a consequence of this crisis. Many of those hypotheses are contradictory to each other. I prefer to refrain from speaking of the future. Everything is uncertain, in fact, the virus itself is still, for scientists, a mystery. It is difficult to pose a question regarding the pandemic and its effects on writing or future artistic creation. Therefore, I would like to invite you to play, relating these two words as freely as you want: (1) Coronavirus, (2) playwriting.
I think playwriting, as all artistic creation, is incubating a profound reassessment during this pause. This concern had already come up with the social uprising of October 18th. We have been shaken from the deepest. At this moment, at least for myself, writing with a plan becomes impossible. Questioning is everything. What to write? How? Why? About what? Which format to use? What structure? Artistic creation works with the imagery of each era, and reality at this moment is far too dense and difficult to process. Every day there is a new thought that challenges you, coming from different areas. Political, social, economic, sanitary, and, at least for me, it’s not yet possible to translate even the glimmers of the whole. The writing I am interested in exercising is one of absolute connection with its time: attempting to summon reality when writing, to scrutinize it, to process it. But right now, the influx of information and experience is such that it is necessary to soak in, wait until the coffee’s sediment settles at the bottom of the cup before attempting to see anything. And maybe, like gypsies, predict the present from that point on.
You belong to the generation that grew up during the dictatorship, and it is possible to see that in your writing, this subject is always present. Do you believe your plays make a difference when referencing this period of our history? Can the dictatorship and its effects wear out, as a leitmotiv, at the moment of writing? Or will it always be a challenge to invent new ways and points of view around this subject?
Subjects never wear out. Writers do. They repeat themselves, use a formula, and end up putting out a light. I don’t know if my work makes a difference with what has already been done, I only know that the subject has turned out to be a sentence, a beautiful and pleasant sentence because although I would like to, I have never been able to get out of it. Dictatorship is like my Ithaca, I am always coming back. But isn’t that all of Chile’s reality? Can you come out of it? Aren’t we all trapped on that island? With our constitution, with the economic system that rules us, with the ruling class that leads us? I was born in 1971, I was two years old when the Military Coup took place. I came into the world amongst protests, vigils, helicopters, and funerals. I am part of a semi-lost generation that didn’t have the chance to take a leading role, and had to observe with teen eyes, and tried –from a very young age- to mobilize. I think we are a bit condemned to remembrance. Maybe because of that, without a plan, without purpose, as an organic act, every writing process I undertook, I did it thinking of the children we were. Resurrecting stories I lived, that crossed my way, that I heard, that someone told me, and I try to give them a space now. I firmly believe in taking the baton of memory. I am interested in building a collective memory. Not the official one, not the stiff one in museums or manuals. Not the memory of the good ones and the bad ones. Not the one that appeases. I am interested in living memory, the one we all make, the one that is made up of scraps of memories of some and others.
Shepherds in the fields, in the zones where it is not entirely contaminated yet, they guide their herds using the stars as a guide. They set their routes looking at those distant lights that are no more than the shine of astral bodies that took place millions of years ago. The light from that past is part of our present, lighting up our future like a lighthouse. Those stars speak over our heads. Sometimes they have the faces of the children we were and that are no more, the ones that fell in stupid combat when they were fifteen years old. Sometimes they have the face of the protagonists of all those funerals and vigils I went to when I was a girl.
Walter Benjamin noted in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, written in 1940 when he was trying to cross the Pyrenees escaping from the Spanish and Nazi police that was looking for him for being a Jew and a Marxist, that nothing that ever took place has to be forfeit for history. Everything is worth for the record, everything is useful once it’s part of the compilation, in the recycling of writing and memory. I steal those stories that keep on shining over our heads. And as I’ve got the vocation of a forensic pathologist, or a medium. I like investigating those corpses, putting them on the autopsy table, reconstituting the crime scene, listening to their dead voices, and doing the same thing shepherds do, throwing them into the present for them to become guides. Because nothing that ever took place has to forfeit for history.
In 2018, you and Paulina García were the artistic directors of the National Playwriting Festival (Muestra de Dramaturgia Nacional). What did this experience mean to you?
It was one of the most beautiful, enriching, and stimulating experiences I’ve had in the last few years. We put together a passionate and generous work team, four energetic, creative, respectful, and very, very hard working women. Natalia Vargas, Ana Cosmelli, Paulina Garcia and me. And around us, an enthusiastic group of collaborators that worked full-on with us. Artists, managers, editors, producers, playwrights. We wanted to put together the most inclusive festival so far, finding alliances with venues, managers, educators, editorials, and artists from Santiago and other regions of the country. It meant moving a colossal ship, and I was able to learn a lot about the diverse realities of teams, of theaters, of artists, and of playwrights. We are a very, very precarious industry, but passion moves us in such a dangerous way, that our joy of doing doesn’t size that precariousness. It’s a double-edged sword. And at the festival, I was able to see that passion happily unfold amongst all of the participants. From that very collaborative experience to today’s sanitary crisis, emerges a tremendous concern for our colleagues. While I write this, I hope that all the conversations with the ministry of culture are fruitful, so that real and strong support exists, and our sector can survive. And that this concern for ourselves is just the beginning of labor that can help us overcome that constant precariousness in our doing.
