«… We were a mother and her son doing a long table. And that’s it. That’s all, that’s all. Or was there one reason to believe that Peter, aka «Matthew,» would end up charged with «rebellion,» and persecuted as a «dangerous subversive»? Or to be more precise: party by concert for delinquency, terrorism, aggravated homicide, falsity in public document, manufacture of explosives and illegal transport of firearms.»
The story of «The Woman Who Spoke Alone», by the Colombian writer Melba Escobar (Cali, 1976) immerses us with poignant honesty in Cecilia’s intimate life, her youth, the love of Rayo, Peter’s dead father.
Her path as a mother in solitude, pierced by everything that happens outside, social tensions, violence. The consequences of life at war, for so many years.
Melba Escobar, who waspart of the HAY Cartagena, which ended this weekend, talks about a murderous Colombia, «where it kills the left and kills the right, kill the narcos, the guerrillas, the criminal gangs and the military, the thieves kill and the drunks kill, jealous husbands and those who owe money.»
What made cecilia’s story happen?
There was a bomb at the Andean Mall, from which I took several facts and when I started looking into who those involved in that attack were, I felt a mother’s pain. I thought of the loneliness of those who have to stand in solidarity with the victim by natural law.
And the question arises, how far does motherhood involve loving a child to the last consequences, even if it can be a murderer?
It is also a novel of politics, about Colombia, its polarization and inequality, but from my own skin.
How the country is faced from this recent role of mother, which can be even crueler. I believe that motherhood is a strange voluntary subjection to absolute fragility. One wonders, why did I choose so much vulnerability? It’s like living in someone else’s heart, like a poet said. And that can be very heartbreaking.
On motherhood, Cecilia says «I left hedonism out, became transparent, boring, predictable. An ordinary mother, a generic mother, as an exit from an industrial package»…do you share that feeling?
Cecilia is largely me, there is a cross between fiction and nonfiction, I do not have a son of that age, but there are many of my personal conflicts. I always said ‘I’m not going to have kids, I’m not interested, I’m on something else’, but I had an alarming biological call, a button on telling me you have to have a child now!
Irrationally I needed to have a child, as one needs to pee and because I had a son. It was more of a biological theme than something premeditated, expected and longed for. And at the same time it has been huge, a very big discovery.
Have you felt that postponement Cecilia is talking about?
I have friends my age childless, who are distressed and ask themselves great existential questions. Where’s all this going? What am I going to do with my life? Motherhood closes those questions, because everything is already decided. You’re not in a position to go to Tibet or tour South America on a mule. The things that are going to be done are quite restricted and one can find a freedom there.
Cecilia is a widow of Rayo, who was a victim of the guerrillas and mother of Pedro, who was alleged perpetrator of a bomb attack, is she trapped by violence?
In a country where there are so many victims of war, unfortunately, what you will find is that the perpetrators are men and the victims are women. It is depressing to put it in such basic terms, but at the same time it is true, because the male figure is very associated with the battle.
We’re sadly conditioned by that war movie and that role-playing game. Cecilia is seeking redemption from her mistakes by venting and feels that she behaved as a woman: to be desirable, to please, to seem very feminine, complacent, domestic.
Lightning is also crammed into a male role, almost being dictated to the script.
Before Peter was born, Cecilia had a pregnancy from a slip with another man and aborts, although it is not clear if that was her will.
I am very pro-abortion and I think it is a decision that women should make freely. However, she feels that the right thing to do is not to have a child of the lover, but there is no space to think about it.
Cecilia’s story is painful, because it is very likely that she had chosen the abortion, but it is very clear that Rayo is putting it as a condition to continue her relationship with her. There is also a theme of guilt with sexuality.
«The Woman Who Spoke Alone» belongs to the Seix Barral publishing house, why?
Because finally sex only gets us pregnant. Men can perfectly forget the next day, but in women there is the biological risk of sexual exchange.
As liberal as we are, it is something that we do have in our heads, and beyond the anecdote, it ends up influencing sexuality. It gives it a different nuance and that’s fundamental in this story.
When she tries to have a respite, finds in sexuality a moment of freedom and gives herself totally unprepared, the consequence is an unwanted pregnancy.
That becomes a tremendous ghost, like guilt and the result of a free sexuality and marks another relationship with it, because of the consequences a man would never have to assume.
She too much wished her lover, let alone Lightning, how does desire work?
In my case, I would have to talk about maturity and how over the years everything has become simpler, more relaxed and simpler. I’m 43 now, and I hope the twentysomethings are more liberated.
In my youth there was a great concern to like, like or be desirable. More than to wish for, as if the problem was that and not the other. Many of the feminist struggles are also to free us from the karma of thinking that we are not beings we desire and we do not have a sexuality that we can exploit freely.
Our will matters as much as a man’s.
Another issue you raise is social differences. Peter rejects its well-off origin. He chooses a public university, his girlfriend is from a slum, he gets on a bus for the first time, are they class gaps?
There is a growing middle class in Colombia, which is the country’s hope, for that gap to widen. More people get on the bus and go to public university, that’s already good news. But there’s a lot of fear for the other, the unknown.
You feel that in the upper middle classes most live in bubbles. They’ve never taken a bus because you get robbed, drugged, killed.
