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Feminists in Chile are fighting to repaint Pablo Neruda's legacy

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pablo Neruda is widely considered Chile's greatest poet, but he's always been a polarizing figure, even now, nearly 50 years after his death. In the latest controversy, Chile's feminist movement is denouncing Neruda as a male chauvinist and sexual predator. NPR's John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Pablo Neruda's house sits atop massive black cliffs overlooking Chile's Pacific coast. The site, known as Isla Negra, is now a museum.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Neruda wrote some of his most heralded verses here including the sweeping "Canto General," a history of Latin America in 231 poems. In a country where poetry had long been composed by and for the well-to-do, Neruda was the poet of the people. He often wrote about the working class, Indigenous groups and Chile's natural beauty.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Often compared to Walt Whitman, Neruda became only the second Chilean to receive the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. But more recently, he's come in for a grilling from Chile's #MeToo movement against sexual abuse that has organized huge street protests.

KEMY OYARZUN: As I was marching, I saw a lot of graffitis (ph). And one of them said, Neruda, now you shut up.

OTIS: That's Kemy Oyarzun, a poet and a professor of gender studies at the University of Chile. She was referring to one of Neruda's most famous verses, an ode to silence called "Poem XV."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PABLO NERUDA: (Speaking Spanish, reading).

OTIS: This is an old clip of Neruda reading it. But according to Oyarzun, some feminists saw it as Neruda telling his lover in the poem to keep her mouth shut.

So the graffiti was a reference to this poem and saying, now, you be...

OYARZUN: So this one is saying, why don't you shut up? Why don't you shut up now? We women are in the streets. Now it's your turn to shut up.

OTIS: Neruda's personal life is also coming under greater scrutiny. He was an infamous womanizer who abandoned his disabled daughter when she was a toddler. What's more, in his memoirs, Neruda confessed to raping a cleaning woman in his hotel in 1930 in what is now Sri Lanka. The result, says Lieta Vivaldi, a member of Chile's Feminist Lawyers Association, is that Neruda has been, more or less, canceled.

LIETA VIVALDI: Definitely, there is a big difference. We're not talking about Neruda anymore. People are very scared of publishing Neruda, of showing Neruda.

OTIS: Salvador Young, who buys online books for Chile's national digital library, says that for the past several years, he was instructed not to purchase Neruda's books.

SALVADOR YOUNG: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Otherwise," he said, "readers would demand to know, why are you promoting a rapist?" Indignation was so strong that Chile's Congress in 2018 scrapped a proposal to rename the country's main international airport after Neruda. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement marches on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

OTIS: These high schoolers are in the streets of Santiago, the capital, demanding that a school psychologist who they say sexually molested a fellow student be fired. I asked one of the students, 18-year-old Laura Brodsky, what she thinks of Neruda.

LAURA BRODSKY: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Neruda is not being taught at her school," says Brodsky, who adds that she has zero interest in reading his poetry. It's not the first time Neruda has fallen from grace. In 1947, Chile's government outlawed the Communist Party, of which Neruda was a member, and accused him of treason. He fled the country. Neruda eventually returned. But in 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power, and the military regime burned his books in public. Like those anti-Neruda crusades of the past, Vivaldi and other academics say the current campaign has also gone too far.

VIVALDI: He's a very, very important poet, and you cannot just cancel him because of his personal life. In that case, we would be judging everyone.

OTIS: It's also easy to misread Neruda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NERUDA: (Speaking Spanish, reading).

OTIS: This is Neruda, again, reading "Poem XV," the one some interpreted as a plea for his lover to shut up. But is that what Neruda is really saying? I asked poet Kemy Oyarzun.

OYARZUN: That's not what he meant. He meant to learn from women. He says, I love it when you're in silence because silence is my favorite dimension, and I learn from your silence.

OTIS: Yet even Oyarzun is less enthusiastic about Neruda these days. She says so much fuss over Neruda for so long has ended up overshadowing the work of female poets in Chile.

OYARZUN: I myself have chosen to teach young women's poetry that was denied for so many decades. So if you tell me, will you teach a course only on Neruda, I will not do that.

OTIS: Back at the Neruda museum, some visitors have no clue about the poet's stormy personal life. Others, like storekeeper Jorge Diaz, say many Chilean men of Neruda's generation behaved the same way.

JORGE DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He adds, "Neruda had a dark side, but everyone has a dark side." John Otis, NPR News, Isla Negra, Chile. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.