And the biggest treasure I keep from that experience, was sharing those two intense years with Alejandro Sieveking. We wanted the festival to pay homage to him, that everything circulated around him, his work, and him as a person. We did talks with him, we took him to Antofagasta and Concepción, we did a short documentary about him, he shared with the playwrights that were selected to be part of the festival, and in the work we did in teams. He even performed in one of the plays of the festival. His charm put a spell on all of us, and I believe he was like a balm for the collective experience. Alejandro was a gentle master, tremendously generous, bearer of an immeasurable theatrical experience he was always happy to share. I am thankful for every minute we spent together. I still struggle with the idea of him not being around.
Feminism has become a protagonist in the world and is somehow stirring structures in all societies. What does this movement mean to you as a playwright and a woman?
I sincerely believe that feminism is the articulating road to generate the changes the world needs to survive and develop properly. There is no other. All have failed because all have left aside a fundamental point of view: 50% of the planet’s citizens. Already, in the social uprising, we have been able to experience the power managed by women. If we talk about political, symbolical, social milestones, in these six months of uprising, these milestones have been articulated by women. The possibility of thinking about a constitution built-in parity is something unprecedented in the world, and it was us women who accomplished that. The feminist demonstrations of the latest 8M are the most massive popular demonstrations at a worldwide level ever recorded. The Las Tesis collective’s artistic actions were replicated over and over again all over the world, making it another accomplishment of female work. Network labor, collaborative, associative, with a horizontal logic, without protagonist leaderships, has been effective and fast. And these accomplishments are just a few examples because they are close and very visible. Feminism has always included a reflection on all of the citizenship precariousness problem. This is because where one person is living in precariousness, there is a group of women suffering and thinking of that one. And besides from suffering because of the base reality of gender discrimination. Chilean feminists have helped think and deepen democracy. If we have universal suffrage in this country, it’s because of feminists. If we have a divorce law, it’s because of feminists. Our precarious and still insufficient three causal abortion law too. Feminism moves the boundaries of what is possible, it’s disobedient, creative, stubborn, and imagines that better future we all need.
About your play El Taller (The Workshop), you said the writing process was very close to the improvisation and staging processes. Was the dramatic construction of the play aided by what was coming up on the scene? Do you believe a text worked in the staging process is more efficient than one that is worked on by an author in his/her own?
So far, I have worked as an actress in all my plays. To be able to work freely in both my roles (actress and playwright), I need to leave the text as closed as possible before taking it to the stage. That way, when the rehearsal process starts, I stop writing, and I am only worried about acting. The text is discussed and edited previously with the company’s director, Marcelo Leonart, so we can start the staging process with a solid piece that convinces us both. We don’t improvise with it, we don’t work on the text from the stage. That doesn’t mean, though, that if new details we can keep or take away come up, we won’t do it. But it is a tiny part of the work of writing. Now, as every process is different, and as each material demands a different work approach, in the last show we are developing, everything has been different than the previous methods. This time we are transferring a novel I wrote (Space Invaders) to the stage, and this time I’ve let myself go and followed what happens onstage. I started with a base script. That script has been modified in its structure and has found its definitive shape in rehearsals. The text challenges the stage and vice-versa, and in that tension, that is embodied by us, the performers, the final script appeared.
The playwriting and staging research process has moved forward in parallel. In short, I think every play challenges us in its writing and that the creative process of every text is developed according to what it needs. Sometimes that can be the solitude of a desk or the collective effervescence of the stage. Sometimes it demands a lot of archive research, and sometimes it asks for external opinions. Sometimes it’s all certainties. Sometimes it’s just darkness. The text is like a little animal, it demands a way to develop itself and find its place. What we have to do as playwrights is to be attentive to its specific needs.
What is the importance, and why do you choose black humor as a substantial ingredient to condiment your dramatic writing, and develop in that way, such significant and hard subjects, like State terrorism?
There is a particular will from my part to reassess those subjects and these stories. Drawing them out of solemnity, victimization, official nature. Offering a new regard, messier, more playful, that allows the audiences to enter, mostly new generations. That’s why there is a wink to pop culture, trash culture, and the use of humor as well. I really believe that we have to be able to tell our own version of history, and to do that, you need to own it. The use of humor is not about being disrespectful to those dramatic events, but quite the opposite. Playing with humor and pop references that are also part of our culture, and providing them with a new point of view, is part of that owning exercise.
You studied drama and graduated as an actress at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Nevertheless, you started writing short stories and novels before getting into playwriting. How and why was this process like this? How does writing prose help you when it comes to writing drama?
I was always torn between my two passions; writing and the stage. When I was a child, I didn’t know how you could be a writer; you had a cultural blackout, a dictatorship; and that impulse was left circulating in a mental playground. At the time, studying theater lead to a university degree, and you could have a formal job. That way, I studied theater and wrote, and I was taking literary workshops and playing with prose on the side. Literature has always been a game for me. A game you play seriously, but a game after all. Whereas playwriting I encountered in lecture rooms. Egon Wolff was my master- I was able to approach the trade from his work. And in my history classes, I always visited the prominent male playwrights. I say male playwrights because, in university, I never read a female playwright. I think approaching the trade of playwriting from academia stopped my impulse of writing theater. I had the impression it was something very serious and hard, a territory for brilliant and well-prepared people, and I have to say, a masculine space. Later on, I was able to break all those obstacles, and I dared writing theater. But it took me a long time before believing I was capable of doing it. My first play opened in 2012, whereas my first book was published in 2000. In that sense, I am an old writer, but a young playwright.