NEW YORK — Two events coincided at 12:01 p.m. last Wednesday.
One was the start of President Reagan's embargo on trade with Nicaragua. The second was the beginning of what aspires to be "an ongoing process" of interchange between writers and cultural captains from around the Americas: or, as the organizers of this first-ever conference of writers and artists from Canada, the United States, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America termed their effort, a Dialogo de Todas las Americas .
"We think of the dialogo as the process of bringing together the voices of culture and helping to assert the role of artists and writers in influencing and shaping relations in the hemisphere," said Hamilton Fish, publisher of the Nation, which with its companion, Nation Institute, organized the four-day series of meetings.
"The cultural relationship between north and south is undervalued," said poet and human-rights activist Rose Styron, who helped sponsor the gathering, along with Mexican novelist/diplomat Carlos Fuentes, award-winning U.S. author William Kennedy and U.S. artist Claes Oldenburg, among others. Too often, she said, "political and military considerations dominate and distort the relations between our countries.
"Privately," Styron added, "we still like to think that the voice of the writer and artist can influence policy."
Twenty-two Latin Americans and six Canadians succeeded in, as Panamanian writer Rogelio Sinan put it, "getting through the immigration bureaucracy in this country" to meet with nearly 60 of their counterparts from the United States. Among other objectives, as novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. observed, the conference sought to put the term American writers in proper perspective.
"Now we in this country call ourselves Americans," Vonnegut said. "One United States citizen in a million perhaps realizes that the name is not as specific as it could be." This "sloppy national nomenclature," Vonnegut suggested, "might lead the masses to think we own the hemisphere."
But in the view of Canadian novelist Rudy Wiebe, the concerns of North and Latin American writers and artists not only transcend hemispheric borders but in a way unite them. For example, said Wiebe: "I have written about the native people of Alberta and the way in which the native people of my country were displaced by the white people who settled it." In "exactly the same context," Wiebe said, "I am involved and interested in what is going on in Latin America."
In joining with fellow writers and artists from around the Americas, Wiebe said: "I think first of all we are people sharing our common humanness. I think that has to do with the way people see themselves. I mean, we are not, first of all, governments. We are first of all human beings."
As "creative people," Wiebe said, "we are affirmers of our common humanity. Writers are in a sense the conscience of their nations. They call attention to things. Why do you think writers were the first to be banned in Nazi Germany?"
Or in Latin America, where, said novelist/essayist/journalist Ariel Dorfman, "I can hear the footsteps all the time." That sound, said Dorfman, follows "not just the writers," but also "the readers, or those who cannot even aspire to readership because of illiteracy and misery": the sound of "the man, somewhere, who is waiting for us," the man "with a hood over his head so we cannot recognize him."
Said Dorfman, more bleakly than bitterly: "If we are silenced and persecuted, if we suffer exile and jail and censorship in vast sectors of Latin America, it is because the people in power are afraid of our words."
Double Cloud of Exile
Dorfman, after all, has lived under a double cloud of exile. Born in Argentina, Dorfman was raised in New York after his father fled the generals of his native country. Settling in Chile as a young writer, Dorfman, too, was forced to flee by political exigencies. For so many Latin American writers and artists, said Dorfman, censorship, repression and rank terror are constant companions. As such, "our relationship with writers in the United States will be, to begin, a lopsided one."
Still, Dorfman said, "it is only by recognizing these distances, and exploring them, that we can ever hope to really understand what joins us. . . . The point is, we are beginning something which will eventually be something which belongs to the people of the Americas."