Canada and Colombia meet in the Caribbean
When Gabriel García Márquez asked me, in a job interview, about the potential cultural shock for a hyperenergetic fast-talking reporter from São Paulo (i.e. me) to adapt to the slow-paced town of Cartagena de Indias, site of his Foundation for Journalists (now Centro Gabo), I didn’t hesitate to let him know that I could picture my beloved Gabriela or Dona Flor or Tieta do Agreste walking those cobbled streets, swaying their hips. “You could have written any of those characters, maestro,” I told him, “and besides: the women of Jorge Amado are the women of my country.”
We could be from the South, but our culture comes from the Nordeste. “This is just like Bahia,” I insisted, “but in Spanish.”
“That’s the correct answer,” he said. (Wait a minute! Did Gabriel García Márquez just say I had “the correct answer” for something?) “In fact,” he added, “the Caribbean is not a geographical but a cultural region, which starts in your country, in Salvador da Bahia and ends in New Orleans, Louisiana.”
Ringing true in my ears for over two decades, I dared to open my first panel at the last Hay Festival in Cartagena with Gabo’s words, with my apologies to Carolina Sanín — who many of us consider the leading intellectual of Colombia, if such rankings are to be believed — for breaking one of her cardinal rules against your tyipical escritor-macho, hogging the time on stage with anecdotes about his encounters with the Nobel laureate and boring everyone to death.
Roaring laughter from the audience ensued, to my relief — a delighted crowd of 500+ who came to hear Colombian soap opera superstar Maribel Abello Banfi, from Barranquilla, among them her mother, Gina Banfi, seated in the front row (it must be said: Doña Gina is the woman who taught Shakira to sing and was her vocal coach for years). Making her literary debut with a collection of non-fiction stories about prominent women of the Colombian Caribbean, Hasta ahora te creo, Maribel was in dialogue with our very own Trinidad-and-Tobago-born Dionne Brand, Canada’s leading poet (again: if such rankings are to be believed).
I immediately passed the mic to Dionne so she could take it from there. The brilliant Brand extended Gabo’s definition of the Caribbean to an experience of the Americas, set against the backdrop of the long oppressive colonial history — a chronic wound in the history of our continent.
Dionne’s words about the Caribbean — and the Americas — now accompany me and help me reflect. Going far beyond questions of identity and a sense of belonging, it is in CanLit that I find my home: in the craft of Canadian wordsmiths, in this single and singular — albeit universal — literary spatial dimension their language creates. Our beloved Alberto Manguel is Argentinean and Canadian and Jewish (like me), and it was in Montreal, at Blue Met, that I had the honor of exploring what all of this means.
And then there was the Master, whose red cloak in The Handmaid’s Tale has become a symbol for reproductive rights in Argentina and all over Latin America. Margaret as pictured here, in the hometown of Margarita García Robayo, one of the leading voices of my generation, and (sneak preview!)… one of the Azul stars at Blue Met come spring!
Under the banner of Singular Plurality/Singulier Pluriel, this is the year Canada will have the spotlight as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In an email exchange with Gillian Fizet, Canadian literary manager extraordinaire and captain at the helm of the CanLit ship crossing the Atlantic, she tells me how much she loves Cartagena — and Colombia — and how she dreams of returning — perhaps even moving for a few months, to learn Spanish — one day.
For 2020 and beyond, may there continue to be a multiplicity of voices and voyages for us Canadians — and may all of our dreams come true!