Author Tags: Fiction, Theatre, Women

Carmen Aguirre's Something Fierce (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011), a memoir about her militancy in the Chilean resistance during the Pinochet dictatorship, is set between 1979 and 1989, and also takes the reader inside war-ridden Peru, the Bolivian dictatorship and post-Malvinas Argentina. It was the winner of the 2012 CBC Canada Reads competition. Arguing on the memoir's behalf was a Vancouver-based rapper named Shad, described as “a hiphop luminary” with a master’s degree in liberal studies. Shad was born in Kenya to Rwandan parents. [See Press Release below]

Set in Vancouver, her comedic drama The Refugee Hotel (Talonbooks) reflects the predicaments and concerns of refugee communities worldwide while focusing upon Chileans who fled their homes in the wake of Augusto Pinochet’s coup in 1974. She was feature on the cover of BC BookWorld in conjunction with her first book, The Trigger, about rape.

Carmen Aguirre is a Vancouver-based theatre artist who has worked extensively in North and South America. She has written and co-written eighteen plays. As an actor, Aguirre has dozens of film and TV credits, including a lead role in the independent feature Quinceañera, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, an Independent Spirit award, GLAAD awards and various People’s Choice awards at festivals around the world. As a stage actor, Aguirre has worked with a host of Vancouver theatre companies.

Aguirre was the founder and director of The Latino Theatre Group, was playwright-in-residence at The Vancouver Playhouse from 2000 to 2002, was playwright-in-residence at Touchstone Theatre in 2004, and facilitates Theatre of the Oppressed workshops around the province.

Blue Box (Talon 2013) is Carmen Aguirre’s one-woman show that tells a story of terror and romance that takes us from the dangerous mountain passes of Chile to the perilous roller-coaster world of Hollywood; from an ardent love affair with a TV star, to a passionate love for a revolution that strove to change a nation.

Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution (Random House 2016) is the follow-up to Aguirre's Something Fierce.

[Photo by Laura Sawchuk]


The Trigger (Talonbooks 2008) $16.95 978-0-88922-591-6
The Refugee Hotel (Talonbooks 2010) $17.95 978-0-88922-650-0
Something Fierce (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011) $32.95 978-1-55365-462-9
Blue Box (Talon 2013)
Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution (Random House 2016) $29.95 978-0-345-81384-8

[BCBW 2016] "Theatre" "Women"

The Trigger

Between 1977 and 1985, John Oughton conducted an horrendous series of sexual attacks in the Greater Vancouver area.

This predator known as the paper bag rapist often used “finding a lost puppy” as a ruse to lure children into wooded areas of parks.

Serial killer Ted Bundy used a similar trick, asking for assistance while wearing a fake arm or leg cast in order to gain the sympathy or trust of his potential victims.

John Horace Oughton was dubbed the paper bag rapist because he would place a bag over the head of victims prior to sexually assaulting them, or else wear a mask himself, thereby denying most of his victims any chance of identifying their assailant.

Many of the girls he attacked only saw his face for the first time when he was finally brought to trial.

After he was identified as a possible subject, an undercover policewoman gained entry to his apartment where she saw a pin map on his wall locating his crimes over an area of 1873 square kilometers.

Oughton had intentionally operated over a wide radius in the hopes that he would not reveal any geographic patterns to his crimes. Suspected of committing far more than 100 attacks, Oughton was convicted of 14 counts of sex-related crimes in 1987.

Ever since, as a dangerous offender, the paper bag rapist has had the right to apply for parole every two years. At his appearances in court, Oughton has behaved in a reckless and unrepentant manner, spewing abuse and contempt.

Oughton’s next public hearing will be held in July of 2009.

Bi-annual hearings for possible parole have become rallying points for the women and their families whose lives have been irrevocably altered by his heinous crimes.

Among the women who maintained this vigil, and remarkably caused it to gain strength in numbers and solidarity over the years, is Chilean-born playwright, Carmen Aguirre, who grew up in Argentina prior to moving to Vancouver’s eastside as a child.

