Cornucopia: Report From Literary Bogotá

Stephen Morison Jr.

I leave the writer’s home and make my way south along the shaded sidewalks of his neighborhood, past the French Lycée and the pillared portico of the Club Médico de Bogota. I am far from the impoverished neighborhoods to the south. Although the political violence appears to be coming to an end, the problematic disparity between Colombia’s rich and poor continues. 

To attempt to alleviate the disparity, the municipality assigns each neighborhood a ranking from one to six. The rankings can be found on each resident’s utility bill. In Bogotá, the citizens are reminded of their spot in the social hierarchy every time they open an invoice for electricity, water, or WiFi. 

Somebody living in a one-story dirt-floored room on the south side of the city or a flood-prone mountainside ravine or a zonas de tolerancia, a tolerated red light district, is a one or a two. He or she pays the least amount for basic utilities. The neighborhoods in the northeast quadrant of the city are fours, fives, or sixes. Their proximity to the best private schools, the equestrian clubs, the tennis clubs, and the best shops and restaurants means they pay the most for basic services.

The dramatic social disparities continue to make the city somewhat unsafe. During my time in Bogotá, my friends and acquaintances urge me to be vigilant. I use Ubers and local taxis to get around, and the majority of my interviews are conducted in the northeast neighborhoods where security guards and police maintain a visible presence.

For example, I meet the poet Johan Fabian Pinilla Sanchez at Juan Valdez Café Origenes, a Colombian competitor to Starbucks, in the Rosales district, a number-four neighborhood. Pinilla has dark curly hair and a three-day beard. He wears an unpretentious button-down shirt and blue slacks. We sit at a sidewalk table separated from the street by a concrete planter topped with thick hedges and an awning. 

In addition to being a writer, Pinilla is a professor of philology with a specialization in French language at La Universidad Nacional de Colombia in downtown Bogotá. The school and university systems in Colombia are as divided as the neighborhoods. The wealthy families aspire to send their children to one of the private, centuries-old, church-founded universities like Universidad Javeriana, Universidad del Rosario, or the Universidad de los Andes, while the poorer classes dream of attending the public, leftist Universidad Nacional, which offers tuition on a sliding scale. 

Pinilla (left) grew up on the south side of Bogotá. “Here in the Rosales neighborhood, you can find a kind of wealthy people, but very close to here you can find the other side of the coin,” he says in English. “In the south is different; we have always poverty, crime, poor education.”

Pinilla’s father drives a taxi and his mother makes clothing out of their home. Pinilla describes his childhood as humble but pleasant; the family had enough money to meet their basic needs. For fifteen years, he was an only child and then his parents had a second son. “It was a surprise for all three of us,” he says with a laugh.

He was a bookish young man. During elementary school, his friends were other children who were serious about their schoolwork. At times, his studiousness isolated him from his peers, and during high school he often felt ostracized. Pinilla began his university studies in electrical engineering at the Universidad Distrital, a public college close to his home. While there, he explored opportunities for work and study overseas and eventually landed a job as an administrative assistant for a publishing company in Luxembourg. There he studied French and discovered a passion for languages, eventually continuing his schooling in Brazil and France before returning to Bogotá and his current post at the Universidad Nacional.

“The National University, it’s important,” he explains. “It was founded in 1867, during the construction of the country. It was the start of an idea of a public education. We associate the construction of the university with the construction of the country.”

Gabriel García Márquez was a graduate, but so were many of the country’s most famous leftwing guerilla leaders. Camilo Torres Restrepo, a charismatic Catholic priest, created the sociology department at the school before leaving in the 1960s to join the National Liberation Army (ELN). (Torres Restrepo may be most famous for his quote, “If Jesus were alive today, He would be a guerrillero.”) And Alfonso Cano was an anthropology student at the university in the 1960s before he joined the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and rose to lead the group from 2008 until his death in a firefight with government forces in 2011. 

