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  • Women's Adaptive Life Writing and Latin American Dictatorship
  • Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle

Much as DNA adapts and reproduces itself to allow the evolution of its descendants, acts of self-representation under twentieth-century dictatorships in Latin America have often adapted in order to survive and replicate into stronger and more resilient forms.1 Under the circumstances of censorship, curfews, captivity, and other human rights violations, coming to autobiographical voices is nearly impossible, but, paradoxically, it is here that we see life writing invoke innovative survival strategies and defense mechanisms, including mimicry, elasticity, and other adaptive methods of endurance. This is when the immortal coils of life writing can be the most powerfully adaptive and can imprint resistance, if not the conditions for liberation, upon future generations. The analogous relationship between DNA replication and women's resistance writing in Latin America highlights the ways in which impossible forms of autobiography adapt and move on, undetected, through the inhospitable environments of dictatorship. Through adaptive forms of poetry, memoir, and the autobiographical novel by women in Chile, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, narratives of dissent lend defiance against three of the most murderous and misogynist autocracies of the twentieth century. As Richard Dawkins points out in his study of human evolution, The Selfish Gene, because genes bear partial responsibility for their own survival, they depend not only on the efficiency of the hosts in which they live, but also on their ability to function as selfish survival machines that will adapt when threatened (23-24). Like genes, these narratives must adapt to their environments and prove capable of reemerging over time in cycles of resistance, liberation, and survival when facing the perils of dictatorship.

In her 1983 novel E. Luminata, Chilean novelist and activist Diamela Eltit proves that self-representational performance thrives as an instrument of liberation in the confined spaces of dictatorship. She challenges Augusto Pinochet's dictatorial doctrine [End Page 646] of conservative womanhood through a simultaneously veiled and conspicuous autobiographical protagonist named E. Luminata, an author who performs an outlawed act of liberal womanhood by breaking a curfew aimed at maintaining dignity and family values. She stands, as the title suggests, illuminated by the glaring lights of state surveillance in the militarized space of the main town square. She delivers cryptic, incoherent messages and bears open, bleeding wounds. A surface reading leads censors to assume that this transgressor is insane and that her wounds are deserved, inflicted by state police attempting to bring her to order. Yet, considering the text as a manifestation of ruptured selfhood under Pinochet's dictatorship, readers see that the protagonist's wounds are consciously self-inflicted and her codified speech and open wounds testify to the abuse and suffering of the traumatized social and physical body of Chilean womanhood. As Joycelyn Moody points out in "Fugitivity in African American Women's Migration Narratives," the critical misreading occurs when readers fail to recognize the "bodily transpositions" deployed by the fugitive figure to subvert its own invisibility (Moody, in this volume). Like certain species that must deceive their predators and pollinators through mimicry, resistance writing must rely on fictions necessary for its survival. E. Luminata's marks carry a story of her shared experience among the vilified liberal women in Pinochet's Chile, and not the cautionary tale of fallen womanhood which it mimics.

E. Luminata is a form of auto-performative "anti-manual" that tropes on a range of autobiographical forms and functions in protest of codes of womanhood published in an actual manual of women's conduct written by Pinochet's First Lady, in which women were called upon to monitor themselves and one another for dangerously liberal and unpatriotic behaviours. If the manual functioned as a mechanism for the surveillance and discipline of women in Pinochet's police state, Eltit's autobiographical novel offers a shapeshifting subversive performance of fugitive Chilean womanhood offered as a protest against the state censorship of women's autobiography. Once liberated from Pinochetista expectations of womanhood, E. Luminata's subjectivity becomes diffuse-an active and live organism of social protest. Instead of aspiring to be the firm structural cornerstone of fascist Chile that women were expected to be, she...


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pp. 646-652
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