Writing about place is an act of interpretation. It involves observing physical details, actions, and dialogue and saying what they mean, why they happened, and why they matter. I think about interpretation a lot as I am living abroad, performing interviews in my second language and writing about a place in which I have spent little time. I want to offer a valid, thoughtful, and complex interpretation of Chile, one that contributes to the conversation about this place in a meaningful way, but what a difficult task.
For help, I turn to Joan Didion’s little book Salvador. I have no idea what possessed her to write about a controversial place in the height of its controversy, El Salvador under the Reagan administration, but I am happy to have the book as an example of how a north American can write about a Latin American country without sentimentalizing or blatantly exploiting the suffering she witnessed on the ground. I do not see mass graves or experience raw fear like Didion, but on a regular basis I interview people who have, and I want to propose a valid interpretation of their experiences.
Here are some of the strategies Didion uses to turn the details that she witnessed in El Salvador into a sharp and complicated interpretation of place: She establishes various versions of El Salvador, such as the El Salvador of U.S. politicians, of El Salvadoran politicians, of the national police, of guerrilla fighters, of poor farmers, and of ex-patriots, to name a few. She uses vivid descriptions of national monuments and symbols to illustrate the ideals and dogmas that these public pieces stand for. She examines various media sources and compares them to what she sees as she is shuttled around the city, hushed and fearful. She considers the unique logic of the place and the language that is used to define and promote this logic. She uses phrases like “he meant” and “in other words” to say what an action means. She employs the passive voice in critically ambiguous situations, to say things like “the police are said to have….” What she does best is juxtapositions: the murders of Americans in the Sheraton, print media vs. reality, official reports vs. absurd methods of data collection, and hopeful political rhetoric vs. institutionalized terror.
Although it is only 108 pages long, about 28 pages longer than my thesis requirement, I don’t think that I’ll be writing a book so sharply complex and original as Ms. Didion’s. However, I do hope to have Didion moments in my prose, the kind where I am able to arrange what I have seen in such a way and interpret it so elegantly that my readers know exactly what I mean.