“The richness of human history is in knowledge, not in erasing what we don't like”

The celebrated feminist writer, descendant of Russian-Jewish emigrants from Ukraine, talks about her history of rootlessness and how it has strengthened her to raise her voice in the literary world.

“Women will always be first to fall, and we have to be alert”.

Carla Guelfenbein Dobry is undoubtedly one of the most prolific Chilean writers. She has published eight novels and had her work translated into 16 languages. In 2015, she won the Alfaguara Novel Prize for In the Distance with You.

At the time of the interview, she had returned to Santiago after a long trip to Japan and England. In the latter – where she lived a large part of her youth and adolescence – she gave a master class at the University of London, organized by the Chilean Embassy in the UK. She also participated as a guest at the Financial Times Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, where she was interviewed by Ian Goldin, one of the most important historians and economists in the world.

Her conversation with Fundación Imagen de Chile took place in the author’s apartment in Santiago, before flying to Argentina to take part in the Buenos Aires 2023 International Book Fair on a panel alongside renowned Chilean writers Andrea Jeftanovic and Pablo Simonetti, on Saturday May 6.
Guelfenbein’s story is marked by rootlessness. During World War II, her family – of Russian-Jewish origin – was forced to emigrate from Ukraine, escaping ethnic persecution and mass lynching. Some members of her family went to the United States, others to Argentina.

Carla’s grandparents landed in Chile. “They arriving believing that this would be their home forever, but a generation later my parents were expelled, this time not because they were Jewish, but because of their political ideas.”
Guelfenbein’s mother, Eliana Dobry, professor of philosophy at the Universidad de Chile and a socialist activist, was arrested in 1976 and her whereabouts were unknown for three weeks. After her release came a long exile in England. ​

“In that country, I experienced situations that were transcendental in my life. My mother died there, I studied two degrees (biology at the University of Essex and design at St. Martin’s School of Art) and I lost my virginity. However, I never came to feel English. Then, when I was able to return to Chile, I experienced that same imbalance, the feeling of not belonging to my country of birth… All my life I’ve been a kind of orphan, which makes me deeply sad; although, at the same time, it’s been that feeling of being an orphan that’s given me the strength to overcome a lot of barriers, such as starting to publish my books at 40 years of age. Some said, ‘what’s this lady doing writing in her house?’ And so, I found myself with an infinite number of prejudices, many of which still persist, although I don’t let them repress me.”.

La escritora Carla Guelfenbein conversa con Lenka Carvallo Giadrosic, periodista de Fundación Imagen de Chile.

—One of those barriers was the machismo of the literary circuit. How do you recall those beginnings?
—At international literary fairs, for example, the discussion panels were all made up of men, where sometimes, with luck, I would be the only woman. We women were not part of the inner circle of what’s called ‘literature’, but rather marginal beings. Things have changed quite a lot in recent years. We’re present on some juries and women writers are making things happen. Latina writers in particular are winning all the awards. So, from being historically marginalized, we now inhabit a broader center, where decisions are made.

—All this thanks to fourth-wave feminism and movements like Me Too a few years ago…
—Be careful, though! It’s not about territories won in perpetuity. In all dictatorships, in advances of fascism and conservatism, the first rights to be restricted are those of women, and LGTB or ethnic minorities.
She sighs.
“There’s a huge sense of fragility for all women. It’s like seeing what just happened in the US with abortion; something unthinkable. Women will always be the first to fall, and we have to be alert. We have to fight against the image that’s been attached to us, the famous “should be”, such as motherhood. This was something that Simone de Beauvoir already questioned in 1943 with The Second Sex, which became her most criticized work, since it spoke about something that was untouchable for macho and conservative societies.”

—Although ultra-feminist movements have also emerged, which have tried to erase older male authors, outlawing their works, even rewriting some of them.
—I totally disagree. Cancellation is a form of authoritarianism, wherever it comes from. It’s what Hitler did, rewriting the history of Germany. We cannot be complicit. The richness of human history is in knowledge, not in erasing what we don’t like.

One of the founders of the Chilean Authors Collective (Auch!), which brings together women from the book industry, Carla Guelfenbein has cultivated a strong friendship with world-renowned writers and declared feminists, such as the North America, Siri Husvedt (Princess of Asturias Award winner), and the Nicaraguan, Gioconda Belli, during trips to international fairs and presentations of translated editions of her books. The latter was expatriated at the start of the year by the Caribbean country’s authoritarian regime.

“Nicaragua is currently going through one of the darkest moments in its history; a dictatorship that persecutes and disappears people. The most terrible thing is that those in power are Gioconda’s own comrades, who’ve now stripped her of her nationality and all her belongings. But our President Gabriel Boric offered her Chilean nationality, which she accepted; it’s a source of pride for us as a country and a demonstration of our deep democratic convictions.”

She states of the North American writer, Siri Husvedt: “We’ve talked a lot about the cost she has to pay as a woman in literature. She always gets asked, ‘are you sure your husband didn’t write it?’ She recounts that when she took her first novel to a publisher, that’s what he said to her. In other words, that’s the question with which she began her career, the one she’s constantly had to defend. So, of course, from the outside, you can say, ‘how lucky Siri Husvedt is to be married to one of the most important writers of the 20th century, Paul Auster.’ No, on the contrary! Her path has always been difficult for this very reason, because for many people she’s the wife of Paul Auster, not Siri Husvedt. For her, it’s something that never ends.”

—For the same reason that we’ve been talking about, could it be that women writers today are the bearers of a voice of warning, of denunciation of the violation of our rights in different parts of the world?
—For the very fact of dealing every day with an enemy that is patriarchy, machismo, femicide… Because of the danger for any woman to go out at night in any city in the world; as because we have breasts, we have to be alert. We’ve inevitably become fighters, always attentive to social phenomena such as dictatorships, autocracies or threats to our rights. As writers we are less afraid of raising our voice. That is the role we’ve been playing.

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