This week on The Chat, I’m in conversation with Vancouver writer and theatre artist Carmen Aguirre. Her powerful second memoir, Mexican Hooker #1, explores the many links between personal trauma, healing, and her life as an artist and activist. A follow-up to her Canada Reads winning bestseller, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, her new work mines the psychological, physical, and creative fallout of a brutal sexual assault committed against Aguirre when she was just 13 years old.
The Globe and Mail called the memoir “a powerful victory for survivors of abuse" while writer Alison Wearing says the book “roars with a kind of courage one rarely witnesses in this world. It is a harrowing read, horrific yet unexpectedly—almost impossibly—tender.”
THE CHAT WITH CARMEN AGUIRRE
Trevor Corkum: How was Mexican Hooker #1 born? When did you realize that it would become a book?
Carmen Aguirre: I started thinking about writing a second memoir when I was touring the first memoir, Something Fierce. Many of the questions asked by readers and interviewers alike were: what happened next? How did you heal from the trauma of living in a state of chronic terror due to state terrorism? And, how did you find meaning in your life after having lived a life of such tremendous meaning in your youth?
It was in answering those questions that the theme of Mexican Hooker #1 made itself apparent to me. The theme is “healing from PTSD.” I knew I would write about my artistic journey as the key element in finding meaning and also in healing; that in order to be an actor I needed to heal so that I could have access to my instrument (voice, body, emotional well), and I knew that the trauma I would refer to in the book would be about my time in the resistance.
But as soon as I started writing the content, it became evident to me that the through line of the piece would be the rape I suffered at age 13 here in Canada. It came up right away in the content, because in the first few pages of the book, where I'm describing a voice class in theatre school, I reference it. I decided it would be the spine of the narrative and that I would structure the book around it. That the structure would reflect the content; the fact that the rape was a satellite in my life, orbiting, until it falls centre stage and stays there. The structure of the book reflects that.
TC: At the heart of the work is the memory of a vicious sexual assault committed against you when you were 13. Your play The Trigger and earlier stage work grapples with the aftermath of the attack. How difficult was it to write about this experience in a full-length memoir?
CA: The difficulty lay in the structure. Because I don't tell that story in chronological order, it was challenging to figure out the rhythm of when I would go back to it in the book, and how much information I would give away each time. It was also a great deal of work to just figure out all the details in each section.
TC: You write eloquently and fiercely about your development as an actor, playwright, and theatre artist. You describe recognizing your calling at a young age, but feeling that to pursue art felt selfish, at odds with your commitment to collective social and political liberation. Can you talk more about your own creative and artistic practice at this point in time? How do you understand art and creative expression as a political act?
CA: At this time, I recognize that the content of my art work is a political act. Because my writing is unabashedly left-wing and feminist, and because I write about women of colour, rape, resistance, exile, systemic racism in Canada, because I tell the stories of a marginalized, silenced community, I see that the best way that I can be politically active at this point in my life is to continue writing these stories and in so doing continue to create spaces for these stories to be heard.
Because my writing is unabashedly left-wing and feminist, and because I write about women of colour, rape, resistance, exile, systemic racism in Canada ... the best way that I can be politically active at this point in my life is to continue writing these stories and in so doing continue to create spaces for these stories to be heard."
I believe that all art is a political expression. For example, if you are putting on plays in which the entire creative team, the cast, and the playwright are all white, and you are living in a major Canadian urban centre, you are making a very strong political statement.
TC: The book also describes the many moments of racism you’ve experienced within the theatre world, particularly in your early days in Vancouver. Has the climate for artists of colour changed in Vancouver (and Canada generally) since that time? What more needs to be done to achieve true equity within Canada’s theatre communities?
CA: It has changed a little thanks to very vocal theatre artists of colour and Indigenous theatre artists who have taken it upon ourselves to bring about change. It is still an uphill battle and there is still much to be done.
For example, The Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver, which is the second biggest theatre company in Canada, produces 18 shows a year on three stages. This coming season features only one playwright of colour. That's right, in a city like Vancouver, where half the population is of non-European descent, 17 of the plays they are presenting are by white writers.
