The Colombia of my imagination has tropical rhythms over middle eastern chords. Poetry. Impenetrable jungle, a generosity of smiles. Although I have never visited the country itself. All of this I learned from friends and songs and stories.
Last week I came across the real Colombia of the 1980s as experienced by a writer who spent her childhood there.
As a girl in England, my first school friend was from North America. Long ponytails, kind eyes, we met when we were four or five. I loved her because she wasn’t like the folk I knew. She spoke with vowels unknown and when she did a handstand, she called it by another name.
Like many in our university town, her family stayed a year. And then they moved to South America.
Last month I found a letter she sent me in 1981. When I looked online I discovered that thirty years on, my friend Shelley Hundley had written and published a book called A Cry for Justice.
I read it in two sittings.
There are few works of literature that have made me reflect so. Examining her own history and faith, Shelley has managed to somehow hold, ‘the mirror up to nature’.*
Her book describes that when she was a child, living in Medellín, between the age of six and ten, a minister known to her family routinely abused her, then left her silenced by the burden of his crimes.
She lost her faith, the world became a place from which she hid. Later on, she planned to take her life.
Shelley’s is a book about trauma and the healing which she found through re-embracing her religious faith. Her story-telling is compelling. The book, both page-turner – for the prose flows effortlessly – and an uneasy read.
As if Shelley’s own pain were not enough, Medellín in the eighties was a dangerous place to be a child. Shelley describes herself as ‘a gringa-paisa, an American by blood but a Colombian by birth.’ At the hands of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, Colombian cities in the 1980s were part war-zones where children did the normal things: play and learn and go to church but Shelley also saw shootings, robbery, casual violence, lockdowns.
Shelley’s descriptions of the society of her childhood reminded me of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the sense of something once beautiful, decayed.
Later at a North American college, filled with the rage of a knowledge unspeakable, Shelley embodied the young prince’s quandary: ‘To be or not to be’. But it was at this time that her life began to slowly turn, through therapy, scripture and prayer, from angry existence to a cathedral of love.
This book is, without a doubt, an invitation to the message of Jesus Christ and yet, I wonder whether whoever reads it, from whichever faith or background, may be strengthened by its integrity. Shelley rejects modern social ‘relativism’ in favour of God as unique Judge, liberator of the human from ego-based judgement, Opener of a space from which to love.
Filled with light, Shelley’s tale starts with survival which becomes thriving and culminates in complete transcendence of her past.
Sometimes a book is enough to throw open a window on a place we’ve never seen. Driving in Muscat last week with Shelley’s words still inside my head, I listened to an interview with Colombian author Laura Restrepo, award-winning writer of the novel, Delirio, also set in 1980s Medellín.
When asked how Colombian young people might approach the act of writing she said:
You know people in Colombia… it seems like everyone is writing, poetry, essays, novels, it seems like a very intelligent and brave way of understanding what’s going on with us. There’s plenty of fine literature in Colombia, great writers all over the place. It’s like a process of healing that the country is going through by telling its own story once and again and again… Go on and write your stuff, whatever you want to write, write.
Owning our past, paragraph by paragraph is for some, the conscious taking back of what was always meant to be ours. When Laura Restrepo and Shelley Hundley chose to write about their lives -the wounds of their society – they tapped into the power to heal themselves -and others – with their pen.
To tell one’s own story in whatever form is an act of courage. Writers who allow the sun to shine on the painful cracks in their personal histories are surely partaking in the communal work of letting in the light.
I’d like to visit Colombia some day. Thanks to Laura Restrepo and my childhood friend, I picture a place where everybody’s writing their own story. I’m trying to imagine the magnificence of that.
Shelley Hundley’s book A Cry for Justice is available here
Laura Restrepo’s novel Delirium is available here
I would love to know which countries you have been inspired to visit via literature. Please, as always, feel free to comment below.
*Prince Hamlet’s advice to the players in the play within the play (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)