Photo: Bogotá's Plaza de Bolívar. Credit: Eric M. B. Becker
Last October, boarding a plane in Rio de Janeiro, I set off for Bogotá, eager to meet with writers and editors there to lay the groundwork for this issue. My trip got off to anything but an auspicious start: I had spent much of the week preceding my trip confined to my bed or the couch, burning up with fever. And so, I disembarked at El Dorado International Airport in a medication-induced haze and headed straight to a restaurant where I could find ajiaco, a stew whose primary ingredients include chicken and potatoes, in an attempt to recoup my energy before what promised to be intense days of research for the issue you now have before you.
But even in my drug-induced fog, I was aware of the significant events unfolding in Colombia at that time. A few short days before my arrival, voters had rejected president Juan Manuel Santos’s historic peace deal with the FARC by the narrowest of margins, the “No” camp aided by record abstention of sixty-two percent. (Heavy rains due to hurricane conditions in the Caribbean were one factor in this abstention. The "No" vote was also championed by former president Álvaro Uribe, who insisted the conditions of the peace deal were too lenient toward the FARC. Still, those in rural regions—areas most affected by the ongoing conflict—largely supported the deal, as did voters in the country's capital.) As my taxi took me from the airport to Chapinero—Bogotá’s “hipster" neighborhood, as friends have described it—I looked for signs of a response to this apparently crushing blow to the peace process. At the local coffee shop, at the Éxito—a two-tiered store somewhere between a supermarket and a Walmart—and on the street, no one was visibly bothered by anything other than the thin rain that slowly but surely soaked passersby straight through. The next day, as I strode down Carrera Séptima from Chapinero on the way to my first meeting near the Parque Nacional I happened upon a silent procession in support of peace, composed of thousands of indigenous and rural residents, many of them victims of violence throughout the country’s fifty-plus year war. Carrying flowers and arriving in colorful buses, they were there to state their desire for an end to a conflict that had dominated the national narrative for more than half a century.
It is fitting that this issue of Words without Borders comes to readers not quite a year after Colombia’s congress approved a revised peace deal with the FARC. (The peace deal’s passage was not without vociferous protest from Santos’s congressional opposition, not least for bypassing a referendum.) The writers here portray Colombia in all of its complexity, from Bogotá’s class conflicts to the harrowing violence of addiction and the new possibilities that peace now affords writers who have, in one way or another, often felt obligated to address the social ills wrought by war and the drug trade.
Giuseppe Caputo is one of the writers setting the tone for the younger generation of Colombian writers. Caputo’s 2016 Un mundo huerfano (An Orphan World) is the author’s stunning debut novel about the love between a father and son in the midst of poverty, and also a reflection on violence and homosexuality. Opening in the unfurnished house where the narrator and his father live, the excerpt featured here, in a translation by Sophie Hughes, introduces readers to their hard-luck lifestyle and the father’s curious schemes to bring in some money. Caputo (Barranquilla, 1982) treats this dire subject matter with deft humor before ending with the haunting scene of a hanging that foreshadows one of the novel’s other important themes. Caputo’s complex balancing act reveals a storyteller of great skill.
Melba Escobar (Cali, 1976) approaches Colombia’s social ills from a different angle, likewise employing humor—this time, biting—to the issue of racial and class divisions. Her narrator, Claire, recently returned to Bogotá after years living abroad, visits “The House of Beauty” in the city’s posh Zona Rosa and is instantly reminded of everything she hates about Bogotá’s wealthiest. She spares nothing and no one from her criticisms before telling us the story of Karen, a beautician from Cartagena who has Claire captivated. Elizabeth Bryer provides the translation.
Luck of the draw in a high school gymnasium spares a young man from military service while simultaneously condemning his friend to a tragic fate in “The Double,” a short story by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (Bogotá, 1973) translated here by Anne McLean. Living abroad years later, the young man receives an angry letter from the father of his childhood friend. As he realizes the extent to which the older man’s life has unraveled, what ensues is a reflection on absence, loss, and guilt.
At this moment when Colombia appears to be turning a page on the violence of the last decades, we publish an interview on the origins of the FARC from Alfredo Molano (Bogotá, 1944). Hailed as the great cronista of the fifty-year-long conflict involving the FARC, the Colombian government, and right-wing paramilitary groups, Molano speaks with “Sergeant Pascuas,” one of the founders of the FARC, about the guerrilla movement’s early days and its origins in Colombia’s “independent republics” of the 1950s. The translation comes from Ezra Fitz.
