We should know how people die, but also how they live

Every day I read about death. Crashing headlines and stories filled with impersonal numbers, thrown back and forth, shaving away our ability to emphasise, numbing our skin and our minds. Sometimes I blur my eyes or ears because it becomes too much to take in. Sadness crushes my heart and I don’t want to know about anyone else’s suffering. Now extrapolate that sensation out across an entire city. It goes a long way towards explaining the way people treat each other here, and how some people can turn to hatred (without justifying it at all).

In her commonwealth lecture, to Instruct and Delight,  at the 2012 Hay Festival in Hay on Wye, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the need to know about lives, and not just about deaths. We may have all the facts (those numbers, attacks, incursions, bullets or rockets utilised), but we don’t know the truths (what it feels to have your people persecuted and driven out of your homes, how it feels to be a refugee in your own land, what you wear when you walk across an entire continent, and how you learn to write when there are no books, no schools, no teachers). It is when we hear or read THOSE stories that we can take a tiny step towards understanding what is happening and why. Sometimes, it is just by reading about different people, that children can learn that there are different people.

The Hay Festival brings together authors and audience to talk about the world, through the medium of books, and a shared love. For me, it represents a big part of what it means to be British. Although that may be a different discussion, because everyone will have their own understanding of Britishness, and for some it may not involve sitting in a field in Spring, talking about books.

In the UK, anyone can read. Books are ubiquitous, and it is normal to see them in the street and in coffee shops across the nation. Libraries may be closing, but some still exist, people are angry about them closing because they care, and cheap paperbacks can still be found.

In Colombia it is difficult to spot a reader in the wild. This is due to many things, not least the price of physical books, and (in my opinion), the fact that book shops are guarded, with lockers for your bag, and that the books inside are wrapped in cellophane, providing one more layer of distance. It is rare to find books in people’s houses (although happily I made the acquaintance of those whose houses were decorated with literature), and libraries are laberinths of inaccessibility. The entrance requirements alone would put off any but the most confident (or rich), and a quirk of their organisation means that one cannot browse in a Colombian library. A request is put in, a staff member goes to find the book, you collect it, and if you want a different one, the first must be returned, and logged back in before another is brought out. Not conducive to discovering a new author, or book that you had not yet heard of. Anathema to those, like me, who enjoy wandering along and choosing a book by its cover, or a paragraph read when flicking to a random page.

Difficult then for Colombians to read the truths instead of the facts. Or to know about other places, other dreams. The beautiful and devastatingly sad Voices of Witness collection, Throwing Stones at the Moon, which is made up of narratives of Colombians displaced by violence, was purchased and discussed by foreigners, or Colombians who travelled. Maybe it is too close to the heart, maybe people are too numbed and don’t want to know.

I was regularly asked by people that knew that I read, or that saw me reading: ‘how many books have you read’.

They meant ever.

I lost count before I knew how to count.

When I was in the Guajira, a peninsula in the north of Colombia, that is split with Venezuela, and inhabited mainly by the Wayuu people, I helped at several schools in the desert (as that is what was asked of me in exchange for a place for my hammock, food, and access to the people with whom I wished to speak). The children built the schools themselves, with adult supervision. There were not many supplies, and arepas and United Nations fortified drinks were given to the children to eat during the day. Not much space for reading for pleasure.

Given the above, it is hardly surprising that Hay Festival Cartagena is a different animal from Hay Festival Wales.

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A glittering fantasy of opulence, set in a colonial city which now plays host to the alcohol fuelled sex scandals of the rich, famous, and politically involved from around the world. If you have money, it is amazing. Every person who visited me wanted to go to Cartagena. I began to avoid those trips by the end, and sent my visitors off by themselves. That is not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy my own limonadas de coco, mojitos, margaritas, and coronas aplenty when I decided to visit. Strolling the cobbled streets in summer dresses in the muted Caribbean darkness, with gelato in hand always made me feel like some visiting princess, uncertain what might happen next.

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I took a pile of books with me to the festival, together with several bikinis, cocktail dresses, and sunglasses, and split my time between the Embassy parties, the sea, the pool, and the literary talks. Not many appeared to even know who the authors were, and many were there to be seen…and they were; the fashion columns and who’s who of El Tiempo were full of photos from the parties that accompanied the show. Maybe that was the problem, everyone was too hungover from all the rum, that they couldn’t really focus on books. Water and a soothing cocktail were much more enticing.

As I strolled back from one party, held in a mansion created by joining several previous mansions into one, built into the fortifications of the city, and boasting at least three pools that I had seen, together with rooftop gardens, thousand and one nightesque lounges, waiters with cocktails on tap, and several ambassadors disgruntled by the class of people in attendance (that would be me and my friends I suppose), I thought to myself that I should go to the original Hay Festival if ever I moved back to the UK.

Now I am back, and I have volunteered as a steward for this year’s event. I cannot wait, and will be taking a tent and coffee maker in lieu of my bikinis, unless we have a surprisingly hot spring this year!

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2 thoughts on “We should know how people die, but also how they live

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I work and live in Bogota with an organization that is trying to share stories, not simply of victims, but also of resistance and hope. The more I live here, the more I realize the value of these stories for people from the outside and the very wealthy in Colombia. But for those ordinary Colombians, living in displaced rural communities or marginalized neighbourhoods in the big cities (like Cartagena), they don’t need to read these stories, because they live them. I worked with a really cool quilting project on the coast, which is an entire other way to tell stories: https://thellamadiaries.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/stitched-history/

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    1. Ah, what a great blog. I didn’t write much for others while I was in Colombia, maybe it all seemed a bit too present! But I have now been gone for 6 months and miss it so much. I will have to keep remembering through your stories.

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