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For Alicia Kozameh—a former Argentine political prisoner, Chapman University creative writing teacher, and author of seven Spanish-language novels—the written word is a reflection of life. As a student of philosophy and literature at the Universidad Nacional de Rosario in Argentina in 1975, her scholarly life was interrupted by the political turmoil engulfing that nation just months before a rapaciously violent military dictatorship seized power.
Because Kozameh was an outspoken activist, the new government detained her in the infamous basement of Rosario's police headquarters; she spent the next three years at the Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires, the author recalls during a lunchtime conversation at the Filling Station, an eatery near Chapman.
"I went back a few years ago to Villa Devoto," Kozameh recounts of her first time there after fleeing into exile. "It was draining. It was really hard. I went back to my cell and the basement. What I felt was so intense; to me, it's easier to describe in writing." That's exactly what she did with her first published novel, Steps Under Water, a fictionalized account of her prison experience.
Kozameh is as revolutionary in her approach to literature as she is in her political worldview. In 259 Leaps, the Last Immortal, a novel without chapters, she threads through an exiled life with a poetically fragmented narrative of meditative "leaps." Much of Kozameh's body of work is overtly political. Ostrich Legs, her latest novel to be translated into English this year by Wings Press, is, on the surface, a story about two siblings, one who is physically and mentally disabled; as with much of Kozameh's literature, fiction intersects with memoir.
"When my sister died, I didn't have time to really think about it and be convinced of her death because I was an activist, a student, always rushing, active," Kozameh says. "Then I was arrested, spent years in prison and went into exile. My attention got completely absorbed by everyday life, but when my daughter was born, it was like I had, once again, this girl who needed help with everything, who needed to be fed. All of a sudden, it felt like my sister was back."
Feeling the need to come to terms with her older sibling's death and allay fears of raising her daughter in an overprotective manner, Kozameh attempted to write about her concerns, but she found herself imprisoned again, this time emotionally. She turned to a therapist in Buenos Aires for hypnosis. "I was remembering new things. I was becoming a little girl again," the 59-year-old recounts, periodically stroking the auburn curls of her hair. "I realized the effect of the hypnosis sessions on my writing could become a technique."
From the first pages of Ostrich Legs, the narrative reads like an excavation of memory. "I must be seeing her, that thick straight hair, that darkness. 'Mommy, hungwy,' she must be saying," Kozameh writes on the first page of the book visualizing the past and re-creating the image of her sister.
Through the chapters, the relationship between young Alcira and the older, disabled Mariana is chronicled. But as Chapman students lucky enough to apprentice under a master such as Kozameh should note, larger themes of society are never far from her heart. "Ostrich Legs reflects the abuse of power in the environment of a South American family," she says, "and it's also a metaphor for impunity in a country under a brutal dictatorship—and in a world where justice is still a dream."