Field Notes, Grief and Loss, Narrative features, Storytelling and narratives
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Field notes from Colombia: Narratives

In one of my favorite TEDx talks, Chimamanda Adichie cautions against the dangers of a single story. As she narrates, we are “impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a story,” a disarming property of storytelling that I have come to cherish. However, she goes on to point out that this is a risky vulnerability when certain narratives emerge, become dominant, and overwhelm the others. In Adichie’s words:

“But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Colombia is rife with single narratives of the type Adichie describes – and, almost paradoxically, they exist side by side. There is the image of Colombia as the land of Pablo Escobar, the guerilla, the paramilitaries. It is the Colombia of guns and bombs, an image that nests most frequently in the heads of those who cannot explain what lies at the crux of the conflict that overwhelms the national narrative. There is the Colombia of coffee and salsa — and much as the addition of these two Colombian excellencies yields magic, it feels unfair to reduce a country to the sum of a product and a dance.

Anyone I have met who loves Colombia — and, believe me, it is a growing, passionate crowd — feels compelled to become an ambassador for the country. We all feel an inarticulable calling to shout Colombia’s beauty from rooftops. We see arepas and limonadas de coco on the global food map, right next to obleas and ajiaco. We get nostalgic at the thought of vallenato music bellowing from a neighbor’s apartment or a taxi on a Sunday afternoon. We cherish the hugs that flow abundantly. When people ask me how Colombia has come to earn such a special place in my heart, I respond that it is an affectionate country, from its language to its people, and I notice and prize the affection, just as I value conflict analysis in the breath that preceded it.

Can positive narratives become the ‘single story,’ in Adichie’s iteration? Can overwhelming positivity also become its own single narrative that crowds out the rest? I think it can, and I am conscious of the fact that I am treading on that thin line. But striking delicate balances is neither unfamiliar nor scary anymore, and I am willing to do it when I witness worlds that, indeed, unfold side by side: My Colombia of rolling hills and hugs and exuberant music and warm-tinted memories exists alongside my Colombia of threats against human rights defenders, fear of surveillance and intimidation, and frustratingly slow searches for justice. And those Colombias – my Colombias – ‘suffer’ from yet another type of bias: that of the foreign eyes, the foreign eyes of an optimist. There are limits to the experiences to which these eyes can bear witness, to the glass ceilings this optimist can feel in this context — just as there likely are layers of beauty here that also remain inaccessible to me, given the biases and identities I carry.

It becomes, then, a question of authenticity and disposition. The single narrative of coffee and conflict is inauthentic and I refuse to stand by it. Though both coffee and conflict exist in Colombia in abundance, the inauthenticity of the narrative stems its incompleteness. It misses the other layers of beauty and injustice alike; it lacks texture. Which is where disposition comes in: Is it fair, to the extent that an arbiter of narratives exists, to put forth that “Colombia es pasión” or “Colombia es amor,” as  advertising campaigns and lovers of Colombia alike have done in the past? Are those not single narratives too, bathed in positivity instead of fear? Does it all become a competition, whereby we try to scream our positive experience louder than the negative narratives, in the hope of overwhelming the latter out of existence? And, if so, what happens to texture and nuance — two qualities that give narratives their depth and resonance?

***

I  have spent the weekend with dreamers. There were mountain views wrapped in clouds, washed down with coffee and arepas on the side of the road. There were waterfalls and slippery steps down the side of a mountain (because yours truly may have walked across a country once and hiked up peaks on four continents, but she still cannot wear proper shoes to these things.) There were giggles and stories of life shared in the back of a pick-up truck. The thread that tied it all together was Pedro Medina, an extraordinary Colombian entrepreneur, whose latest venture is Yo Creo en Colombia, an initiative to inspire Colombians to “get to know, construct, and believe in” their country. All of this merriment unfolded at La Minga, a space tucked into the hills near Choachi.

