Daniel Wilkinson, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, currently works with Human Rights Watch and lives in Brooklyn, New York. He can be contacted at daniel@silenceonthemountain.com.


Interviews


A CONVERSATION WITH DANIEL WILKINSON
ABOUT SILENCE ON THE MOUNTAIN

How did you decide to write this book?

    I went to Guatemala after college to work on my Spanish. I planned to be there just a few months, but then I began hearing stories about the country’s civil war - stories of killing on a scale that to me seemed incomprehensible. What was so remarkable wasn’t just the war’s brutality, but the extent to which it had been ignored by the rest of the world. The Guatemalans telling these stories had been struggling for years to get them told abroad. Tell about the violence in order to stop it that was the idea. It seemed like a noble cause, something worth contributing to. So I stayed.


And this book was your way of helping locals get their stories told abroad?

    That was the initial impulse, what got me started. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon an unusual opportunity to gather stories in a place where no one had before - a coffee plantation. Coffee was the backbone of the country’s economy, and the plantations were where much of the war had played out, so it seemed like a good place to go to understand what the violence had been about. The problem was that when I got there, no one wanted to talk to me about the war. They said it hadn’t affected the region. And I might have believed them, too, except I knew that the guerrillas had torched the house of the plantation’s owner - and I knew that wouldn’t have happened unless there was other stuff going on in the area. So I began to wonder: what secrets were these people hiding, and why were they hiding them? That was the mystery I set out to solve. The book is my account of what it took to do so.


So what secrets were the people hiding?

    You’ll have to read the book to find out. But you can probably guess already why they were hiding them. They were terrified. That may seem like an obvious answer, but it wasn’t so clear when I began. The worst years of the war were long past, and it seemed to me - as well as to my Guatemalan friends - that there was no longer any reason to be scared of talking about the past. What’s more, the people in the plantation masked their fear so well that I had trouble recognizing it. It wasn’t the sort of thing I had known growing up in the United States, or been taught about in my history classes, or even come across in books or movies or on TV. The kind of fear they felt was completely foreign to me.


Why did you write in the form of a personal narrative?

    It seemed to be the only way I could get at the central topic of the book, which is state-sponsored terror. People write about terror all the time, but they almost never actually tell you what it is. Instead they focus on specific acts of violence, they provide body counts. Terror is different from other types of violence in that its principal target usually is not the person killed but the ones who survive. Its aim is to instill an intense and overwhelming fear among the surviving population. But how do you measure fear? How do you explain its impact on people’s lives? Most forms of nonfiction writing aren’t well equipped to do so. You either need to get inside people’s heads or find a way to gauge what’s going on inside by looking at how they interact with the world around them. And that’s much easier to do through an extended narrative.


And why a personal narrative?

    Originally I wanted to keep myself out of the picture. But the stories people were telling me were simply too incomplete, too contradictory, to stand alone. And, besides, what was most interesting about a lot of them was the context in which they got told. I realized that I couldn’t really tell these stories without telling my own. As it turned out, writing in the first person also allowed me to explore some issues I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise - for example, the way terror creates a climate of uncertainty. I was able to use my own effort to grapple with uncertainty in the face of danger to get at this issue.

So you use your own experience to stand in for the experience of Guatemalans?

    Not exactly. I describe how the climate of fear affected me in order to help readers imagine better how it may have affected Guatemalans. But my own experience is clearly very different from that of the people there. I ended up running some risks, but nothing on the scale of what the locals had been through. The biggest difference between me and them, of course, was that I could always leave the country. Which is part of the reason I felt compelled to stay, even when things got a little rough.


What does the “betrayal” in the subtitle refer to?

    The book is full of betrayals. One is the generic sort that you find whenever you look at how historical upheavals are lived through at the local level - within a community, a workplace, or even a family - where broader shifts in relations of power are often experienced as personal betrayals. This becomes all the more pronounced when people start getting killed. People renounce all the allegiances that could possibly make them targets of the violence. They come to feel betrayed by the leaders who got them into trouble, and these leaders in turn feel betrayed by the people who abandon them. And it’s not just a matter of leaders - anyone who tries to defy the dangers only increases the risks for everyone else. As you’ll see in the book, there were moments when I felt that I myself might be betraying the trust of the people who were telling me their stories.


Terror, betrayal, forgetting . . . it all sounds pretty grim. Was there anything positive to be found in the history you uncovered?

    Absolutely. And these were the secrets that were being kept in the plantation. Again, I’ll save the details for the book, but basically they had to do with efforts people had undertaken to make their world a more humane and democratic place. That may sound romantic, but these efforts were in fact characterized by an idealism of a very romantic sort. These people’s methods may have been misguided at times, and in some cases even morally repugnant. Still, one of the most compelling aspects of Guatemalan history is the way successive generations were willing to pursue these ideals in the face of staggering personal risk. And, actually, one way to understand the violence in Guatemala is to see it as an effort by the state to turn these past struggles into unspeakable secrets and keep them that way long enough so that they would eventually be forgotten.


Why should American readers care about what you found in Guatemala?

    Guatemalan history offers a powerful cautionary tale for us as we confront the two big international issues of our day: globalization and the war on terrorism.  The public debate over globalization has tended to be pretty simplistic and a-historical, with little attention to what has taken place in countries like Guatemala that have struggled for years on the underside of the global economy.  On one side of the debate you have the “free trade” camp that advocates increased economic integration through trade as the best way to lift countries like Guatemala out of poverty.  Yet, as the book shows, globalization in this sense is nothing new to Guatemala. On the other side of the debate you have the “anti-globalization” crowd, whose arguments - at least as they get caricatured in the press - tend to disregard the many ways globalization can benefit marginalized groups in poor countries.  The book looks at how “globalization” has reshaped Guatemala over the last century.  It’s not a pretty picture, but I think it’s more balanced than most of what’s out there. 


And what about the war on terrorism?

    In the months after 9/11 there was endless talk here about all the things we needed to do to keep the terrorists from winning.  Well, Guatemala was one of the places where - in the twentieth century - terror did in fact win.  And unfortunately, as the book shows, the U.S. government played a major role in allowing that to happen, by creating and supporting an abusive military regime and undermining the efforts of rights advocates to publicize its abuses.  People in successive administrations did this because, at the time, they thought it was the best way to fight the cold war in the region.  But now we’re in a different sort of war.  The new enemy is defined by its methods, not its ideology.  So, in theory at least, we should be ready to oppose the use of terror by any group, whether or not its members share our politics.  When the United States chooses instead to tolerate or even support abusive allies, it’s the people on the ground who pay the price.  Guatemala shows us what a terrible price that can be.