“You can still find the ideas of Che Guevara, ideas of liberation,” Pinella says. “Education is the only way to improve the country, and the university, despite its black history, is an important element in that.”

Pinilla’s interest in poetry coincided with his discovery of his love for the comparative study of languages. A course on morphosyntax, which analyzes the harmonic association between a word’s sound and its meaning, changed the way Pinilla thought about verse. “My poems are not just about meaning but also about sound,” he says. “I’m more aware of syntax elements.”

By 2014, he had written forty or fifty poems, and he could discern a shared theme in enough of them to make a book. “I started to try to have contacts with publishers,” he says, speaking loudly. A small surge of customers have pressed into the café, there’s a line at the register, and a man at the next table bumps the back of my chair. “I have the feeling that here in Colombia,” Pinilla says, “to be a beginner, it’s hard.”

For more than a year, the poet sent hundreds of e-mails to Colombian, Peruvian, Argentinian, Spanish, and French publishers until he heard back from a small Colombian house, Tragaluz Editores. 

“Poetry is not a big seller,” Pinella says. “Most publishing houses don’t carry much poetry. But Tragaluz’s purpose is to be independent, new, fresh.” 

Three months after he submitted his book, they called him. And six months later, his book was released. Pinilla has seen it in four or five bookstores around the city, including the Casa Poesia Silva, a government-run foundation devoted to assisting local writers. Named after the famed Colombian poet José Asunción Silva, a nineteenth-century dandy who was friends with the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé in Paris, Silva modest former home serves as library, bookshop, and community space for writers.

Pinilla’s publisher held a release party for his book at A Seis Menos (Six Hands), a cultural space, restaurant, and gallery located in the city center, but the poet hesitates as he recalls the event. “After the opening, so many people were giving a positive reception, and I asked myself why I made the book. Was it just to hear these congratulations? It was a bit of a crisis. I took a long time without writing,” he says. “Making a book was a kind of altruism,” he says. “I was making a book for the people, for the future. But after the opening, maybe all that altruism was not the true reason. Maybe it was a question of ego:  It was just for me.” 

Despite such doubts, Pinilla has continued to write. Most recently, he released a collaborative book of poems and paintings with Australian visual artist, Mellisa Schellekens. Our interview is winding down, and I ask him if I can photograph him. He agrees, and I reach down to retrieve the red backpack I have wedged between my legs and the concrete planter, but my hand waves through empty air. I feel a sick shock of understanding, like the moment when you realize, too late, that you’ve just driven through a stop sign. 

“My bag is gone,” I say, and I remember the bump from the chair behind me. I’ve lived in cities for decades, yet I failed to notice the effort to distract me while the thief wormed the bag away from my side. I’ve lost my camera, an umbrella, a pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap. All replaceable, yet I’m frustrated and annoyed at myself.

Pinilla retrieves the waitress and explains the situation. She says that management will study the video from the CCTV camera aimed at our group of tables in an effort to spot the thief and keep him from returning. 

“I feel ashamed to be a Colombian,” Pinilla says.

I assure him that it could have happened in Rome or New York then snap a photo of him with my iPhone, which was, luckily, in my pocket.

The next morning, a Saturday, I head to the Mercado de Paloquemao, a covered market in the city center. Cocoa and coffee famously grow well in Colombia, but so do Andean ancestral potatoes in a rainbow of colors, the orange-lime lulo fruit, the pulpy aphrodisiac borojó, and a hundred other fruits and vegetables. 

Outside in the parking lot, the flower market is bright and thick with the smell of roses and lavender. A local friend purchases a bouquet then leads me to a café beneath the corrugated roof of the market where we spend two dollars each on a caldo of potatoes, yucca, catfish, and broth. A couple hours later, we split a paper plate of lechona, made of pork, rice, and peas slow cooked inside the crispy husk of the pig. 