Pedro is unapologetically a positive soul, gifting us with bird feathers and spicy jokes, jumping into waterfalls on top of mountains and sharing his thoughts on fostering community, sustainable living, and ecological design before the mist in our hair had had the chance to dry. Yet, his positivity does not imply that he denies the existence of the negative narratives about Colombia or that he questions their validity. On the contrary, the rocky path into La Minga casts the narratives in conversation with each other. On the one side, written on signs, are the narratives of corruption and violence we – Colombians and lovers of the country alike – lament. On the other side, signs exalt the features of Colombia we celebrate: the biodiversity, the country topping the happiness charts. The Colombias, side by side.

***

Memory is a choice, a series of choices of which narratives to elevate and which to quieten. On the drive to La Minga, before the four strangers in his car had even had coffee, Pedro asked each of us to tell him a story. The story of our lives, preferably. There is a dissonance to narrating the story of your life in a language in which you do not typically tell it. It almost makes the story itself less familiar to you — the author of it, the individual to whom the story belongs! It forces you to scrutinize your own single narratives — the stories you tell yourself about yourself. The “I met him on a boat on the Nile on the first day of Ramadan which was also my first day with the UN and first day in Egypt” narrative that you think could spill out of you in your sleep requires you to relive it when it needs the Spanish subjunctive. The grief on top of grief on top of grief. My voice sounds different in Spanish; my story sounds different in Colombia, when it is met with the ‘whoosh’ and ‘uffff’ and ‘uyyyy’ with which Colombians demonstrate audible attentiveness.

People often want to know from where my own sunniness stems. The underlying question, though only a few will actually deliver it this bluntly, is “how do you work on mass atrocities, wartime sexual violence, and enforced disappearance and still manage to smile as much as you do?” As long as the people I work to serve express hope, the least I can do is to match it. It is their sunniness I seek to mirror, their hope from which I learn, their positivity I absorb and seek to reflect. To borrow from Arundhati Roy: Alongside destruction, if I look very hard (for looking, too, is a choice), I can usually find a glimmer of beauty; alongside conflict, love; alongside darkness, light.

Interestingly, as I learned today, this creates a single narrative in my own life. When these tales relate to my life and not to that of others, I tell the stories of sudden death and loss and grief and being uprooted with a smile, as though I try to reassure my listener that I am okay, that it is okay (whatever it really is). I refuse to drag out the tone or dramatize, to linger on each loss, to zoom in on my personal stories with gravity. This — like memory, like all narratives — is a choice. The single narrative of victimization and pity is one that I wish to resist so fervently that I’d rather err on the side of excessive sunniness, of normalizing the unnormalizable. For, at the end of the day, I am okay, and the sunniness resonates more than the pity.

***

Does it all become a competition, whereby we try to scream our positive experience louder than the negative narratives, in the hope of overwhelming the latter out of existence? And, if so, what happens to texture and nuance — two qualities that give narratives their depth and resonance? These were the questions with which I began. Two waterfalls, a rainbow, a few cloud forests, an arepa, a patacon, a tinto, some mist, and a muddy pair of pants later, I am still working my way to the answers. For now, I know this: When positivity becomes the single narrative, indeed the only narrative, in situations of armed conflict or in its aftermath, there are reasons to be skeptical and cautious, to dig deeper till we get to the less sunny stories and do them justice.

But the very existence of armed conflict itself does not render the positive stories irrelevant or inappropriate. On the contrary, in my eyes, it renders them necessary. This is why I hunt for sunniness: Because in the presence of beauty and hope, I am less scared. The narratives of fear and violence and injustice have less of a grip on me when I can find the beauty — because it is this beauty and hope that have the power to guide me to action, that put me in conversation with the atrocities at their mass scale, that give me the courage to confront them.

3 Comments

  1. Great read and great article. I feel much the same after spending time here.
    It seems impossible to delve into tales of Colombia without first adding the well-known contextual stipulation of ‘Escobar’ ‘Drugs’ and ‘War’. Hope one day that stories of the beauty of Colombia are recounted and enjoyed in there own right!

    • Roxanne says

      I join you in that hope, Benjamin! I’m excited to check out your blog and see what stories of Colombia are drawing your own curiosity…

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