Colombia Politics recently reviewed British author Tom Feiling´s excellent ´Short Walks from Bogotá´.
Feiling kindly agreed to a candid interview on his views and reflections on Colombia. See part one.
CP: Short Walks is much more of a political journey than the reader is used to in typical travel writing. Was this your intention? Are you attempting to create a new genre, or who do you see as your inspiration?
TF: I was trying to combine the best of both worlds – travel writing and straight journalism. So, yes I’ve read my Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but also travel writers like Peter Robb, who is happy to jump from describing his lunch to describing the history of the Sicilian mafia. My priority was to get people interested in Colombia. Short Walks may be more political than most travel books, but it’s also a much more personal, anecdotal, and entertaining read than most current affairs books!
CP: I sense your relationship with Colombia is slightly love/hate, or at least love/frustration?
TF: It is, and I think it is for a lot of foreigners who live in Colombia. The place has so much going for it, and I love spending time there. But it’s let down by its political culture, which has always tended to be exclusive, intolerant and violent. Of course, the cocaine business hasn’t helped matters, but when the drug was legally produced, as it was until the 1930s, coca was grown in any one of 33 countries around the world. Colombian should ask themselves why it is that, since its prohibition, cocaine production has thrived in their country like no other.
CP: What prospects do you see for peace? Will this open up Colombia to the world, or will it still remain a mysterious land?
TF: I’m not sure how successful these peace talks will be. On the one hand, the Colombian public is sick of the conflict. But I wonder about the politicians, guerrillas and paramilitaries. Are they really willing to change, to advance their agendas without recourse to arms? Political violence in Colombia goes back generations.
What I am sure of is that as and when Colombians – whether left wing or right – feel free to speak their minds, and participate in politics without risking their necks, the country will be much better placed to realise its potential, as a tourist destination, but more importantly, as a major food exporter.
CP: Couldn´t agree more Tom, we all hope for peace.
You avoided the stereotypes, staying virtually silent on perhaps Colombia’s most famous personality; Pablo Escobar. I am glad you did, but why was this?
TF: Escobar is a tourist attraction these days, isn’t he? The criminologist Nils Christie says that fictional depictions of organised crime, in films and video games and books, are currently worth more than organised crime itself. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it also means that as people take their lead from fiction instead of reality, they lose sight of how crime works in the real world. And the way crime works in Colombia has changed since Escobar’s day. The ‘drugs and thugs’ picture of Colombia drawn by magazines like Newsweek is misleading. The idea that ‘drugs and thugs’ are to blame for the awful human rights crisis Colombia has been through is just too easy. It overlooks the unresolved political questions at the heart of the conflict. Journalists should go after the facts instead of distorting them to fit some pseudo-Scarface morality tale.
CP: Finally, in my review I imagined a heated conversation you might have had with your publisher who wanted more glamourizing of the country, more stories about the beauty of her cities…to entice the reader here. Did this conversation take place?
TF: My editor and my agent both encouraged me to be more anecdotal, and not to get bogged down in the labyrinth of Colombian politics. But as I’m sure you’ll agree, the political life of Colombia is intoxicating stuff and I wanted to share some of that intoxication. Having said that, I think I have also given would-be tourists a taste of what makes it such a wonderful country, as well as a troubled one.
CP: Thank you Tom for your detailed answers, I am sure they will have whetted the reader´s appetite to go and buy the book. We hope to see you again soon in Colombia.
Short Walks from Bogotá is published by Penguin Books.