Dystopian non-fiction: Why one playwright is telling the story of her family's escape from dictatorship

Growing up, Marilo Nuñez had no idea her dad was a member of an international resistance. Now, those stories of fleeing Pinochet's Chile are taking centre stage.

Inspired by her parents' stories of fleeing Pinochet's Chile, Marilo Nuñez's play El Retorno debuts this week

When she was six years old, Marilo Nuñez's family lived briefly in Europe. It wasn't until years later, while reminiscing about those days with her father, that the Toronto playwright discovered the reason for the move. Her father, a Chilean exile, was a member of an international resistance movement, and her parents' stories inspired her new play, El Retorno/I Return. (Courtesy of the artist)

When Donald Trump was elected, sales for dystopian novels surged, with George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale returning to the bestseller lists. After a campaign where Trump celebrated the use of torture and praised dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, it appeared the public wanted stories that doubled as warnings of what's to come. Both 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale describe future societies governed by authoritarian state regimes that impose high surveillance and curtail freedoms. A new play coming to Toronto's Theatre Centre May 5 to 13 depicts a similar world. But instead of turning to fiction, playwright and director Marilo Nuñez explores recent history. Her play, El Retorno/I Return, provides not just chilling examples of state repression, but also hopeful stories of popular resistance.

Under the rule of Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, pictured here at a 1974 press conference in Santiago, a quarter of a million people were detained for their political beliefs, 3,000 were killed or disappeared, and many more were tortured. (AP)

Set in 1979, El Retorno/I Return is the story of a Chilean family who escape Pinochet's dictatorship for Canada. Pinochet took power after a CIA-backed military coup toppled Chile's democratically elected government, and during his rule, thousands were murdered, tortured, incarcerated and disappeared by the regime. Many fled the country in fear — a fact that deserves revisiting as contemporary debates about refugees, immigration and borders dominate headlines across the world. In response to the humanitarian disaster, Canada welcomed 7,000 Chilean and other Latin American refugees, which changed the nation's foreign policy and created the refugee category for immigrants.

I feel in a way that something similar is starting to happen in the U.S. [...]a play like this kind of makes us realize we can stop that cycle from happening again.- Marilo Nuñez, playwright

Marilo Nuñez's parents were among those who arrived in Canada. When we spoke over the phone late last month, Nuñez talked about how its history has indelibly shaped her identity, even though she's never lived in Chile. "Exile has been a huge part of my life," she explained. "It kind of defines who I am. So I just [wanted] to write a play about what that means."

Nuñez began creating El Retorno/I Return by interviewing her parents. Their stories were so compelling that her first draft of the script was a word-for-word retelling of their conversations — a style known as "verbatim theatre." Over the last four years, though, the project evolved. She invented characters, blended memories and removed many personal details from the story to increase its theatrical potency. Still, at its core, El Retorno/I Return is guided by her parents' stories, particularly her father's.

Growing up, the playwright had no idea that her dad was a member of an international resistance movement. When she was six, her family lived briefly in Europe, and one day, while reminiscing about those days with her father, he revealed the story behind the move. 

"My father turned to me and said, 'Yeah, we were part of the return plan.' And I go, 'What was the return plan? I just thought you were there for sabbatical.'" According to Nuñez's father, "The Return Plan" was an internationally coordinated effort by the Chilean resistance to bring all of the exiles back to Chile with the expressed intention of toppling Pinochet's dictatorship. During their time in Europe, he was meant to coordinate plans for his return with other Chilean exiles. "He was willing to put his family on the line to go and return to a country that was in, like, civil war, in order to fight for what he believed in," she told me, her voice revealing a mixture of pride and sadness.

Marilo Nuñez, writer and director of El Retorno/I Return. (Courtesy of the artist)

Nuñez's family never returned to Chile, leaving her father's dreams of resistance and reunification with his homeland forever unfulfilled. "I came to the realization that this man is still stuck in Chile," Nuñez told me. "Every conversation we have is about the politics of Chile, the food of Chile, the music of Chile. He never really left the 1973 of Chile. He never moved forward." That haunting experience is explored in El Retorno/I Return.

Nuñez has never lived in the country that occupies so much of her father's thoughts and her family's identity. "Me and my sister have been living these dual lives, one foot in the other country, one foot here." Going on this personal journey has been emotional for Nuñez, but she says it's a story she has to tell, and now is the time to tell it. "If there's no more that I ever do, I'm glad that I've done this one."

"I feel in a way that something similar is starting to happen in the U.S.," Nunez said, talking about threats to democracy. "I think having a play like this kind of makes us realize we can stop that cycle from happening again."

El Retorno/I Return. Featuring Alejandro Ampudia, Anita La Selva, Ximena Huizi, Augusto Bitter, and Sofia Rodriguez. Written and directed by Marilo Nuñez. May 5 to May 13. The Theatre Centre, Toronto.