I’m a firm believer in write-what-you-desperately-want-to-know. Research, empathize, repeat. It’s not impossible to write beyond your own experience or beyond your own precise demographic. But it is a risk. I felt daunted by the prospect of setting my first novel against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, having no immediate experience with it, no direct connection to the country, yet I felt compelled to continue with the project, because I thought the period important—one that should never be forgotten. I spent years just doing research and thinking about the story that was unfolding—painfully, slowly, but still unfolding—in my imagination.
In early 2010, one of my teachers, Jonathan Raban, asked with exasperation, “Why don’t you just go there?” It’s not that I hadn’t thought about that. It just seemed out of reach, too expensive. But his question lodged in my ear. Soon enough, I found two cheap tickets on Mexicana. So, in August 2010, my husband and I flew: Seattle-Chicago-Mexico City-Buenos Aires.
The Mexico City airport, a limbo place, eerily manifested previous anxiety dreams, where rooms behind rooms unsettled: one wing, where we arrived, a shopping arcade of shiny marble surfaces and sparkly merchandise, and another wing, where we departed, plagued with leaky ceilings, dim lighting, moldy carpeting. Something fancy hiding something rotten. (I had a similar experience in Las Vegas: one hotel room of glitz and rot.)
To our surprise, and delight, the flight from Mexico to Buenos Aires was half empty. We could stretch out in our row, or take up two rows, if we wished. We could wander from aisle to aisle, taking in views from both sides of the plane.
Night hid the landscape for half the trip. Only an occasional spangle of light suggested a small South American city. When a red glow slashed the horizon, we tiptoed from one side of the cabin to the other and could make out a brown, craggy desert with mountains of rock whose edges were softened, I suppose, by wind. It wasn’t a landscape I’d imagined when thinking about South America. Was it the Atacama, driest place on Earth? I’d only thought of rain forest, grassland, peat bog.
We went to the Plaza de Mayo a few times. There, the Mothers of the Disappeared marched before the Casa Rosada, as they’d been doing weekly since 1977. Across the Plaza, protestors set off firecrackers or flare guns periodically, and the pigeons, periodically, flew up in terror. But life apparently continued as normal. Only we and the pigeons were visibly shaken.
Two weeks into wandering the city, talking to people who’d lived through that time (1976-1983), and leafing through stacks of old magazines at the Museum of the City of Buenos Aires, I started a complete rewrite of my novel.
A few days before we our scheduled departure, we learned that Mexicana had filed for bankruptcy and cancelled all flights. In a frantic search for the Mexicana offices (no longer downtown), we took a cab all the way back to Ezeiza International Airport. It took a while to find anyone who knew where to send us—the first man at the information desk shrugged and said they simply didn’t exist anymore—but at an unmarked door behind an unmarked ticket counter, Mexicana employees worked, and there, after much trepidation, we were given vouchers for a flight on American Airlines (which, ironically, filed for bankruptcy this year). This flight, packed to the gills and stopping in Miami, was where I stewed on all the sensory, emotional, and historical detail accumulated, and where I hoped I could finally follow Jonathan’s other advice, which was, “just trust yourself and write.”
In my novel, there are several attempts at flight: flights of the imagination, literal flight, and involuntary flight. Involuntary flight compelled the other forms. One horrific method of assassination undertaken by the Argentine military dictatorship, by the Navy in particular, was to drug prisoners (the “disappeared”), take them in planes over the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic, and fling them, naked, hands tied with wire, into the water. This happens to a character in my novel.
The use of planes to terrify claimed a terrible hold on my imagination. It’s not “just” 9/11, though that was certainly a huge presence in my consciousness when the novel germinated. A tension between imprisonment and flight wrenched the gut. In the third draft of my novel, I began to draw on the emotional valences of family stories of my grandfather’s imprisonment (in 1940s Romania, not 1970s Argentina) and of his older brother’s assassination (thrown off a train, not a plane), and I realized that what matters most, for me, much more than autobiographical tidbits, is expanding the human capacity to empathize.
Why don’t you just go there? Jonathan had asked of the literal place. But there was also a figurative place I needed to go to that, draft after draft, I could only just burrow into a little more. The mind of the person in flight, or fall, rather: horrible free fall. I was scared. My thesis adviser, David Bosworth, had, in what seemed to be a throw away comment at my oral defense, suggested I end the book in the perspective of the “disappeared” character—give him his due. After waving away this possibility, I decided that it was exactly right, that the most immediate way as well the most harrowing way was also the best way: to enter his mind in those last moments. What would I think, what would I feel, if I were him, in his situation, in those last moments—if I were in his place, if my heart thumped as his, if my thoughts raced as his, shocked from the slow stickiness of sedatives, bones shaking, what would I experience, hurtling off the plane, in free fall?
Anca L. Szilágyi is a Brooklynite living in Seattle. Her short fiction has appeared in The Massachusetts Review and Western Humanities Review, among other publications, and her book reviews have appeared in Shenandoah and on the Ploughshares blog. She teaches creative writing at Richard Hugo House.