Yolanda Reyes (Bucaramanga, 1959) looks at fraught relationships of a different kind. An award-winning children’s author and respected researcher of early childhood development, Reyes aims her talents at an adult readership in “Bobotá,” an excerpt from her novel Que raro que me llame Federico. Her moving tale peers into the relationship between Spanish mother Belén and her adopted Colombian son, Federico. From the mother’s desire to adopt a girl to her adult son’s effort to discover the identity of his biological parents, Reyes offers an acute portrait of the agonies of maternity and the search for our origins, in a sensitive translation by Susannah Greenblatt.
Juan Álvarez (Neiva, 1978) takes tales of family strife to new territory in “I Never Wanted to Sock You in the Face, Javier.” Frequent WWB contributor Megan McDowell provides the translation. After years pass without any word from his Uncle Javier, Álvarez’s narrator is forced to confront his uncle’s violence. The event sets off a crisis of conscience in the narrator, whose subsequent address to his distant uncle reveals the dramatic details that led up to their defining confrontation.
Gilmer Mesa’s “Bubblegum and Baldy” (translated by Frances Riddle), from the author’s 2016 award-winning novel La cuadra, is a no less disturbing tale of young men trying to find themselves in a gritty neighborhood in Medellín. Bubblegum and Baldy, lackeys for two fraternal gang leaders, forge a bond over salsa music. But when Bubblegum falls victim to addiction, their relationship grows strained. Later, Bubblegum’s recklessness raises the ire of their gang’s leader and the two friends find themselves faced with an unexpected and horrifying ultimatum.
From Mesa’s tale of forged brotherhood, we move to a tale from Óscar Collazos (Bahía Solano, 1942–Bogotá, 2015), about two brothers whose parents consider them beyond redemption. “Lost Causes,” translated here by Ezra Fitz, is a story of brotherly trust, youthful rebellion, and unholy acts perpetrated in in sacred places.
Our feature of Colombia poetry throws into relief the distinct styles and concerns of poets working in the country today. Among them is Vito Apushana (Carraipia, 1965), winner of the Prémio Casa de las Américas. Apushana, a member of the Wayuu Nation, an indigenous group in northern Colombia, explores notions of identity and the conflict between tradition and modernity. Here, he is translated by Lawrence Schimel.
Fredy Chicangana (1964), a member of the Yanakuna community, also addresses questions of identity in his poetry, but from a different angle. Chicangana (translated here by Schimel) describes himself as a poet and an oralitor, or one who commits Yanakuna oral tradition to the page. His poetry expresses a strong connection to the region of his birth while also decrying the historical injustices visited upon the Yanakuna.
Piedad Bonnett (Amalfi, 1951) likewise contributes two poems, available here to English-language readers thanks to Ezra Fitz. Winner of several awards, including Colombia’s National Poetry Award in 1994, Bonnett here explores the sense of emptiness shared by two mothers whose children no longer play nearby and explores the possibilities of the moment following a poetry recital in a country town and the poets’ return to their hotel.
Given the breadth of themes, styles, perspectives, genres, and geographies represented here, it is appropriate that Silvana Paternostro (Baranquilla, 1962) takes us back to Colombia on her own trip to climb up to the Lost City that sits amid the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The difficulties she encounters there and the unfamiliar terrain, Paternostro suggests, mirror the current moment in Colombian literature. Approaching this new moment from the perspective of a Colombian writer living abroad, the memoirist and journalist ponders over the way s in which "the old story is changing."
This issue would not have been possible without the generous advice of several writers and editors I met during my time in Bogotá. Among those who freely shared their views of the Colombian writing scene were Juan David Correa of the cultural magazine Arcadia, Marcel Ventura of Planeta, Gabriel Iriarte of Penguin Random House, Giuseppe Caputo, and Sandra Pulido of the Cámara Colombiana del Libro, Cristóbal Pera of Vintage Español, translator Ezra Fitz, and Felipe Martinez Cuellar of Colombia’s Ministry of Culture. Words without Borders thanks them for their continued advice throughout the process of editing this issue. Further thanks go to the translators who have brought this literature to life on the page, in English.
In the same way that this writing is now reaching English readers for the very first time, it has served me personally as an introduction to the country. The writers here capture the past and present of a country remaking itself and its history, peering much deeper into their society than I could ever have hoped to during my brief visit to Bogotá. But most importantly, their stories transcend city limits and county lines. In this moment, they speak not just to their fellow countrymen but to us all.
WWB'S Colombia issue in New York: On September 14, September contributor Giuseppe Caputo take part in "Crossing: Conversations across Borders," a Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend event co-sponsored by Words without Borders and Guernica Magazine. More information here.