by Craig Epplin
Photo by David Alarcón
I’d like to add just a few thoughts to Lacy M. Johnson’s comments on Lola Arias’s El año en que nací / The Year I Was Born. One of the show’s insights is that memory is a highly mediated process. We always remember through and with something or someone. We remember through old clothes and documents, through ingrained habits, through conversation, through meals and rituals. Etc. Each of these channels is limited, and thus our memories always remain partial and subject to revision. Arias’s work stages this process, revealing the fragility and instability of memory.
One of the more striking ways that we see memory unfold onstage is through the use of props. Most of the actors wear, at some point, an article of clothing that belongs to their parents. On several occasions, these clothes trigger monologues, as if their very presence demanded an explanation. Clothes are always enmeshed in sign systems, and in this case their meaning is both public and private. A pair of overalls, such as those worn by one actor toward the end of the show, might denote many things about class and profession, but they mean something entirely different when they are symbolically tied to the violent loss of a child. And the impact of that meaning is magnified when the person wearing the overalls and telling the story of that loss is the daughter of their original owner.
At other moments, memory is produced collectively, through dialogue or argument. One actor, the son of an ex-naval officer, mimics his father’s love of order by asking everyone to line up, in turn, according to class, ethnicity, and the political persuasion of their fathers and mothers. Consensus is never achieved, and what emerges from the fractious conversation is a partial reconstruction of the way Chilean society both functions and imagines its own past. At another, more harmonious moment, the actors sit around a table and eat, recalling their families’ reactions to the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II to Chile. Their individual memories coalesce, swelling into what is probably the most extended period of joy in the show, until one character describes the censorship and abuse of a woman who had spoken to the pope about human rights while the media’s cameras were rolling. In this case, the ritual of sharing a meal leads into the memory of state terror.
Finally, we watch memory take form through a complex, very beautiful choreography of speech and action. During many monologues, the speakers refer to postcards, photographs, or letters that are on display under a document camera. We see, simultaneously, the documents being manipulated by the other actors, who draw on them with sharpies and move them around, and their projection onto a screen in the middle of the stage. The process works like an extended metaphor for the way memory is always produced: through an assemblage of individual experiences, material artifacts, and the actions of others.
In other words, remembering doesn’t happen in isolation, but rather through conversation with others and in contact with the material remnants of the past. El año en que nací / The Year I Was Born opens a window onto that process and its necessarily incomplete, fragmentary nature.
Craig Epplin is an assistant professor of Latin American literature at Portland State University and an editor at Rattapallax.