That paranoia leads to any parakeet of the sticks walking in armored vans, with escorts, with policemen. It is a story about the insecurity that we help to build, with great distrust in the other, and one feels that it is stronger than reality itself, than the facts that justify it.
The attack on the Andean shopping center in Bogota in 2017 inspired Escobar’s novel.Is it installed as a label that society has put on?
That’s right, and it’s fun. Foreigners say that there are no worse guides than the Colombians themselves, because as soon as they arrive, we are telling them how horrible it can happen to them. They’re going to cut you up, they’re going to rape you, they’re going to kill you, they’re going to rob you.
And a lot of people say ‘I’ve been traveling in Colombia for a month and nothing has happened to me, people are very friendly’. But we’re not going anywhere, it’s in our identity.
Cecilia’s father is happy that his other daughter has married an Ospina taking the step towards social ascent, how does classism work?
Colombia is racially very diverse. There’s no stigma of the Indian, the cholo or the black, because there’s a lot of mixing.
But there are differences and they are especially noticeable in Bogota, a cold capital that is in the Andes, isolated from a much more tropical country, which you do not know. Being so classy and exclusionary, here it is said ‘talk as if it were from Suba’, which is an area of the city and you know that they refer to a lower middle class person.
There is a way of dressing, of talking, that identifies, which is very exclusionary and at the same time very normalized. That’s what I worked on in «The House of Beauty.»
In this book you reflect very well the differences in classes…
An important element is the effect of drug trafficking, which generated a brutal shake, as people come from far below to make their mansions next to the rich from the Colony, something that we have not been able to finish digesting.
And I think it has positive aspects, because social mobilization was largely given from there, that is, we are not destined forever to be born and die in the same neighborhood without having gone to school, because there are those who get to have money and send their children to the univ ersticity.
And how do the traditional upper classes receive this powerful new class?
It is a very tense and difficult relationship, because at the same time there is a middle class that is, like the Lightning family, very educated and at the same time very elitist, but another kind of elitism.
Escobar has already addressed some of the themes of this novel in 2015’s «The House of Beauty,» intellectual elitism?
That it is often that of the left, that it feels superior to that right that seems uneducated, in bad taste, brute, without finesse or delicacy, do not speak French, listen to vallenatos.
That’s all part of everyday tensions. Cecilia’s father is of humble origin and comes to give her daughters a privileged place, and she does not know where her faithfulness is, because at the same time we are of absolute loyalties.
One is loyal to a class, to a dynamic, to a group. It will be the elitist intellectual left, the right or whatever, but it also comes from family, from school, from your relationships. And getting out of there is supremely complex.
How has you been scarred by the violence of your country?
We are well aware that it is the victims who have suffered their own deaths and family members. However, there are also more subtle, everyday, small violence. Building that bridge between the great violence and violence we normalize on a day-to-day basis was something I wanted to work on.
The violence of the dormitory, as a couple, intimate, social, is an impact of the great violence, which is part of an atmosphere that we share in the country. Sometimes the upper middle classes tend to be pointed out and blamed for the situation of the rest.
I wanted to show what suffering is like from there, because Cecilia is not a guerrilla, nor a displaced one, she has lived well, but she also has to bear the blame, just that. I don’t think there’s any escape. It’s that perception.
Cecilia is also somehow violent by her son, why does Peter become distant and cruel to his mother?
It is the idealization of the absent, Pedro idealizes a father who can be as perfect as he wants to imagine, because he never knew him, nor will he know him. It’s similar to the ghost of the left in Colombia, because this country has never had a left-wing government, which is amazing.
For all strong right-wing groups, the left is associated with guerrillas, with violence, and it has been difficult to generate a speech that will disstify it.
What is not, what we don’t know at all, is what we always need: a country without war, a country without classes. It’s the promises, not just the left, maybe also from the right.
It’s always harder to deal with everyday reality, as happens to Cecilia, who ends the full weight of motherhood alone, in a country of single mothers.
Cecilia in her reflection says: ‘Mothers live with this narcissistic delusion of imagining that everything that happens with our children is our responsibility.’ How does a mother come to fit in that her child could be a murderer?
I’ve been very surprised by the transformations and i have young children. One day you get up and you’re walking, all of a sudden you put on your clothes on your own or you comb your hair in front of the mirror, sometimes it seems to me like a horror movie. It happens at a speed that beats us, they always go faster.
One is adapting and when he feels that he has already caught this new person next to him, they are someone different again, as happens to Cecilia with her son, who is in the stage of stronger metamorphosis, adolescence. Sometimes he feels he doesn’t know him, he doesn’t know who he is, and then this bomb-bombing news erupts.
It is also a question about the limits of motherhood and the individual, because one initially owns that creature, carries it in his belly, feeds him with his body. And in that stop being almost one person and become strangers there is a duel, in this case, a much stronger, more violent one.
The story has an open end. Now Cecilia must face her son’s future, what can we expect to happen to her?
The ending has been difficult, there are people who love it and others who don’t like it.
It is not a conclusive end as to what Peter’s responsibility was. I thought it was the most honest thing, because it’s like everything here. In the end you never know what happened, everything is open and the case is not solved. And 5, 10, 20 years pass and everything remains the same, with a question mark, a new news is overlapping the previous one. And so on.
A tower of tragedies that never ends.