Didem Doğan

Bógota 39, Latin America’s new literary voices

The UK based literature festival Hay had recently its Latin American gathering in the city of Cartagenas.

Bogota 39 named Latin America’s promising writers under the age of forty who participated many activities within the festival. These writers are writers under the age of forty, with at least one published book, and they are the new voices, the new story-tellers of Latin America.

In a country like Colombia or in any other country that witnessed the Latin American ‘boom’ in literature it should be difficult for a new writer to make people hear his/her voice. Marquez, Cortazar, Fuentes, Llosa, Nobel winner writers, stories that are identified with places… Particularly in Colombia the term ‘magical reality’ has been consumed so much that it has even become the travel marketing strategy of the country; travellers tend to visit places where stories in One Hundred Years of Solicitude took place, they visit the house where Marquez lived, they try to imagine the surreal events told in the book (like the the flying bride), the lives of the people behind the doors of the houses of Cartagena seem to them postcard scenes from the book.

What about other stories, current history like Colombia’s civil war, the end of the guerrilla wars, the drug dealers that have become so famous outside the country to make Hollywood characters? What is outside this magical realism, the reality of every day life?

In 2007, one of the names of Bogotá 39 was a young writer called Juan Gabriel Vasquez, who is today an acclaimed writer with books translated into many languages carrying various literary awards. Although he wrote his novels outside Colombia his country is always the main place in those novels. In his novel ‘The Secret History of Costaguana’ we travel to the roots of the Civil War in Colombia, we learn how after gaining its independence from Spain two tendencies make the social division in Colombia: the conservatives and the liberals. The novel takes the archetype of father and son: an idealist doctor, an atheist father who has a bright, rational future in mind for his country, who believes in scientific progress, who opposes to the Church, who buys the dead bodies of Chinese workers to use them for medical research (because it’s sin to cut Catholic bodies); this character represents the liberal Colombia, he is then forced to move to Panama, (we learn the history of Panama separating from Colombia); the second generation, his son, tries to make a life totally opposite of his father’s by staying away from politics and war, however his own life becomes finally shaped by the war.

Another novel of his, ‘The Sound of Things Falling’- winner of Alfaguara and Dublin Literary Awards- tells the story of a young, idealist American woman who comes to Colombia to work as an NGO staff, to educate people and improve their lives in a third world country. She falls in love with a Colombian, marries him, the aviator husband gets involves in drug commerce aiming to build an economic well-being for his family. The story ends again in an ironic way for the idealist character, we end up reading the disappearing of every ideal imagined by ordinary people that has nothing to do with war. We learn in this novel how the famous drug dealer Narcos’s zoo is visited by Colombian kids and thus have a certain place in country’s collective memory.

So we come to understand how conditions shape people’s lives, how destiny works in mysterious ways, how novel characters’ stories end up in the way that totally contradict their ideals and dreams. We come to think , by reading literature, how every citizen in Colombia and his/her own personal story might be shaped by country’s guerrilla wars that ended up with the death of more than eight million people and how violence have become normalised in these lands.

Taking Edward Said’s term ‘orientalism’ to describe a certain misjudgement caused by categorisation of the East by the West, we can also use the term for Latin America, that we come to define these countries by being ‘illegal, violent, brutal’; however this way what we do is only to ignore these personal stories, these voices that try to tell a story to reduce the pain, and to understand why and how some of the best story-tellers of the world are born in this continent.