tatiana de la tierra
Sometimes, things happen because they were destined to, even if you don’t realize it at the moment. Like today. I was hanging out on Facebook and clicked on a headline posted by a friend: “Estudiante UN gana concurso de novela de la Cámara de Comercio.” I read a few paragraphs about a fine arts student from the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá who won a creative writing contest with his experimental novel. Bogotá Vagabundo is a romantic science fiction tale about a 19-year old who falls in love with another man out in the planet of Uranus. Intriguing, I think, but what stands out is that this young university student has written13 novels. I, on the other hand, have not written even one.
Driven by envy and curiosity, I look for him on Facebook. Seconds later, I have a new friend, Luis Barragán. We chat and I waste no time before asking him to send me a story or something, anything, of his. He obliges with “Mujeres ornitófilas que amé,” a short story about a guy who ends up in bed with a woman who has a flower blooming between her legs. This is not a metaphor-type of flower. It’s an actual flower that attracts insects, bees and birds. The story is kinky, creative and cool. I am smitten and, minutes later, we have ditched Facebook for Skype.
We decide to have a conversation between us as writers. But first I have to ask him about his profile picture in Facebook. It is of a black man with an afro. But he didn’t look brown in the article I read about him. “Is that you?” I ask. “Are you black? “
“No, I’m mestizo. I am black, white and indigenous. But that is a version of me, a browner version of me. I wish my skin were darker, that’s true. It’s like an upside down version of Michael Jackson. The way he changed skin color, I saw that as going from an oppressed race to the oppressing race. I thought it would be interesting to do the opposite. But more than that, it’s a way to shift ways of thinking. Especially those that culturally represent race and gender.” I notice other Photoshopped images, such as one in which he looks Asian, and another that emphasizes light skin.
This writer-creature before me is twirling my curls with his words. What about transgender? I ask. I remember that the friend we have in common in trans. “Well, people may think that a female-to-male trans goes from the oppressed gender to the oppressor gender, but those structures melt in the act of transing. What I’ve learned from my trans friends is that cultural limits disappear in being a man, woman, or intersex. It doesn’t matter, in the end, ‘what’ you are. In my writing, I normalize sexual attractions and sexual orientations.”
Lucho has questions for me. He wants to know how I ended up in the U.S. I share my coming-to-America story with him. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to have your country taken away from you,” I say. “And your people, your food, your family, your everything.” This is one of my wounds.
Do you have a wound to share? I ask. “Well, I had an easy childhood. My family is middle class, from the city. When I was little I saw the world through the display cases at the supermarket. Or from the window of a car.” I take a minute to digest this news of his Easy Life. This disturbs one of my theories--that in order to be a good writer, you have to suffer first. (Here in the U.S., where a zillion people have MFAs, I figure that a Hard Life gives a writer an edge.)
I expose my theory to this writer, Luis Barragán, and hold my breath. “I don’t think it’s necessary to suffer, but it’s imperative to live, and to listen.” OK, I accept. “I’ve experienced pain here and there, but nothing deep. I suggest that in order to be a good writer, you have to write. You have to write a lot. Like a habit.” He writes every day, two or three hours a day. Or all day long, if he’s inspired.
Those 13 novels he’s written, they’re coming into focus. The first one was inspired by Lord of the Rings and by playing Dungeons and Dragons with his friends when he was 14. “It’s a lousy novel,” he admits. But he stuck with the genre “because of the complexity of the story, the length and the details” he can pack in. He’s also written a series of Latin American science fiction short stories that deal with migration between cultures and genders. The female flower story he sent me is one of these.
Lucho is 23 now, and I just turned 50. He was born in 1988, the year after I published my first poem. He writes with transgender and trans-everything awareness; I wrote lots of lesbian smut with great panocha-awareness. He is from one of Bogotá’s middle class neighborhoods; I was from one of Bogotá’s working class neighborhoods. He’s lived in Bogotá his whole life, with the exception of six months when he lived in Lima, Peru; I’ve been hopscotching around the world since I was born. He’s a self-taught writer, while I have an MFA. I’m making comparisons in my mind when he twirls my curls once again.
“Speaking of migrations, I’m leaving,” he says. “I’m going as far away as possible with the prize money I just won from this contest. I’m going to Cambodia, in the south of Asia…. This country is calling me. It seems mysterious, and I feel like I’ve been there in another lifetime. I have to go there to find something.” I’m stunned, and strangely relieved. “It’s on the other side of the world, with a totally different culture and a language I barely understand. Maybe I’ll end up growing rice or becoming a monk.” He is a searcher, like me, and I understand the need to go somewhere far away without knowing what you’ll find. Before heading to Cambodia, he’s biking 400-something miles to Colombia’s Atlantic coast with a few friends.
I realize, in the midst of our conversation, that I’ve been assuming he’s gay the whole time. Finally, I ask. “I’m bisexual,” he says. He lives with his father, who went to Bogotá’s gay pride march wearing a T-shirt that read, “My son is bisexual and I love him.” My father died last year without ever acknowledging my lesbianism. My mom wrote a commentary about having a lesbian daughter called “The Gift” and I promise I’ll send him a copy. “That’s beautiful,” he says. “My friend Cristina says that when someone is lesbian, gay, bi or trans, it’s a gift for the family.”
My mom, who read me a ton of poetry when I was little, was one of my early literary influences. Lucho wants to know what made me become a writer. “Music is at the root of my inspiration,” I say. I pledge allegiance to vallenatos, which make me instantly happy, and to the nostalgia of rock music of the 70s and 80s. I mention those Colombian bambucos he knows as well as I do, the amazing lyrics in Garzón y Collazos tunes. There’s something incredible about saying this to a Colombian who knows exactly what I’m talking about. Like sharing lyrical geneology.
I am filling in blanks as I get to know this new Colombian writer friend. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet made him decide that writing is his main art. “I need to write. You must feel the same way, right?”
“Yes! I’m always writing, even when I’m not writing. I’m always thinking of what I’m going to write, writing in my head.”
Our conversation turns to sacred plant ceremony with yagé. It’s a deep trip, hallucinatory and transformational. I experienced it once in the mountains. “Me too, I’ve done yagé ceremony,” says Lucho. “It was in this house in La Calera. The guy who lives there is an artist who has a dissected dog---.”
“---in the living room! Yes, I’ve been there!” It’s unforgettable, this house reminiscent of a Danish castle in the mountainous outskirts of Bogotá. It’s full of funky furniture and strange art displays all over, including one with the stuffed dog. The day I went, there was a dead bird atop a birdcage at the entrance. The groundskeeper found the bird and placed it there, said Daniel, the resident artist. He photographed me with the dead bird before burying it in a meadow. It’s incredible that Lucho and I have both been there, in that zany house.
“I have this feeling that we know each other already,” says Lucho. “Like from another lifetime or something.”
“In Cambodia?” I jest.
There’s much more to say, but we leave it at that. I want to tell him about the Cambodian market down the street from my house, a place I frequent for iced coffee and snacks. Better yet, maybe I can pop in on him some time while he’s living in Siem Reap, on the other side of the world. Drink iced coffee, grow rice, become a nun. Yes.