History Slam 198: Atacama

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By Sean Graham

In the 10 years that we’ve been doing the History Slam Podcast, I’ve learned that there is no correct way to tell historical stories. Over the years we’ve talked with playwrights, musicians, and literary authors about the ways in which they tell accurate (and moving) stories from the past within their respective media. One of my favourites to discover over the years has been the incredible depth of historical fiction in Canada, where authors have been able to tell stories that have otherwise been underrepresented in the more traditional historical literature.

One such example comes in the form of Atacama: A Novel, by Carmen Rodriguez. It tells the story of two 12-year-olds in Chile in the early 20th century, brought together at a time when workers’ rights and collective action around the world were changing the face of Chilean life. Together they forge a lifelong connection through their opposition and resistance to the autocratic regime and repressive military. Based in part on Rodriguez’s own family history, Atacama combines archival research, oral history, and artistic license to tell a captivating tale that spans over 20 years. The violence imposed by the government is starkly contrasted by the optimism of youth, combining to tell a story that is much more optimistic than one would guess at first sight.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Carmen Rodriguez about the book. We discuss the benefits of telling historical stories through fiction, the challenge of having more historical context than the characters, and her personal history with Chilean political resistance. We also chat about the book’s message of hope, the contributions of Chilean immigrants in Canada, and the universal themes present in the book.

Sean Graham is a historian of Canadian broadcasting, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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