Currently in Canada only 3.7% of the people we see on professional stages are women of colour. Of that percentage, almost none are in lead roles. We still have white women playing women of colour and Indigenous women on our stages. I could go on here, but I think you get the point.
Currently in Canada only 3.7% of the people we see on professional stages are women of colour. Of that percentage, almost none are in lead roles."
TC: Your writing is extremely visceral, rooted powerfully in the wisdom of the body. With great compassion, you describe the resilience of the physical body itself—how we hold our experiences of safety and love and also the impacts of trauma within our very muscles and tissue, in the form of body memory. You go on to explore how the body, with time and care, can be a powerful gateway for healing. How can theatre—in particular forms of popular theatre such as Theatre of the Oppressed—help us to understand, articulate, and heal from our experiences of trauma and oppression?
CA: I think theatre can be very healing for audience members. And, as you say, there are forms of theatre, such as Theatre of the Oppressed, which are designed specifically to help communities heal from trauma. Those forms of theatre are for non-actors, for members of the community.
In terms of theatre making, if a person enters the theatre in order to heal from trauma, they will find out very quickly that they are not in it for the art, but for the therapeutic nature of it. Those people rarely go on to become theatre artists. In training to become an actor, you must look at yourself, really know yourself, and that includes your trauma. But the function of theatre for an actor is not to heal, it is to tell a story.
Carmen Aguirre is a Vancouver-based, multiple-award-winning theatre artist and author who has written and co-written 25 plays, including The Trigger, The Refugee Hotel and Blue Box. She is currently working on three new plays: Anywhere But Here, The Trial of Tina Modotti and Broken Tailbone. Carmen has eighty film, TV and stage acting credits, and is a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop facilitator. She is a graduate of Studio 58.
Excerpt from Mexican Hooker #1
It all went down in the church basement on Forty-Ninth Avenue, South Vancouver, after the voice teacher instructed me to drop my back ribs. It had been a month since I’d started theatre school and learned the importance of that particular set of bones, and maybe a week since I’d begun trying to grasp the concept of succumbing to the floor. As I lay there, I imagined carrying my ribs in a bag, upturning the contents.
“Let your hip sockets go,” she intoned.
Which made sense, this being a church and all. Fingers placed on my solar plexus, she instructed me to exhale.
Hip sockets. Before Labour Day, I’d never heard the term and envisioned electrical sockets whenever it came up, numerous times a day.
“Drop, let go, drop, let go, drop, let go,” I repeated to myself, reaching for breath over and over again, pushing my back down, willing the electrons coursing through my body to somehow plug or unplug into the alleged sockets.
I knew I was doing it all wrong. You weren’t supposed to push the breath, you were supposed to let it be. The Beatles song popped into my mind.
“Focus, you idiot,” I thought.
I was twenty-two years old, this was voice class 101, I had three years to go, and I planned on acing theatre school, landing on the honour roll, like I had in high school.
My classmates sat cross-legged in a circle around me, the sacrificial lamb splayed belly up. The instructions continued.
“Take a risk.”
Take a risk. I had taken many risks in my life thus far, most notably while being in the Chilean resistance a mere eighteen months earlier, but I was to take another kind of risk, and I had no way to measure, weigh, or determine what it looked like. Deaf, dumb, and blind, I groped my way through the forest, grasping for a new definition of a concept so familiar to me in another hemisphere, south of the equator, a world where the constellations were different and spring had just begun.
“What is the worst thing that can happen if you just let go?” she asked.
I knew the right answer. Nothing. ’Cause the floor is there to catch you. The floor as open arms. Not as dispenser of bruises, breaker of bones. My hip sockets gripped. Instead of releasing. They clung to my pelvic bone, and I started to shake, a leaf at the mercy of an electrical storm. My body leapt up, hit by a bolt of lightning, and landed back down again. I wondered if my hair had gone wild like Medusa’s. Keeping my eyes shut, I surrendered to the surge, battered white flag flapping in the air. Completely pathetic. Out of control. Right. That’s what was required. Loss of control. Right.
Excerpted from Mexican Hooker #1 by Carmen Aguirre. Copyright © 2016 Carmen Aguirre. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.