New Year is a weird time, isn’t it? A forcible measure of happiness – whether you’re anxious about the next 12 months or saying a thankful goodbye to the old ones; whether you’re celebrating what you have achieved or are excited about what you will; whether you move lightly from one year to the next with both feet dancing in perfect harmony – it’s an annual landmark that tells you everything you need to know about the status of your life.
I have long-learned to look forward rather than back and to travel, where possible, because a year always looks better when you examine it with a mojito in your hand and the sun on your face and it’s incoming younger sister is equally filled with promise. I have bounced around on the New Year spectrum too and this year I am genuinely close to the Holy Grail: content with the past year, looking contentedly forward to the new one.
One reason is writing and the prospect of finishing books and publishing them – something that is a lot more fun when others are doing it with you. I am part of a team editing a new anthology, tentatively titled Was Gabo an Irishman? It’s a collection of essays from writers around the world who are all tied to Colombia. They write in English about their relationship with this country and the maestro.
We were invited to speak about the book on Richard McColl’s radio show (Colombia Calling) so we sat around his kitchen table, in his back garden in Mompós (that secret, lost-in-time colonial town on the banks of the Magdalena River that most people don’t believe exists until they actually visit) and spoke about what a pleasure it was to collect such funny, emotional, thoroughly-informed essays. We eventually came to the conclusion that there is something in the water in Colombia. It inspires people to write better than even they thought possible.
I’m a Bogotá girl so I naturally assume everyone writing about Colombia will have been touched by the Bogotá magic at some point. I’m convinced the city is poised to be the next star on the literary map. Every city has its writers, of course, but only a few emerge as writing destinations. Cities with every ingredient necessary to produce great works. Cities which eventually become so famous, and so prolific, people actually go there to write. I would say Paris in the 1920s but it’s a new year and I’m not allowed to repeat myself.
But what makes Bogotá such a literary city?
1. The war is almost over
Okay, but it’s a new year and I’m allowed to be optimistic and you know I’m not the only one. I’m also not the only one who uses writing as therapy. From Orwell to Hemingway, the literary greats have experienced conflict then turned to their pens to try and make sense of it all and everything that follows. There are times of unimaginable horror and there are the seeds they sow. The new breed of Colombian writers, gritty realists like Juan Gabriel Vasquez, admit they are daring to perform the damaging exercise of remembering. We live under a haunting breeze that touches every writer who wanders our way.
2. Crap copyright
One of the many reasons for the success of Shakespeare and other writers of his era in London is the utter crapness of copyright at the time, with writers stealing other writers’ works and, in the case of Shakespeare, even his name. This video is excellent on how crap copyright enforcement nurtures creativity. Not only will writers be able to get their works to the masses via the vast pirate bookseller network, they will prosper from the atmosphere of expansive creative freedom – as long as they don’t expect to see all their royalties.
3. Low prices
Parts of Bogotá are ridiculously expensive but writers are generally humble folk, willing to struggle and happy to rent a cheap room and live on corrientes. The coin – well, the conserving of it – is the old-fashioned commodity that brought artists to Paris and it will bring them here. Our minimum wage may be low and the corresponding cost of living high, but life is more than survivable for a scribe who barely earns his crust.
4. Premium on education and the arts
Back to Shakespeare and I’ve heard it said of the maestro of all maestros: “Shakespeare knew his way with a pen but he also lived in a culture that put a premium on ideas, spread education…” Lets not pretend there was anything remotely positive about literacy levels in England at the time and Colombia has its own demons to fight there, but I like the phrase “put a premium”. People in Bogotá fight to educate themselves and dare to dream. Tell an Englishman you’re a writer and he’ll roll his eyes and tell you to get a proper job, tell your parents and they’ll panic. Elizabeth Gilbert often speaks of the psychological, aren’t-you-scared-you’ll-fail battle to write. After that, Bogotá feels like a warm bath.
5. Cafe culture
Not only is there coffee on every corner, to suit all budgets, but the atmosphere is ideal for writing. Staff leave you alone – none of this “order an hour” malarkey interrupting every sentence – and somehow the enterprise is always evident. My memories of cafes during the English working week are of chain pit-stops with miserable waitresses dragging around damp cloths, stressed-out mums-of-three taking a break from shopping and screaming and tourists playing on Instagram. In contrast, my corner of Bogotá seems full of people planning, daring, plotting and debating, giving the place a gentle air of productive motivation.
Every literary city needs stars to follow and it’s helpful if they left a trail in the culture and local landmarks. Gabriel Garcia Marquez may have called Bogotá the “saddest city in the world” but it’s clear he would have been lost without it. There are plenty of local heroes who left their mark on our cafe culture too, bearded ghosts who trot around with ladies in fur coats and leave their ink stains for our inspiration.
Ah-ha! It always makes me giggle when people say the only reason the British invaded the world is because the weather is so miserable they were always scheming their way elsewhere (why did the Spanish and Portuguese bother invading everyone then?) But it is true those furiously stormy afternoons offer a good incentive for staying inside, writing, and the freshness that follows them keeps a spring in our step. I love sweltering heat, but it’s near impossible to get anything done.
Albert Einstein once said: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted” and what better way to waste it than sitting, doing absolutely nothing? Spend a few hours stuck on a Bogotá bus or chugging home on transmilenio and I guarantee your mind will wander further and return more loaded with inspiration and new ideas than if you’d wandered through an art gallery or jogged in a leafy park. The mind needs a carrot and a stick to turn in on itself and daydream its way into literature. The whack you’ll give your mind to help you escape the reality of Bogotá’s rush hour will be the very best incentive. Aspiring writers must travel without music or a book.
9. Other writers
Nothing exists in a vacuum and every year sees more creative talent emerge in Bogotá. I see a lot from the foreigner side; more writers, more artists, more poets flocking to the city in search of the mysterious “outsider effect”. The more you are around creative people, the more creative you seem to become. Perhaps that’s why creativity flourishes in batches; Athens, Florence, London, Paris and Silicon Valley have all had their day. Writers who come here will never fail to lure like-minded folk for a coffee, not to mention share tales of publishers and publishing.
Writers thrive on their experiences and Bogotá is the capital of Colombia, one of the most diverse countries on the planet. We have deserts and mountains, cities and coastlines, jungles and volcanoes, cowboy plains and lakes on our doorstep. We have more birds, animals and jewels than we can count and we are swathed in myth, legend and folklore in a country that feels as old as the hills and as new as tomorrow, because our history is still unfolding before our eyes. There’s not a writer alive who would struggle to find something to write about. And there are plenty of dead ones nudging them on too.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.