Carmen Aguirre on deciding to share her story with the world

Every week leading up to the debates in February, Canada Reads will put the spotlight on one of the five books in contention. From January 9 to January 15, we are exploring Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre. Something Fierce is being defended by Shad in the Canada Reads debates.

To kick off each week, we asked the authors to write a post that offered insight into their work. Below, Carmen Aguirre writes about making the decision to share her story with the world.

"Do you think it was the heat?" I asked my friend Angela as we peered from her window at the fire consuming the house next door. It was 40 degrees at four in the morning in Toronto, and the sirens had woken us up.

Angela flashed me a smile. "Nah. Drug addicts live there. They probably burned it down." She took a drag on her cigarette and blew a perfect stream of smoke up towards the ceiling. Only a few yards from where we stood watching, firefighters on ladders fought to contain the flames.


Carmen as a young girl. Image courtesy the author.

It was the summer of 2005, and Angela and I were in a government-run rooming house in the heart of Kensington Market. She rented a room there, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with two young Mexican guys. Like her, Alvaro and Candelario had just arrived in Canada. Every night the four of us would gather in her boiling hot little room to drink beer and swap stories about Mexico, Chile and Colombia, Angela's native land. By day, while the guys worked construction and Angela washed dishes at a nearby restaurant, I sat in that little room writing the first four chapters of Something Fierce.

I had come to Toronto for a couple of weeks to be with Angela. Afro-Colombian, and a Black Power leader back home, she had fallen into the hands of the paramilitary and had been raped and tortured. Now she was a refugee in Canada, waiting anxiously for her teenage children to join her. Angela had a master's degree in social work, but here she washed dishes in a restaurant kitchen, alongside a Sri Lankan doctor and a wait staff who hailed from every continent. Alvaro was expecting his wife and kids from Mexico soon; Candelario was alone in the world. The four of us were a makeshift family for those few weeks, and their lives at the dead centre of the core-shaking experience of immigration fuelled my writing. The story was immediate. The story was now. I was surrounded by it. And the symbolism of the house next door burning to the ground on my last night in Toronto was not lost on me.

I hadn't been able to find an agent who was interested in my book. Luckily I was used to the theatre, film and television worlds, where you're rejected 90 per cent of the time, not to mention publicly humiliated by scathing reviewers, so I didn't take it personally. I knew I would get Something Fierce published somehow. After Douglas & McIntyre approached me in 2008, things moved quickly.

In the summer of 2010, with my manuscript about to go through a final edit, I visited Angela again. Her children were living with her by now; her daughter had a baby and her son was in his first year of college. But Angela was still washing dishes. The prospect of re-validating her social work degree, when she spoke so little English, was just too daunting.

We strolled through Chinatown on a steamy summer evening. Angela was due to leave for home in a week. She hadn't been able to adapt to Canada, much less integrate, and she'd decided to go back and continue her activism in Colombia, no matter what the risk.

I was feeling kind of scared myself. "Do you think it's safe for me to publish this book?" I asked her as we stood waiting for her streetcar.

"I don't know," she said, pensively. "But here's the thing, sister. You're asking in vain. Because you will publish the book. This isn't your story to keep — it's your story to tell."

As the streetcar rattled to a stop in front of us, we hugged good-bye. I watched her get on and waved to her from the curb.

The next morning, as my plane crossed the prairies, the Rockies appeared below, the same chain of mountains that in the south form the Andes. I thought of Angela back in Colombia, prepared to fight at any cost. This had never been my story to keep. I knew she was right. It was always my story to tell.


Carmen Aguirre is an actor, author and playwright. Her memoir, Something Fierce, chronicles Carmen's coming of age while taking part in an underground resistance movement battling the regime of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile.  Something Fierce will be defended by musician Shad in the Canada Reads 2012 debates. The debates will air at 11 a.m. (11:30 a.m. in Nfld.) on CBC Radio One and will be livestreamed on CBC Books at 10 a.m. ET on February 6,7, 8 and 9.

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