This fall Aguirre will publish The Trigger (Talonbooks $16.95), a play variously described by Jerry Wasserman as “a knockout, intelligent, powerful, funny, horrific, theatrically stunning” and “utterly free of victimology.”

Wasserman, Vancouver’s foremost theatre critic, reviewed the original Touchstone Theatre production of The Trigger in 2005.

“In 1981,” he wrote, “she’s a normal 13-year-old whose adolescent curiosity about sex is expressed through the deep crush she has for Scott Baio on Happy Days.

“Then one unhappy day she and her 12-year-old cousin go into the woods near their school where she's raped at gunpoint by a man whose face she doesn’t see....

“In the immediate aftermath she suffers pain, shock, shame, guilt, unsympathetic cops, and a father who insists she never talk about it again. But her intelligence and adolescent resilience enable her to make some sense of her experience and bounce back.

“The cops eventually become helpful, too. But most important to Carmen is the legacy of her Chilean family's radical politics. Something bad happened to her, yes, but it wasn't so horrible.
“Horrible is when you're tortured by [Augusto] Pinochet’s fascists, or when someone you love is murdered or disappeared. She can't feel sorry for herself. It would be bourgeois.

“That strength takes her, and the audience, to a very healthy place in the end. The women celebrate their victory and I celebrate this marvelous show.”

Carmen Aguirre has provided her own version of how and why the play had to be written.
“When I was thirteen I was raped by the paper bag rapist. I was with my younger cousin at the time, and neither one of us ever saw him—he used a paper bag to cover his own head or those of his victims.

“Not that we would have seen him anyway; a gun was held to the backs of our heads and if we turned around he’d kill us.

“He only had one bullet left, he said, so he’d have to chop up my cousin while I watched, then shoot me. By the time the attack was over and we were left lying in the mud, we were both different people.

“I had wanted to write a play about this experience for years; propelled by my anger at how often rape was portrayed in a titillating, shocking, gratuitous way on screen or stage. Rapists were evil and the victims were only that: victims.

“But, how would I stage it? How would I tell the story? Why would I tell this story? After a decade of chewing over these questions, the image of a young tree lying on its side came to me. A man was chopping an axe through its centre. A girl in a harness spun out of control above him. The sound of their breathing filled the space. The seed for The Trigger was planted.

“The Trigger is for the 170 victims of the paper bag rapist, their families, the communities affected by this predator, and every human being who has ever been sexually violated and lives with that experience in their core, which comes to the surface in intimate relationships, because, let’s face it, when one is raped, there is physical intimacy with the attacker.

“The Trigger deals with the ripples of this kind of violation.”

At age 40, now a single mom with a two-year-old son, still living in Vancouver’s eastside, Carmen Aguirre is doing just fine as a very successful theatre and television actor and writer.

Among her 30 credits for stage and screen, Aguirre had a lead role in the independent feature Quinceañera, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, an Independent Spirit award, GLAAD awards and various People’s Choice awards at festivals around the world.

A founder and director of The Latino Theatre Group, Aguirre was playwright-in-residence at The Vancouver Playhouse from 2000 to 2002, playwright-in-residence at Touchstone Theatre in 2004, and facilitates Theatre of the Oppressed workshops around the province.

Aguirre is currently writing a memoir, to be called Something Fierce, about her militancy within the Chilean resistance during the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

As for the paper bag rapist, he will likely spend the rest of life in jail. Psychiatric assessments have repeatedly concluded he remains a high risk for re-offending.

Bizarrely, he is registered in National Library records as the author of a self-published memoir: Mountain thoughts: an inmate’s journey towards self-knowledge by John Horace Oughton—Vancouver: J.H. Oughton, 1999.

