THE ALPHABET IN MY HANDS by Marjorie Agosín

THE ALPHABET IN MY HANDS

A Writing Life
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Human-rights activist Agos°n (Spanish/Wellesley Coll.; Always from Somewhere Else, 1998, etc.) explores divergent veins of cultural identity in the face of brutality and alienation in a rhapsodic and provocative memoir. As a young Jewish girl whose family had fled the Holocaust, Agos°n was keenly aware of her difference from the surrounding Chilean society: The overwhelmingly Catholic populace reacted to her faith with nonplussed bigotry. Within her separate community, though, her difference became a fount of sensual delight and inspirational faith, fueled by familial closeness. Her childhood seems to pass in an alternation between a lushly idyllic genteel poverty and the hard anti-Semitism endemic among citizens of a country that covertly supported the Third Reich. Agos°n is a densely allusive writer, but underneath the poetic prose often lurk ideas that are stark and direct: —My mother played in a vanished world of things and objects lost in time.— In 1973, when Pinochet’s junta assassinated President Allende (a friend of Agos°n’s family), her family fled Chile for Georgia, where linguistic and cultural displacement and the staring incomprehension she inspired as a Jewish Latina further traumatized the adolescent Agos°n. In reflecting the adolescent’s yearning for what she has lost, her narrative here turns spookier: Her outcast friends resemble —a family of crazies—; the obese patrons of a Southern amusement park become a horror show. Finally, she rediscovers herself in the secret democracies of books and language, finding through writing in both English and Spanish the power to re-create what politics and exile have stripped from her. Throughout, Agos°n’s language returns to explorations of color, natural bounty, and minute recollections of lost foods, environs, stimuli, and ritual. Though clearly rooted in Latin American veins of magic realism, particularly Neruda, her formidible prose also evokes contemporary detail-oriented fantasists like Grace Paley and Stuart Dybek. Agos°n’s courage in tackling thorny topics—Jewish diaspora, cultural estrangement, Latin American fascism—renders a highly personal narrative powerful and appealing. (8 b&w illus.)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-8135-2701-5
Page count: 200pp
Publisher: Rutgers Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1999




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