Caridad Svich

Finding Home: Migration, Exile, and Belonging Essay Salon



Under a blistering hot sky, I stand in the middle of San Lucas Island in ill-fitting clogs, a borrowed sun-hat and what I soon discover are an inappropriate layer of black clothes. The sun beats mercilessly. There is scant breeze, and a swarm of press hovers over every stop along the way, as celebrated, eighty-five-year-old Costa Rican author Jose Leon Sanchez and I walk through the preserved ruins of what once was one of Central America’s most infamous penitentiaries. Some of the prison walls are marked with graffiti. The words and images depicted in charcoal, prisoners’ blood and other undetectable materials range from the graphically sexual to the religious. The prison hall is dark and not even between these walls is there any respite from the heat.

It is May 2016 and I am here on San Lucas Island for pre-production meetings and first press junket for the premiere this September at Teatro Espressivo in San Jose, Costa Rica of my stage adaptation of Sanchez’ novel Island of Lost Souls (La Isla de Los Hombres Solos). Sanchez served two decades of prison time, a great part of it here on this island, between 1950 and 1969 for a crime he has repeatedly said he did not commit – a crime considered one of the most notorious in Costa Rica’s history. He also wrote the novel Island of Lost Souls, and thus, effectively “became” a writer on this island. The novel, which is partly a veiled memoir of the author’s time spent in the prison, a transcription of oral histories of other prisoners’ lives and experiences, and a work of direct protest for the elimination of human rights abuses sustained at San Lucas (when it was still active as a prison between the 1870s and 1989) but also worldwide, is an unusual first novel by most standards. Sanchez himself has said that he really found his voice as a writer after he wrote it, yet it remains one of his most well-known works. Published fifty years ago, the book has become the default source narrative for those that study the island’s history as a penal colony, and both its subject matter- dark, relentless, unforgiving – and the author’s own literary, cultural and criminal “celebrity” mark it as something still of an “outlaw” piece of art.

The intense presence of the press at this visit to the island is testament, in part, to sustained interest in Sanchez’ life and work, and also to the theatre company’s choice to commission a North American, US Latin@ playwright and theatremaker to re-imagine this story for the stage. I have been down such a road before. Actually, several times.

Whether through my self-initiated radical reconfigurations of Shakespeare’s plays – 12 Ophelias (after Hamlet), The Breath of Stars (after The Tempest), Perdita Gracia (after The Winter’s Tale) – or through my “blasted” takes on ancient Greek tragedies and myths – Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart, The Orphan Sea, Carthage, Antigone Arkhe, Wreckage, Lucinda Caval, The Tropic of X, Steal Back Light from the Virtual), I have been traveling cross-culturally and examining hybrid and syncretic intersections in the making of text-based work for many years now. While the intersections have begun on the page more often than not, they have found their own points of contact with artists and productions outside of the US. From Greece to Germany, from Ecuador to Italy, and even a trans-media collaboration among artists in Greenland, Copenhagen and the Faroe Islands for PSI Fluid States Conference in summer of 2015.

However, my work in Latin America really has found its footing more recently through my voice as a playwright-adaptor, beginning with the re-imagining of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, originally commissioned and produced by Repertorio Espanol in New York City in 2009, which sustained later not only productions in English and Spanish here in the US, but also a three-year run in Santiago, Chile with Teatro Mori, and also productions in Mexico and in Costa Rica. It was through my play based on The House of the Spirits that Teatro Espressivo came to know my work. After two successful runs of the show in San Jose (both directed by Jose Zayas, who has also directed first productions of my four other novel to stage adaptations), Espressivo’s founder Steve Aronson, an international businessman and theatre lover, asked me if I would be interested in returning to Costa Rica to adapt for the stage a work by the country’s most famous, prize-winning author. And not only a work, but the piece that put him on the literary map internationally. The offer was unusual and heartfelt, and I was very moved that theatre-makers in Costa Rica wanted to trust me with this story. I felt a little bit like when the Latin American premiere of The House of the Spirits happened in Santiago, Chile. Here I was – not a Chilean author – taking on one of "theirs” and a great piece too of their literary and political history. But then are works and writers bound by nation-state identities? As Ms. Allende has herself said to me, “The House of the Spirits belongs to the world.” So, with this in mind, and with four other big stage adaptions under my belt (Julia Alvarez’ In the Time of the Butterflies, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), and therefore, a sense of confidence and a desire too to rise to a new artistic challenge, I said yes to Aronson and the Teatro Espressivo folks.

If part of my recent writing life has been taken up somewhat with the act of re-telling stories from the Americas, it has had something to do with a desire to shake up and re-think canonical structures, and to intervene into the discussion around why and how US Latin@ American work intersects dramaturgically with works born in the Americas. Put another way and more personally: As a first-generation US playwright, how I am beholden or not to stories I have inherited from Spain, Cuba, Argentina and Croatia (the bloodlines that course through me) and complex stories that were born next to those countries and beyond?

Each time I face the page as a writer, the questions are multiple, but primary among them are “How is this theatre? How is it, in effect, moving the form forward or at least trying to?” and “How is this of the world, whether the work is set in the US or not?” Embedded in these questions, for me, is how a sense of affinity can be located through acts of making events in space? How can us become us, and not us vs. them? Can writing make a global home or at best, the illusion of one?

I am standing inside the prison cell where author Sanchez was confined to solitary for several months. The floor is cold. Faint sunlight streams in through a window. You can almost hear the stories of the men that served time here many years ago. Their shouts and whispers echo through the walls and ground of this harsh, tropical isle. Soon I will be back in San Jose and later still back in New York City. The writing desk waits for words to spill onto the page – a story of this former prison and many others where human rights are disgraced, and other stories too, where we look at each other, across space and time, and say “we are here.”

Caridad Svich received the 2012 OBIE for Lifetime Achievement. She is a text-builder and theatre-maker. Three of her works are collected in JARMAN (all this maddening beauty) and other plays (Intellect Books UK, 2016) and she is editor of Audience Revolution: Dispatches from the Field (TCG, 2016). Visit her at and




Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff's plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect. 

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