There is no evidence of his purported manuscript ever being made commercially available. 978-0-88922-591-6

[BCBW 2008] "Theatre" "Rape"

Something Fierce, Memoir of a Revolutionary Daughter (D&M $32.95)

from Joan Givner

In her memoir Something Fierce, Carmen Aguirre boldly describes her upbringing in the long shadow of the Chilean dictator Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte. For 10 years, from 1979 to 1989, she takes the reader inside Chile, war-ridden Peru, the Bolivian dictatorship of Luis Garcia Meza, strife-ridden Argentina and naive Canada.

Carmen Aguirre was six years old when her family fled to Vancouver after a CIA-inspired coup in Chile ousted the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and brought army general Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973.

Five years later, her mother and step-father returned to South America to spend the next decade working for the Chilean leftist resistance. Her mother refused to be separated from her two daughters, choosing closeness and danger for them over distance and safety. As her oldest daughter, Carmen Aguirre has now written Something Fierce, Memoir of a Revolutionary Daughter (D&M $32.95), a riveting testimonial of bravery and fear.

The family’s activities over the next decade span Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile, interspersed with return trips to Canada. Blacklisted, they were unable to re-enter Chile by train or plane. Journeys were made circuitously with detours and doublings back to throw off the secret police.

In order to operate safe houses, Aguirre’s parents maintained a middle-class disguise, doing conventional jobs. The girls were conditioned to secrecy, trained to never confide in anyone or reveal details of family life.

This life of unremitting drama and concealment would prove excellent training for Aguirre’s later work as a performance artist and actor in Vancouver, where she has also gained considerable acceptance as a playwright [See BCBW cover story, Autumn 2008,].

Parental absences were sudden and unexplained. The sisters were told: Never answer a knock at the door. If you hear nothing for twenty-four hours, you will call a secret phone number, and say you’re with the Tall One and Raquel. Within an hour, someone will knock at the door. Go with that person. The phone number will be revealed when you hold this blank page over a flame. Memorize it, burn the paper, flush the ashes away.

The story line for Something Fierce is linear, the writing rough-edged, with abrupt changes of scene and occasional lapses into cliché, but this serves the content well, since anything polished or contrived would diminish its force and authenticity.

The evocation of danger from the point of view of a young girl is so strong—and maintained so steadily, vividly describing the terrors that surround her—that when Aguirre finally spills out everything to a lover, in her late teens, the reader feels a wave of alarm. (Fortunately, her confidante is a true companero).

Details of historical events and the exact nature of the resistance organization and hierarchy of the resistance are mostly blurred. Only later, for instance, does Aguirre realize that an intimate family friend was a superior in the movement. Such vagueness is entirely appropriate since Aguirre was deliberately kept in the dark, and direct knowledge of her full situation was suppressed, presumably for her own protection.

But Something Fierce is more than a journey into the shadows of political repression. What could have been a narrative of unremitting horror is relieved by joyous occasions—an idyllic holiday with Chilean grandparents, several adolescent love affairs—and by poetic descriptions of surroundings, such as Aguirre’s first view of the Bolivian capital city, La Paz, a place she comes to love:

“We drove for hours, until the land broke like a Greek plate and there was a drop in the road. I looked out to see nothing but sky. The universe. Then, I looked down, and there below us was a city in a bowl. A bowl like the deepest crater on the moon, with a little house stuck to every last square inch of it. The bus drove over the edge of the bowl and down.”

At one point Aguirre collapses under the strain. She candidly describes her emotional meltdown, wrought by the pressure of fear, her step-father’s stress-induced anger and a long period of isolation in a house with a diminishing food supply. “I was an agoraphobic fifteen-year-old skeleton with an obsessive-compulsive disorder,” she writes.

It comes as a revelation when an acquaintance tells her, “Girls, always know this: it’s your human right to be happy.” She wonders what that means for someone like her. “Did that mean children shouldn’t have to think about revolutions, or safe houses, or being tortured to death?” she asks.
Distraught, she slashes a wrist and is sent to a psychiatrist to whom she can confide nothing. The suicidal episode results in her return to Vancouver, where she completes her first year of high school. Shortly after her arrival there, she is joined by her mother and step-father who have barely escaped capture. Broken and defeated, they go their separate ways.

