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Novelist and Dirty War Political Prisoner Alicia Kozameh Interview in New, “School Me” Issue

January 15, 2011

It took 30 years for me to learn one of the most moving, significant, and tragic historical events. Sitting in a graduate class on Latin American literature, we watched a fictionalization of Argentina’s Dirty War. Of the torture and inhumanity that occurred during that period, I can remember writing in my notes in the dark, “HOW CAN YOU LOOK AWAY” as the screen flickered with images of a former military commander who has “adopted” a child from one of the torture victims—stealing the newborn baby of a woman who will later join the ranks of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.

The commander’s wife is coming to realize the origin of the little girl and the couple argues. He denies it. Their fighting escalates until a violence so precise and surprising escapes the man that it is clear—there is no turning away now.

Historia Oficial (The Official Story) presents an institutionalized violence, one that is cosmetically covered, the acknowledgement of which is actively banned. What I scrawled sitting in that classroom that night was a personal plea: to understand this specific historical instance of inhumanity, but also the ability of any human anywhere to act in such an immoral manner.

Our instructor, a fierce intellectual a little less than five feet tall, related the story of an acquaintance for whom the memories were too horrific to admit recall easily: They included walking to school as a girl, passing a body of a decapitated woman whose head had been shoved inside her.

That class forced me to fundamentally question my education. What else had I not learned? (The film received the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar when it was released in 1985, all the more reason to have known about it before.)

Like it’s real life example, the film’s violence is militaristic, sexist, cultural, and familial; it is a complex of brutality that includes the dehumanization of the poor and untenable levels of denial; it stretches to every level of individual and organized action. Sadly, the perpetrators and those they hurt and murder cannot be classified as strangers to one another. Chances are they grew up in the same neighborhood. It is only through abject whims that they end up on opposite sides of the torture table. This seemingly random assignment of roles begs the additional questions: What allowed them—the torturers—such unaccountable freedom against another person? What forces gave rise to these individuals and these acts?

The upcoming “School Me” issue of dirtcakes is privileged to feature an interview with writer, Dirty War chronicler, and political prisoner Alicia Kozameh among whose six novels Pasos bajo el agua (Steps Under Water) and 259 saltos, uno inmortal (259 Leaps, the Last Immortal) speak from her firsthand accounts. Kozameh discusses the nature of historical fiction, the harsh conditions of her three years in prison, and surviving there with and for her fellow inmates, and with and for writing. In this brief excerpt, Kozameh discusses how being arrested ironically saved her life:

Alicia: Before the coup d’état, they didn’t kill many people. They killed some, my uncle in 1974 among others, a year before they arrested me. During that time it was the triple A, the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, which was a death squad—police working for the military who were not in power yet. I mean, in power, yes, but not in the government. But then, the coup d’état came. I was arrested before the coup d’état and that’s the only reason why I am alive talking to you right now. So most of us who were arrested before the coup d’état survived. Right on the day of the coup d’etat, the 24th of March, of 1976, no more people were put in prison. People who were being held in different small prisons were all transferred to big ones. Men and women in different prisons, cities. During the transfers they killed thousands. The ones who survived these transfers mostly stayed in prison and, eventually, were freed. The rest, tens of thousands, were killed.
Catherine: And then there were the babies born in prison.
Alicia: Oh yes, they killed the mothers. I mean, they waited until the mothers had the babies, then these young women were executed and the babies were given to some member of the military or the police who couldn’t have children. This happened to at least 600 children. The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have found about one hundred, and are still looking for the other ones. It’s a terrible situation.
– Joshua Jennings Wood

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