I am part of the sweetest book club in all the land. Well actually, we call ourselves a Readers Club cause we don’t want to limit ourselves to only reading books. Maybe we wanna read an article, or a graphic novel, or watch a movie together based on a book! Or maybe we want to get together and just chat about how much we love our dogs, and maybe we have talked about renaming our club Dogs Who Read Books and Bark and Watch TV Shows Club. You can’t pigeonhole us!
This club was born of wanting to spend more time with friends who we don’t see enough, new friends who we want to get to know better, and committing to consuming books and media created only by people of color, women, immigrants, queers, and femmes. We rotate hosts, we vote on what we will read next, we share snack duties and there is a dog (or two) at every one of our meetings. At our last get together the host, Leif, went above and beyond. We all grilled, there was a kiddie pool, we sat in Leif’s beautiful backyard, and the night ended with us sitting in the pool, eating hippie otter pops, next to a beautiful fire that Leif had built. Tell me that isn’t dreamy.
One of the books we were discussing at our last meeting was The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende.
Isabel Allende has been a long time favorite of my family’s. She is an internationally recognized Chilean author, my father has written books about her writing and counts her among his friends, my brother named his daughter after one of her famous collection of stories, and mom has read everything she has ever written.
But not me!
Probably because I am a total brat and had to do everything to try and differentiate myself from my family, I decided to completely ignore the Allende canon. Until within the context of this very supportive and fun space, I thought I could finally read and discuss Allende’s first novel.
It is hard to express the emotional journey that La Casa de Los Espiritus (I much prefer the title in Spanish) took me on, because words fail me, and are generally lacking to express complex and deep emotions. But I’m gonna try, cause this is a blog, and presumably you came here to see words.
Never before in my life have I felt so understood by a work of literature. I had no idea what the book was about, and didn’t realize it would build up to a depiction of the 1973 CIA backed Chilean military coup, which ousted socialist president Salvador Allende (related to Isabel Allende) and put into place the military dictator Pinochet, who amassed countless human rights violations from 1973 till 1990.
My family lived this. In every way. My father’s cousins were imprisoned and tortured for being communists, my parents helped hide contraband guns and my mother played “socialist telephone” through her therapy office, sharing and trading political secrets with those trying to resist the government, find their “disappeared” loved ones, or escape the country and seek asylum.
Also during this time- my parents had their first child and, within the year, lost her to a rare form of leukemia.
Within this context of loss they decided to leave their home country and move to the United States, ultimately settling in New York City. Here they did their best to, in so many ways, start new lives. They had to learn a new language, a new culture, all while grieving the loss of their first child, their home, and their community. They got jobs, finished degrees, had children, moved to the suburbs. And when my brother and I were born, even though in every way we were American- born on US soil, learning English as we learned Spanish- the truth of our parent’s trauma, the trauma of our lineage, the heritage of imperialism, was ever present. In the stories that they told us, in the food they fed us, in the country we knew we actually belonged to.
The military coup that occurred in Chile on September 11, 1973 was fueled by the motivation of capitalism. It didn’t serve the interest of the rich, and by extension the “first world” (read: the United States) to have the poor and disenfranchised citizens of countries long pillaged by Spanish colonialism, elect their leaders; It endangered business interests to have poor farmers read Marx and imagine worker’s rights. And so the upper class, factions of the government that wanted more power and wealth, and surely a whole other cast of unsavory characters, teamed up with the CIA to overthrow the socialist government and instill a despotic military regime.
For the next 17 years this regime literally traumatized dissenters.
Trauma is stored on a cellular level. It gets into the fiber of your being, it affects the way your body functions, and it is passed from mother to child for generations. This is why imperialism works so well- you need only to break families once to have a ripple effect. At the time of our reading The House of the Spirits, the current US political administration is systematically separating asylum seeking families at the “US boarder.” Literally taking children from their parents and keeping them in holding cells.