The cornucopia of flavors is an apt analogy for the diversity of styles and personalities that is Colombian culture and writing, which despite its Catholic roots and lingering social conservatism is beginning to publish voices from a wider range of genders, orientations, and perspectives.

Returning to the Juan Valdez coffee shop the next morning, I meet the novelist, playwright, publisher, and teacher Mauricio Arévalo. Slender with olive skin and a sweep of black hair that falls over fashionable red-framed glasses, the twenty-nine-year-old Arévalo has thick black lines like henna tattoos poking out from under his shirt cuffs and twining around his wrists. He explains that he is just back from a trip with his ninth-grade students to the Amazon to visit an indigenous tribe who showed them how to use the juices of the huito fruit, which the tribe uses in sacred ceremonies, to dye the skin. He let his ninth graders paint designs on his arms. “They loved it,” he says, laughing.

Mauricio Arévalo

Arévalo has been teaching Spanish literature to high schoolers for almost ten years, but shortly after his award-winning novel, ¿Alguna vez jugaste a las escondidas? (Have You Ever Played Hide & Seek?), was released, he experienced an unexpected sabbatical.

“I was teaching at a Catholic high school,” he says. “I had a bit of a crisis; they were not very happy about my sexual identity.” The school promoted traditional conservative worldviews while Arévalo, who is gay, promoted a more progressive philosophy. “I strongly believe that diversity, as gender and sexual diversity, may become a motor for education.” 

The tensions eventually caused Arévalo to quit and try to make a living as a freelancer, but the income instability made his life difficult. He was wary but relieved when, a year later, he received a call from the country’s most exclusive private high school, the Colegio Nueva Grenada, asking if he was available to teach. The school assured him that his private life would not influence his professional success or failure at the school. He took the job, and the renewed security has enabled him to begin work on a second novel.

I ask Arévalo about his earliest memories of writing, and he recalls a short story he wrote when he was six or seven about three flowers and a girl who had to choose one of them. “Mom and Dad were so proud of me,” he says with a smile. The story earned him a reputation within the family as a reader and writer. His aunt gave him a copy of The Little Prince; his father bought him books from the illustrated series The Adventures of Tintin, which he loved at the time but later rejected after he grew to understand the Neocolonialist politics behind the series.

When he was a thirteen-year-old high school student, Arévalo discovered theater. “I was a very shy child and then theater pushed me to show what I was, that I was a gay man, for instance, and I was not afraid to show who I was.”

When it came time for university, the writer applied for admission to the Universidad de los Andes, the most prestigious and most expensive private university, and they awarded him a scholarship. His tuition was free, but there were other challenges to overcome. He discovered that his classmates had benefitted from enviable private high school educations. “They were so clever,” he says. He was intimidated to watch them taking notes on Macintosh computers while he wrote in his notebook.

It took time, three or four semesters, before he began to feel confident that he could survive at the school. This eventual success he attributes to his professors. “I met a whole bunch of role models,” he says. “Some were writers, some were writing plays, some were theater directors. It was amazing because I learned from the best.”

After four years, his impulse was to continue in academia. He had a plan to earn a PhD in queer studies in Brazilian literature, but then, he says, “I met a man.”

The boyfriend, now his husband (same-sex marriage has been legal in Colombia since a ruling by the national Constitutional Court in the spring of 2016), questioned whether a life of monkish study was the appropriate path for somebody who was so happy in the company of others. “That was when I realized I wanted to write creatively,” he recalls. “That was when I started my first novel.”

Arévalo finished a draft and submitted it to Penguin Random House, the multinational behemoth that represents the largest publishing house in Colombia. He received positive feedback about the quality of the work, but ultimately they rejected it and advised him to try to build an audience with an independent publisher. He submitted to smaller publishers, but months of submissions and e-mails only brought additional rejections. “If no one is going to publish me,” he recalls thinking, “I’m going to become a publisher.”

