Lynn Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, was published in April of 2008. It follows Lisette, a human rights worker stationed in the Peruvian highlands during the 1980s. After witnessing the violence against the Quechua-speaking indigenous villagers by radical Maoist Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerillas and the military, she realizes she can no remain in Peru. Her companion and lover, Karl, remains. Twenty years later, Lisette can forgive neither the perpetrators of violence nor herself for leaving, and struggles to make sense of what she saw. Lurie’s novel captures the uncertainty and fear of living in a place where the very dirt and soil are saturated with the bodies of the dead. Like the dust in the cuyera where she lives, the memory of the dead coats everything around her.
The book is based in the very real events of Peru in the 1980s, when Shining Path terrorized indigenous villagers in remote and impoverished regions of the Andes in particular in the department of Ayacucho (Corner of the dead in Quechua). Government militias retaliated with even more violence, creating a cycle of despair. Not until the 1990s, when the government captured Shining Path’s leader, Abimael Guzman, did the violence subside—although Shining Path is still present in Peru, and Peru remains a country where the indigenous population continues to struggle on the margin of society.
Lurie was a former Peace Corps volunteer in neighboring Ecuador in the early 1980s, where she lived with Quechua-speaking villagers in the highlands. She later worked as a financial reporter and attorney, and now teaches writing to seventh graders in a charter school in Newark, NJ. Corner of the Dead was awarded the Juniper Prize by the University of Massachusetts Press. We spoke by phone about her book, in particular about the moral dilemma of creating literature from atrocities while maintaining the integrity of those who suffered.
Elizabeth Wadell: First, I’d like to talk about mourning. Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is briefly mentioned in the book, and according to the Commission’s statements it was formed “as an act of dignifying and healing for the victims and those who can identify with the cases brought up.” After all, we learn one of the most terrible crimes of Shining Path is that it prohibits people from mourning their own dead. To what extent is the book focused on mourning, the need to honor the dead?
Lynn Lurie: That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t thought about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as being about mourning, but more so as a forum for bringing to light what happened. If you keep telling your story, people will, hopefully remember. War engenders mourning on a massive scale, and my story is of our collective mourning. To be honest, all of us, when we read The New York Times, should be in a state of mourning for what is happening to our world. In fact, the story—while it remains loyal to the historical reality of a part of Peru at a particular moment in the early 1980s, it is, on another level, not at all about Peru. I started writing it when my son was very ill and in the hospital. He’s fine now, but for a while we were negotiating the hellish terrain of a battlefield. The book addresses how we manage to get up and do what we need to do in a day while knowing that something so uncertain and so terrifying, as the possible loss of a loved one, is so close you can almost see it happening in advance.
EW: How did writing about your son’s hospitalization lead to writing about Peru and the massacres of Shining Path?
LL: The first draft, about my son’s illness, was too difficult to read—after I finished it, I thought that no one, including myself would read it. And in the middle of my son’s illness I subconsciously went back in my mind to my years in Ecuador, they were wonderful and remembering gave me some strength. Later I took this to be a direction for the story I was trying to write about my son. I had lived in Ecuador while I was in the Peace Corps twenty years earlier in an indigenous village where Quechua was the predominant language, and the setting in the book really comes from that. Despite some differences, the people of the Ecuadorian Andes and the Peruvian Andes share enough similarities that I could adapt Ecuador to Peru as I needed a more violent setting. As I wrote many of the scenes in Corner I was transported back to Ecuador.
EW: When you were living in Ecuador were you aware of what was going on in Peru?
LL: I visited Peru in the early 1980s and it did seem that this was what fascism would look and feel like. Lima was grey and dark, streets were empty, homes were closed, there was a curfew, people were silent. So it was a way to capture how it felt to be the parent of a critically ill child without the overwhelming weight of my first draft. In college I knew people from Argentina and Chile, and I was aware of the government led disappearances and executions that were going on in those countries. My friends were mourning the loss of people they knew and a country they knew.
EW: In the book, the narrator desperately wants to help the indigenous people of Peru, but there seems to be an ambiguity about the effectiveness, even morality, of foreign aid work. Lisette fears that Karl’s and her attempts to improve thins are futile and they may actually have brought danger to the villagers.
LL: Yes, a lot of what the narrator feels is my experience. For example, if I went to a ministry with the villagers I would be treated with respect, but the villagers would be treated horribly. It was an environment with such extreme racism they could not visualize anything but. I became very conscious that I was white and got privileges for that. When I’d travel with the village elders to Quito, I’d stay in a hostel, and they’d stay—in a park. When I offered to put them up in the hostel they’d decline, not because they didn’t want me paying for them (that too) but because they knew they couldn’t walk into that kind of place and get a room. I also knew that when we left they would be on their own again and nothing had changed in society to embrace or empower them. When I finally returned to my village after twenty years the only differences were that there were more people, greater poverty, and more droughts. Their kids still went to the same school where the teacher showed up maybe once a week, and the factory we built had fallen into disuse. There is a feeling of hopelessness because you can’t change things, but not for not trying.
EW: In recent years you did in fact return to Ecuador with another program, right?