We are taught in school that imperialism is a thing of the past, relegated to our history books and the darkest corners of our imagination. But you know what imperialism actually is? Yes, it is the taking of land and resources- but in practice, it is the breaking of bodies, the altering of cells, the trauma that becomes blood and spans generations. Imperialism is happening right now, with children who are scared and not with their families- they are learning and internalizing fear, isolation, and loss. Deep deep loss.
The practice of taking children from families is a long standing tradition of imperialism. And these children who have most recently been separated from their parents will grow up facing all the same challenges everyone else does, but with the added challenge of that fear response. Of anxiety and depression that creeps up, that goes undiagnosed or untreated. That needs to be ignored in exchange for mere survival. It is literally the difference between surviving and thriving.
I have struggled with anxiety for much of my life. Mostly I have tried to ignore it and when I think as to the root cause, I can figure some things out, but mostly I get frustrated. I think of myself as weak and like if only I could just think it away, do some complicated equation in my head, I could come out the other side anxiety-free.
A few months ago, while laying in bed on a rare lazy Saturday morning Lola said “I think part of why you are so anxious is because you have inherited, on a cellular level, the trauma that your mom has carried around.” How beautiful, to have a companion at your side who can lovingly help you see yourself.
To say my mom and I are similar is an understatement. In so many ways, we are carbon copies. As a child I watched her struggle with anxiety. I was acutely attuned to the triggers and warning signs of her panic attacks- restaurants with loud music, excusing herself to go to the bathroom several times, bright lights or extreme heat. As I moved through my 20s and found myself starting to exhibit my own signs of anxiety, I felt a sense of despair. My mother’s fate was my own, I was becoming that which I most feared in her, my weakness catching up to me. I was her child, and this was my birthright, my inheritance.
I never stopped to consider where it was coming from and what it meant, why my body and mind seemed more prone to anxiety and fear response. This isn’t about blame, not at all. I love my mother and her strength astonishes and amazes me, strength that was also passed down to me, that is also a part of who I am. This is about seeing how factors beyond her control, controlled in fact by fascists, had a deep and adverse impact on her quality of life. Its about seeing how that has found its place in my reality, without mine or her consent.
Reading The House of the Spirits was like reading a road map through the time and space. Its a terrain that I haven’t necessarily walked all of myself, but it is familiar and I know it in my bones. Its a terrain that my family, my ancestors, all the energy and life force that came together to bring me into existence, have traversed. Have endured. Have lived through.
This is, RIGHT NOW, about seeing how imperialism isn’t conceptual- it is something that is continuing to unfold before our very eyes. And you know what else can’t be conceptual? The dismantling of imperialism, and the active role we all can, nay NEED, to take to interrupt the perpetuation of trauma.
The book we are reading now to be discussed at our next meeting is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He clearly and devastatingly articulates that the breaking of the body, specifically the black body, is terrorism. To break the body is to break the spirit and is to break communities- interrupting life with constant grief. I can’t understand the reality of being black in America, and in very many ways my skin keeps me more safe and living in different reality than that of black PoC in this country. The breaking of bodies happens to varying degrees and extremes to different groups of people, but to a certain extent it happens to all bodies that are deemed “other.” It is the breaking of that which isn’t male, which isn’t white, which isn’t straight, able bodied, monied, clearly “gendered,” and believing in Christ. It breaks those of us who are extra and who don’t fit or make “sense.”
I am not sure what needs to be done here, but I do think a first step is to see that although our pain is very much real and very much ours, it isn’t our fault. I suppose there is a certain amount of cause and effect, but living within a broken system- how much are all our choices and actions really ours?
Writing all this down was hard and a little disheartening. Mostly I don’t just want to be an observer- guess its in my Aries nature to find and offer a solution. But I don’t think I can for this. So I guess I will just end with a petition, which I think in some ways can lead to undoing some trauma. My beautiful others- lets care for ourselves, and care for each other. Our struggles are not the same, but our liberation is bound and none of us can be free until all of us are free. Oh, and you should read The House of the Spirits and Between the World and Me. And maybe start a book club to discuss.
P.S. Happy Chilean Independence day. On this day in 1810, Chile started the process of ending Spanish rule. Layers of Colonialism and Imperialism.