Latina writer’s latest explores her love of Israel

Marjorie Agosin’s latest bilingual book of poetry, “The Light of Desire/La Luz del Deseo” (Swan Isle Press, 2009), hasn’t gotten the same critical attention as her other works, which earned her a reputation as one of today’s top South American-born writers. She thinks it’s because the book is about her love for Israel, and that disturbs her.

Agosin still has friends. Kansas City, Mo., poet and writer Linda Rodriguez (“Heart’s Migration,” Tia Chucha Press, 2009) helped wangle invitations for Agosin to speak this week at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the Kansas City, Mo., Public Library at events honoring Hispanic Heritage Month.

A noted human-rights activist in her native Chile, Agosin, 55, has been a faculty member at Wellesley College outside Boston for over 20 years. She is a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature.

She grew up a committed leftist. Her doctor father was a friend of the socialist President Salvador Allende, himself a physician. But the Agosin family left Chile before the Sept. 11, 1973, military coup that deposed (and perhaps killed) Allende.

“Many Jewish people and intellectuals supported his government and many did not,” Agosin said of Allende’s 1,000-day presidency. “There was a split. A lot of people left Chile in a panic when he came to power. They thought Allende would be like the Soviet Union, and life for the Jewish community would be hard.”

The military junta led by General Augusto Pinochet ruthlessly repressed its internal enemies for years, killing and “disappearing” thousands of people. One of Agosin’s books is about a particularly Chilean form of cultural resistance that grew up during the Pinochet era in the form of weavings made by political prisoners.

Outsider’s perspective

As a Jew and later as a refugee/emigrant, Agosin the writer cultivated the perspective of the outsider.

“My parents were socialist, progressive, secular Jews,” Agosin said. “I would even dare to say atheist. But my father was a very ethical, principled man … and he sent me to Hebrew school. … He was deeply Jewish and totally dedicated to Israel.”

Agosin realized that life as a Jew could be difficult early on, when her father received death threats after becoming the first Jewish professor of biochemistry at a Chilean university. She was in Chile for the High Holidays and said that even today the country’s 15,000 or so Jews must run a gantlet of heavy security to attend synagogue.

This, even though General Pinochet stepped down from power and allowed Chile to make a peaceful transition to democracy 20 years ago. Two decades of left-leaning governments followed, until the election of right-leaning President Sebastian Pinera in March, Agosin said.

And while she has returned to Chile again and again since 1973, Agosin has also developed a love for the Jewish state as the result of repeated sabbatical visits there. That led to her latest book,

“The Light of Desire/La Luz del Deseo,” a long poem that was inspired both by the Song of Solomon and the land of Israel.

“It’s a love poem to Israel, but people are hesitant to review it,” Agosin said.

“People are upset that you were writing such a positive thing about Israel,” Rodriguez chimed in during an interview this week on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. “It’s not political, but a love poem to Israel – the land and the people.”

Even so, Agosin said that she has lately felt uncomfortable as a Zionist in human-rights circles.

“I find it very interesting that, in a world where there are human-rights crises everywhere we look – even in this country, in the case of homosexuals – the only crisis people want to end is the Israeli-Palestinian crisis,” Agosin said. “I don’t want to oversimplify this and say it’s anti-Semitism, but it is very peculiar.”

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