LL: Yes. When I was writing the book I felt like I needed an “excuse” to return and I found an organization of doctors who volunteer to perform surgery on children in remote areas. I joined up as a translator and trip administrator. It was wonderful. I went a week earlier than the doctors and nurses in order to try to locate some of the children they had done surgery on two years before to see if any needed follow up surgeries. I was given just the name of a child and a village but I thought that I could find some of the children because I knew Ecuador. I tracked down 20 of the children—I had to ride a horse for several hours to get to one boy who then insisted on riding back to where he lived for a shower under buckets of freezing water before I could take a follow up picture. I was out there again hitchhiking on the Pan-American highway, which is a dirt road in those parts, and it wasn’t any different than it had been twenty-five years earlier. I went to Peru the following year and organized a surgical trip in a remote desert town that had never had surgeons before. This trip I took my son with me. He was sixteen then. He is very able with technology and computers and he organized the operating schedules. For me, him being there was the closure of the story, watching him down on the floor playing with the kids and realizing that he was no longer the sick one but a caregiver of sorts.
EW: I found it interesting that, in a story about horrific cruelty, we know the victims intimately but barely see Shining Path and the military at all. Everything happens under cover. Was this intentional?
LL: It was intentional. I wanted to not take sides because the violence on both sides was reprehensible, inexcusable. One of the most difficult aspects of the violence was the uncertainty, not knowing who did what, who to trust, and who might want to harm you—it breaks you down. You trust someone today but tomorrow who knows?You especially can’t trust the people you’re supposed to be able to trust, the police and the military. At first the guerillas don’t seem so bad—who would argue with their philosophy that society in the Andes needs to change? Until you learn what their tactics are. The labyrinth of uncertainty is similar to the uncertainty of having a sick child, where you don’t know with whom to ally yourself, what diagnosis to trust, who if anyone to believe and you are making critical dicisions.
EW: Only a few Peruvian novelists have addressed these events so far. Will your own book be published in Peru?
LL: My novel has been translated to Spanish. It reads beautifully in Spanish. I worked with a Professor at New York University and I learned so much about the art of translation. Yet, I am hesitant at times when trying to publish it in Latin America when I know so many wonderful Spanish writers who deserve to be translated are unable to find publishers in English. I am obviously an outsider—I’m not Peruvian, I’m white, a foreigner, which gives me trepidation about the undertaking, but I do think there is a value in people in Peru, in Latin America, reading my book, in some ways it sets them free from having to yet again make a convincing argument to a questioning public.
EW: In a previous interview you said, “I also write to make things how I would like them to be. I prefer to live in a fictional world where there is some degree of control, even one as difficult as in Corner of the Dead.” It’s something that I think Lisette would have echoed, seeing as how she twists and retells stories like Little Red Riding Hood. Would you say that she uses stories to change, or at least to control, the world around her?
LL: Absolutely. Fiction is my favored home. Although you make things up, you communicate something real. It’s the most persuasive way of making a point—not that it’s something I set out to do, but I realized it along the way. I wanted to make better something that in the life I couldn’t affect but maybe I could after the fact by at least saying, as Goya did, I saw this, this really happened. While it’s not a political book, I suppose one reason I wrote it was so the reader could experience a different truth. For the author, and for Lisette telling stories is a way of survival. Even just the stories you make up in a day to keep you going, are sustenance. It’s an ongoing dialogue between yourself and the world.
EW: One thing I really liked about the book is the way stories and poems are used.
LL: I do think that the power of the word may not change things, but it may help you get through. It has sustained me. After 9/11, I read poetry because that was the best salve I had for what was germinating but I didn’t yet know how to express. With the poetry I quote from, my hope is to remind readers that in difficult times, which these are, poetry is an extraordinary resource. At least it is for me.
EW: That leads into something else I wanted to ask you about, suffering and reconciliation. In the book, the characters respond very different to suffering. Lisette couldn’t bear to witness it, while Karl had to stay, and the investigator Arye, the most methodical character. Why do they respond differently?
LL: Differences of temperament I suppose. In the world we have people who are methodical like Arye, who can hear those things and still get work done. And we have to have those people. I wonder though how they manage. For me, it’s an unanswered question and that’s one thing I was trying to explore with the different personalities. In the end, I think we need to be less judgmental about people’s mistakes and behavior. We need to be more lenient, but how much so I don’t know.
EW: What about reconciliation? Do you feel the book leaves open the possibility of reconciliation? On the one hand, Karl has found peace, but on the other Lisette cannot. Do you think reconciliation is possible?
LL: I have no idea. The question is one I think about often. Recently I went to the Holocaust museum in Washington, and after I finished walking through it, I thought—they can exhume, count, quantify, and name, say this many Gypsies and this many homosexuals and this many communists and this many Jews . . . But reconciliation? I don’t know. Maybe that’s the best you can do. While writing Corner of the Dead I read about Nuremberg and what Hannah Arendt wrote regarding the trial of Eichmann. I also read excerpts from the trials in The Hague for the war crimes in Serbia, and while it seemed like a move forward, the truth is the witnesses who risked so much to testify had no protection when they returned to Serbia. They received no psychological or legal counseling, there was no infrastructure to take care of them, and how complete a testimony will you ever get if that’s the case? I don’t think you can ever really get to the place where it’s all right.
Elizabeth Wadell is a senior editor of The Quarterly Conversation.
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