So You’re Going to Chile… An Incomplete List of Writers to Know Part 1: Memoir and Travel Writing

By Jeremy Paden, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Poetry (Translation) Faculty

Biblioteca Nacional de Chile (National Library of Chile in Santiago)

When readers and writers travel to another country, the question is always one of triaging the reading: what to read before, what to take with you? Do you, like Paul Theroux in Old Patagonian Express, take mostly reading unrelated to your travels, supplemented by a generically famous Latin American poet? Do you, like a historian friend of mine, refuse to read travel literature about the country you are visiting because you want to see the world with fresh eyes? If, instead, you are one who wants to read up on a country, where do you start? When considering the classics, do you focus on Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral, the two Nobel Prize-winning poets from Chile? When considering contemporary writers, do you go with the recently deceased critical darling, the novelist Roberto Bolaño, or someone less well-celebrated?

Travel and storytelling have always been intricately linked. Both Herodotus and Pliny were inveterate travelers, and their travels fed their writing. Medieval troubadours carried news with them from court to court. Many of the Ancient Chinese poems collected in Czeslaw Milosz’s anthology A Book of Luminous Things (1996) were written about travel through the empire. Once the age of European colonial expansion began, writing was a constant companion to empire.

Whether because the Straits of Magellan was the gateway to the Pacific or because Valparaíso was a refueling stop, in the 19th century, Chile was a port for many of the English ships circumnavigating the globe. Along with sections from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (1839), there are countless adventure narratives of hunters, marooned sailors, and missionaries in Patagonia. A 19th-century American classic that deals with rounding Cape Horn is Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840). Though most 19th-century outdoor narratives were written by male authors and stress the romance of the hunt, Lady Florence Dixie, author of Across Patagonia (1880), wrote one of the few sport narratives by a woman about her travels in southern Chile. While Dixie’s narrative is exotic and full of adventure, Maria Graham’s Journal of a Residence in Chile (1824) is a more traditional travel narrative by a female author. If Dixie’s narrative consists of encounters with a puma, a herd of wild horses, native Patagonians, the thrill of the hunt, the sublime beauty of the southern mountains, and the rough conditions of living off what you kill, Graham’s account takes place within the conversations had among the British expat community and local elites. In her book, Graham describes the 1822 Chilean earthquake—this unwittingly lands her in the middle of a scientific debate regarding earthquakes and orogenesis in the 1830s.

Should Dixie’s romantic travels through the far south prove too geographically removed for the reader going to Santiago and Valparaíso, and Graham’s account of her year in Chile prove too temporally distant, Sara Wheeler’s Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile (1994) is much more recent and is a model for any interested in writing compelling travel narratives. Over a six-month period in the early 1990s, Wheeler travels the length of the country immediately after its return to democracy. She combines curious and interesting vignettes with a tale where coming into knowledge about a country is also a coming into knowledge of the self. The book balances well the personal and the public, stories of self-revelation with accounts of Chileans that show who they are and how they think about themselves.

In 1973 Augusto Pinochet, the commander-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces, led a coup against the democratically elected president Salvador Allende. Pinochet and his military junta ruled the country for 17 years. In 1988, a plebiscite was held and the country voted to return to democracy. In December 1989, country-wide elections were held, and in March 1990 the military dictatorship handed over the reins of power to the center-left coalition that won the election. Much of modern Chilean literature grapples with legacy of the coup and the Pinochet years.

If you are like my friend and would rather not have an outsider tell you about who and what Chile is, Ariel Dorfman’s Desert Memories: Journeys through the Chilean North (2004) and his Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey (1998) are two memoirs by an acclaimed novelist, playwright, and cultural theorist. Before Pinochet’s coup, Dorfman served as cultural advisor to Salvador Allende. His critically acclaimed play Death and the Maiden was translated to film in 1994 and starred Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. While both of the books mentioned are memoir and are anchored by the tragic events on September 11, 1973, Desert Memories is the more traditional travel account, if by traditional we mean recounting a journey through a geographical space. It takes place mostly in the far northern deserts, the source of Chile’s mining wealth. And it tells the double story of trying to trace the genealogy of Angélica Malinarich’s family, Dorfman’s wife, with trying to find out what happened to a good friend of his who was a political dissident and did not escape from Pinochet’s Chile. Old mining camps and processing factories in the north—abandoned once world synthetic nitrogen production put an end to nitrate mining—were used as detention centers in the years following the coup. Heading South, Looking North, his earlier memoir, is the story of migration from Europe to America and the subsequent moves between Argentina, the United States of America, and Chile. Dorfman’s story of growing up between the U.S. and Latin America is more than just personal history; it is an exploration of the fraught relationship between the northern colossus and its southern neighbors.

Another compelling memoir by an acclaimed Chilean writer is Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country (2003). Allende is first cousin once removed to Salvador Allende. Though she largely spent her childhood outside of Chile, she comes from a powerful political family of the Chilean Left. While the story told is heavy—one of abandonment by a father at an early age, one of an independent and rebellious young girl in a conservative country, one of national and political tragedy—Allende’s humor lightens the tone considerably. Also, though a memoir, as the title suggests the focus is Chile, her invented country, and a good portion of the writing explores Chilean history, culture, and customs. For the reader and the writer whose focus is narrative fiction, her autobiographical novel House of Spirits (1982), written using magical realism, is a good introduction to her writing.
In my next post, I’ll discuss some of Chile’s fiction writers.


Born in Milan, Italy, and raised in Central America and the Caribbean, Jeremy Paden received his Ph.D. in Spanish & Latin American literature from Emory University. He’s the author of the chapbooks ruina montium and Broken Tulips, and his translations of poems from Spanish have appeared in Words Without Borders. He teaches translation in Spalding University’s MFA program.