In 2013, he assembled a staff of five and began producing Revista Artificio (Artifice Magazine), a publication devoted to literature and culture. The periodical was a success, and it helped him broaden his contacts in the Bogotano world of arts and letters. A year later, an artist who illustrated a cover for his magazine introduced him to an independent publisher who read his novel and accepted it then submitted it to the Ministry of Culture, which was sponsoring a contest for new writers. ¿Alguna vez jugaste a las escondidas? won the contest, earning Arévalo publicity and a prize of twenty million pesos, or about eight thousand dollars.

“When you have no name, people don’t buy your books,” he says. “Contests are one of the diving boards for writers in Colombia. It’s one of the channels for new writers to be published.”

The writer describes disparate influences, from Marquez’s Leaf Storm to the TV series Six Feet Under to a novel called Santa Evita by the Argentinian writer Tomás Eloy Martínez, an account of the disposition of the long dead body of Eva Perón, the infamous wife of the former President of Argentina. His second novel is still in the research phase. “My husband calls, and I say I am writing but I’m reading and taking notes.” He is, in a word, still searching for the right voice. 

Over the winter, this process was interrupted when Arévalo accepted an invitation to join a collaborative playwriting project. The goal was for a group of nine actors, directors, and writers to work together to produce nine individual plays. Arévalo was drawn to the theme of “lockdowns,” the increasingly common practice that schools have developed all over the world to protect themselves from attacks by armed individuals by locking all their doors. He wanted to write about “not being able to move,” and wrote a play about a teacher locked down with his students. “When they are locked down, they have excuses to share their fears that have to do with coming of age,” Arévalo says. He brought the play into his high school classroom and conducted readings with his students. “I approached some issues of sexual violence, and I was afraid of how they would understand it, but they totally got into it,” he says. The play will be published in May, and a movie producer has expressed an interest. Arévalo is currently working on a script.

I ask him about how the years of wars and violence in Colombia have influenced his work, and he explains that writers in their twenties, especially those raised in Bogotá, have been less affected by the years of warfare than previous generations. “From 2010 till now, some writers have been addressing the violence in a different way,” he says. “We heard the stories but we didn’t live the war directly. It was easier for us to talk about reconciliation. From 2010 till now, we create literature about what it might be like to be a country at peace.”

“I think our predecessors could only portray the violence, but they hadn’t time to process and see the complexity behind those issues. We are more reflective. We are testing and allowed to be a different country, to tell a different story. Not the story about the massacre or the kidnapping or the narco-terrorist but instead about, for example, a magical jungle naïf culture.” There are lots of writers like myself who want to write a different country, a different culture—if we don’t we are reliving again and again our violent past. We are reforming, reaffirming, our nation. It’s like starting again.”

I ask him about limitations he has felt due to his social class or sexuality, and he agrees that in Colombia the class divisions are problematic. His family was not rich, and yet he has been afforded opportunities. “But I’m maybe one in ten thousand,” he says.

Arévalo finds that his identity as a gay man has been less of a hurdle. “Literature is one of the worlds that is really open to gender equality. I actually find that being a gay man is better than being a woman in this world. You are still a man in this very machoistic culture.” He describes a recent scandal that is still resonating in the Colombian literary world. In 2017, France and Colombia celebrated a year dedicated to cultural exchange and appreciation, a Temporadas Cruzadas that committed the two governments to cross-cultural events at festivals, theaters, museums, universities, businesses, and other forums throughout the year. In December, as the year was drawing to a close, the Colombian Ministry of Culture selected ten prominent Colombian authors to represent the country on a literary panel in Paris. But the authors chosen were all men, and the biased selection raised the ire of female Colombian writers. A novelist named Carolina Sanin published a letter in a Bogotano newspaper that rocketed her to prominence. 

I contact her and request an interview, but she does not reply and word comes back that she is hesitant to grant in-person interviews in English. So instead, I arrange to interview her editor.