Aguirre returns to South America. At eighteen, she takes the resistance oath in a cafe in Lima, vowing to reveal no information, even if she is tortured to death, and understanding that if she gives away her comrades during the first twenty-four hours of capture, she will be executed by the organization.
The contrast between her twin lives in North America and South America is, obviously, extreme. She worries that her convictions aren’t strong enough to overcome her fears. Nevertheless, with her companero, she carries out cross-border missions into Chile. The life-expectancy of those who undertake such work is two years.

Even though she is twenty pounds underweight and suffers from dizzy spells, Aguirre still pushes herself “to master the skill of killing my heart whenever I crossed the border.”
Powerful impressions are left by determined women.

Dr. Vergara Emerson, a Bolivian pediatrician and professor, walks to the front of a movie theatre to denounce the dictator, Luis Garcia Meza. “You will remember her,” Carmen’s step-father tells her, “because what that woman did is the definition of courage.”

Salvador Allende’s sister, Laura Allende, stays with Aguirre’s family in Vancouver during her cross-Canada tour, while dying of cancer. Carmen hears her weeping in the night, grieving for the lost of her country, not her life.
Carmen’s grandmother is a role model who risks banging pots and pans during the blackouts in Chile. “I’ve seen fear turn people into informers, monsters,” she says, “turning in their own friends and neighbors. You’re dealing with a country, sick with fear.”

Trinidad, a family friend, has given her life to the underground, at the expense of her husband and children. After a decade of struggle, she tells Aguirre, “The resistance has dissolved... we tried hard, but it’s time to state the obvious, we lost. Maybe in ten, twenty, a hundred or a thousand years, the society we dreamed of will come to be, but we lost this round.”

And we meet Carmen’s mother, a valiant spirit who can draw a knife to face down a band of human predators when they threaten her daughters. For her, motherhood and family life are not incompatible with revolutionary work.
These are hard acts to follow. But Carmen Aguirre, now a respected playwright, has found the courage to revisit her terrors. She has inherited the heart of a revolutionary, so the struggles for justice and freedom will continue, on the page, or on the stage.978-1-55365-462-9

-- review by Joan Givner

[BCBW 2011]

Something Fierce wins Canada Reads 2012
Press Release (2012)

Vancouver, BC – February 9, 2012. Douglas & McIntyre is delighted to announce that Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter (Douglas & McIntyre, 978-1-77100-036-9, $21.00, e-book also available) has won the 2012 CBC Canada Reads crown after receiving votes from panelists Anne-France Goldwater, Arlene Dickinson and the book’s defender, Shad.

Carmen’s champion for Something Fierce was Shadrach Kabango. Shad is a Juno Award-winning emcee with three critically acclaimed albums to his credit. After probably one of the most heated and intense debates in Canada Reads' eleven-year history, defender Shad came out on top with his articulate and well argued case for Carmen's memoir of her time as an underground revolutionary during Chile's Pinochet regime. The other debaters made a valiant pitch for their respective books. Despite some controversial comments made by a fellow panelist, Shad managed to keep his literate cool and convinced even Carmen's seeming enemy to vote for Something Fierce.

Shad said he found Aguirre’s story compelling and defended both its portrayal of complex family dynamics and a youth spent amid struggle.

About Something Fierce:- On September 11, 1973, a violent coup removed Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile, from office. Thousands were arrested, tortured and killed under General Augusto Pinochet's repressive new regime. Soon after the coup, six-year-old Carmen Aguirre and her younger sister fled the country with their parents for Canada and a life in exile.

This dramatic, darkly funny narrative, which covers the eventful decade from 1979 to 1989, takes the reader inside war-ridden Peru, dictatorship-run Bolivia, post-Malvinas Argentina and Pinochet's Chile. Writing with passion and deep personal insight, Aguirre captures her constant struggle to reconcile her commitment to the movement with the desires of her youth and her budding sexuality. Something Fierce is a gripping story of love, war and resistance and a rare first-hand account of revolutionary life.