I first went to the Andes as a teenager on a year-long cultural exchange program in Bolivia, in 1976.
In 2000 I returned to Bolivia to collect linguistic data for my dissertation; which is a book about how people learn abstract, untaught things about their second language, and how their first language might influence (or not) the way they structure the second language in their minds. While in Bolivia, I sent a descriptive journal entry to my thesis advisors, and after defending my thesis, the Latin American member of my committee said “Now you have to write a non-theoretical book about your trip.”
I finished the thesis, but I didn’t write the book about my travels. What would I write about? There were at least two kinds of books that I didn’t want mine to be like. The first kind of book seemed to be of the genre “how cool am I?!” You may have seen books like these, in which young people describe their treks and discoveries in the Andes, often journeys of self-discovery more than anything. The second kind of book is of the genre “how strange are the natives?!” in which very bizarre and unfamiliar situations and behaviors are reported. When you read these books you may marvel at the different extremes of human experience, but you will most likely feel more distance than kinship with the subjects.
When I examined my most thrilling stories about Bolivia, they seemed to fall into these two categories.
As a young teen I remember reading three books set in Africa – a continent as different from my own as South America. One of them, by Rudyard Kipling, I disliked intensely: “Jungle Book.” I remember feeling in my gut that it was racist, condescending and distorted – and didn’t answer in any believable way what African people could be like. This is not to say that a book can’t be playful and convey truths – but that one didn’t, for me. Or maybe I misread it. A second book, “Cry, the Beloved Country” written by South African novelist Alan Paton in 1948, was intensely sad, but struck me as true in a satisfying way. (My siblings may be surprised to know that it was given to me by our father, the arch political conservative, and Kipling was recommended by our mother, the activist.)
A third book set in Africa, which I loved as a teen, was a non-fiction collection of letters between a Dutch protestant missionary and a young African Christian man accused of rape. The book is called “I Loved a Girl” by Walter Trobisch. Two things struck me about this book. First, it was about love and sex, always exciting, and especially unusual since it was actually mentioned in church! Second, one of the things the Dutch and African authors wrote about explicitly was colonialism; at the beginning the African man bitterly accused the European of disrespecting and misunderstanding his culture, and the Dutch man demonstrated over the course of their correspondence that he did, in fact, respect and know the other’s culture deeply. Colonialism, paternalism, unfair cultural and religious influence are acknowledged squarely in the book, whether you like or dislike the sexual advice the European man gives the African, or the fact that he is giving advice at all.
So – back to my book.
What’s so bad about a book of self-discovery?
What’s so bad about a book in which bizarre and foreign situations are recounted?
After all, mixed-race Bolivia through the eyes of a white, Anglo-Saxon, deeply religious protestant teenager (which is how I first started my journey) seems ripe for a study in contrasts. Especially if you freeze either the Bolivians or the teenager in time, set them up as caricatures, and feel like laughing.
The problem for me with such a book is that neither the teenager nor the Bolivians could be frozen. They were moving targets. They met each other, they accommodated, they got to know each other, and neither seemed so strange anymore. Also, I happen to like all the characters involved. I liked myself back then, and I liked the people I met, even when some of us seemed to have dropped in from different planets.
And then there is the ugly problem of colonialism and of unequal power and unequal distribution of resources. How can I avoid writing a book that feeds into that unequal power, in a place where the rich always seem to get richer and the poor, poorer? Certainly, an acceleration in unequal distribution of resources has marked the time period which I would be describing, both in the US and in the Andes from 1976-2008.
I tried to solve that problem when writing my thesis in the following way: I gave the book (for whatever it was worth) back to the Bolivians. I paid my informants and sent them a copy of my thesis. I gave copies of the tapes of the data I collected to Andean researchers and teachers at the University of San Simón in Cochabamba. They can easily tell you a different story about what I wrote, if it is of significance to them. Well, not easily, because the book is written in English and relates to a framework that requires a lot of study. But there is at least one linguist at San Simón who understood the thrust of my studies and found it worthwhile. Many, many others who did not understand the details of the study, did appreciate that my premise was to uncover aspects of universal grammar and to place Spanish, Quechua and English on equal theoretical footing.
But the book I am writing now can’t be as cozily abstract. Equal theoretical footing doesn’t buy you lunch or save your child from the agony of early tooth decay (and I have heard the wailing, in Chuquisaca.) Equal theoretical footing doesn’t erase the reality by which persons from one nation visit another and profit fabulously from the human and natural resources at low cost to themselves. Equal theoretical footing doesn’t change the fact that I am casually typing words that flow out of my fingers onto a computer screen, while somewhere in Yamparaez there is a group of adults and children who jealously guard scraps of pencils and paper and travel two hours on foot Sundays to learn to write lists of sentences such as “My name is Segundina. My husband’s name is Lorenzo.”
If I can bring myself to trust that my book will transcend self-discovery and serve the needs of Segundina and Lorenzo and their children as well as my own, I can start writing. But how will I structure the book? Where will it begin and end? It would be nice to write a historical novel like Barbara Kingsolver does, for example. Real identities could be conveniently disguised for the protection of all involved, and I could get some distance and have poetic license to make things develop and turn out in ways that illustrate what I want to get across. Conversely, it might be nice to write a book that answers a few questions that I set forward from the start, like the hugely revealing “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. Or I could ask a few leading questions and let Andean people speak for themselves, as my friend and colleague Helena Halperin did in “I Laugh So I Won’t Cry: Kenyan Women Tell the Stories of their Lives.” (2005.)
In the absence of the clear questions or novelistic talent mentioned before, I think I will follow the advice Ted Thomas gave me over lunch at Roxbury Community College. “Write a travelogue.” After all, I am about to embark on a very special journey through the heart of the Andes with a group of scholars, and I hope to meet up with dear friends, fellow linguists and teachers, and my Bolivian host family from 1976 along the way.
I’m sharing this travelogue as I write it, as a “blog.” Some of the people who will read it have been with me for parts of the journey, and everyone has had their own journeys. So I look forward to your comments and reactions, and I will not use them in my “book” except by permission.
Tinkunachiskama. (til we meet again)