Vancouver author Carmen Aguirre celebrated her victory in the CBC’s 2012 Canada Reads contest by going straight to work – not at the computer where she wrote her winning book, Something Fierce, but as an actor presenting her own one-woman play, Blue Box, at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa.
“Through this whole thing all week I’ve been on stage every night to do an 80-minute monologue,” she said yesterday, breaking her vow to conserve energy in order to field calls from a suddenly fascinated national media, and clearly exhausted.
But happy. “I had no idea what was going to happen till the last second,” she said. “I’m very happy for the book and very happy for the Chilean community that has taken on the book as its own.”
A dark horse from the moment of its selection as one of 40 titles vying for the honour of Canada Reads champion – a proven driver of book sales – Something Fierce provoked controversy in the final debate when judge Anne-France Goldwater denounced the Chilean-born author as “a bloody terrorist,” adding, “How we let her into Canada I don’t understand.”
In the end, however, three of the five celebrity contest judges voted to elevate Aguirre’s memoir of Latin American revolution above The Game, politician and former goaltender Ken Dryden’s meditation on the national obsession with hockey.
Although declining to respond directly to Goldwater’s accusation, Aguirre defends her revolutionary past – among other things, she wrote of smuggling what she called “goods” and “items” into Chile to support the struggle against the Pinochet regime – and welcomes the on-going conversation about such activities
“That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, because I think it is the right conversation to be having today,” she said.
“We do live in a country where so many people have come here fleeing from brutal dictatorships and genocide, and have had to grapple with the issue of resistance, whether armed or not, in their own lives,” Aguirre added. “And so we really need to have a discussion about who gets to use the word terrorism and who gets to call whom a terrorist.”
Among those groups she identified as resolutely not-terrorist are European Jews who resisted the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, members of the African National Congress fighting apartheid, 19th-century abolitionists and “indigenous people who fought all over the Americas when the land was invaded by Europeans.”
“To me all of those struggles are not terrorism, they are people resisting brutal oppression,” she said.
Still, Aguirre added, she hesitated to expose herself in Something Fierce and thought of the work as a novel throughout the process of writing. “I grappled with that to the very end,” she said. “Then I thought, ‘Well, have some balls and call it what it is. It’s your memory and it’s your interpretation of events.’ That’s what a memoir is.”
With sales for her previously little-known book almost certain to soar following its victory in Canada Reads, Aguirre is planning two more volumes to follow it up. One, she said, will be a novel based on the lives of three characters who appear in Something Fierce: devoutly fascist great aunts who literally worshipped General Pinochet. “I love them as characters,” she said.
The second will be a contemporary memoir of Aguirre’s life and work as a Latino single mother in the North American entertainment industry. Its title, derived from a film role Aguirre once played, will be Mexican Hooker No. 1.