American Shadows
September 11, 1973. Santiago, Chile

Ariel Dorfman Reflects on his American Identity

From Buenos-Aires to New York, from Chile to Berkeley and from Europe to North Carolina, my life's experience has been a succession of geographic, cultural and linguistic border crossings. In order to survive these historical events that shaped my life (fascism, McCarthyism, third world liberation struggles), I took on a multitude of identities, each one of them seemingly obliterating the other, each one a piece of that complex and contradictory modern puzzle we call the american identity.

Ariel in Chile, 1964

Ariel Dorfman, 1964

In 1980, I migrated to the U.S. in what was to be my third and final migration to these shores. Like any good pilgrim, this time I arrived from Europe on a boat. And I then spent the next 25 years refining and redefining my American identity as an embrace of hybridity and duality. I refused to be trapped into fundamentalist visions of a monolithic identity.

"I invite you to explore with me these American dilemmas that have deep roots in the past... "

— Ariel Dorfman

In these stories we have chosen three foundational aspects of the American identity: innocence, patriotism and security. Each identity carries its own shadow/dilemma — its twin identity, the one that reflects back to us the price we pay in order to actually call ourselves Americans. It is our hope that from the shadows will emerge a vision of that identity as a place where all the contradictions and complexities of a multicultural and multi-lingual society are brought to the surface and exposed — not as walls between people, but rather as bridges between the Americas; as a constant, fluid re-discovery of what makes us Americans. I invite you to explore with me these American dilemmas that have deep roots in the past and yet are still very much alive today.

About Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dofrman Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean-American writer and human rights activist who holds the Walter Hines Page Chair at Duke University. His books, written both in Spanish and English, have been translated into more than 40 languages and his plays staged in over 100 countries. He has received numerous international awards, including the Laurence Olivier Award (for Death and the Maiden, which has been made into a feature film by Roman Polanski). His novels include Widows, Konfidenz, The Nanny and the Iceberg, and Blake's Therapy. His latest works are a travel book, Desert Memories, and the plays Purgatorio and The Other Side. He has also published a novel, Burning City, with his son, Joaquin Dorfman. He contributes regularly to major newspapers worldwide.

Ariel Dorfman Reflects on his American Identity

Are We Really So Fearful?
The torture debate. (The Washington Post, September 24, 2006) Also: Listen to Dorfman on NPR's Talk of the Nation discussing this piece.

The Last September 11
I have been through this before. (The LA Times, 2001, reprinted by permission of the author at the Duke University website.)

Cold Waters
Granta magazine asked more than two dozen writers, scholars and intellectuals to discuss in a short essay the topic "What We Think of America." (Granta, 2002, reprinted by permission of the author at the Duke University website.)

Lessons of a Catastrophe
Chile was a democracy, yet tyranny triumphed — in the name of fighting terror. (The Nation, 9/11/2003, reprinted by permission of the author.)

Ariel Dorfman
Find out more about Dorfman at his personal website.

Watch videos: Innocence | Patriotism | Security
Next: E Pluribus Unum  »
Top of Page
My Dual Identity Dilemma
New York - November 2005 New York - November 2005
Video 1: Innocence Watch and Listen (Video 1)

There are two 9/11's in Ariel Dorfman's life: Sept. 11, 1973, the day of the U.S.-backed military coup in Chile that overthrew the democratic government of Salvador Allende and forced Ariel Dorfman into exile; and Sept. 11, 2001 — the day terrorists attacked the U.S. On a recent visit to the 9/11 site in New York, Ariel Dorfman explores the relationship between the two 9/11's in terms of how "victims" react to this sort of assault. If we seek revenge, do we risk becoming like our attackers? And how does the need to feel innocent blind us to that risk? (4:23 minutes) Watch and Listen

Ariel Dorfman returns to Chile and visits the tomb of Salvador Allende - the man who inspired him to become a patriot Ariel Dorfman returns to Chile and visits the tomb of Salvador Allende - the man who inspired him to become a patriot
Video 2: Patriotism Watch and Listen (Video 2)

Ariel Dorfman cast his first vote as an American citizen in the local elections of November 2005. Using this experience as a starting point for a meditation on patriotism, the current "war on terror" and why he became a U.S. citizen, Ariel Dorfman explores his personal experiences with American dissent (his father was persecuted by McCarthy and was forced to leave the U.S.) and explains why this tradition is an important facet of his American identity. (6:07 minutes) Watch and Listen

Amsterdam - 1978 - Ariel Dorfman and his camel-hair coat Amsterdam - 1978 - Ariel Dorfman and his camel-hair coat
Video 3: Security Watch and Listen (Video 3)

When Ariel Dorfman lived in exile in Europe, he was given a very special camel-hair coat by a fellow exile (a Yugoslav who had been a resistance fighter against the Nazis in France). Ariel used this coat (and his mastery of the English language) as a way to hide his immigrant identity and pretend that he was a respectable member of society, part of the mainstream. As he searches for the coat many years later, Ariel turns it into a metaphor for all the different identities Americans assume in order to survive, belong and feel secure. (5:11 minutes) Watch and Listen

Find Out What They're Saying
Farmingville: Wave of Immigration
The United States is in the midst of its fourth and largest wave of immigration. Find out more. (2004)
Well-Founded Fear
Follow political asylum seekers through the U.S. immigration process. (2000)