Alberto Salcedo Ramos: Popular Culture, the Colombian Chronicle, and North American Journalism: A Conversation with Luvia Estrella Morales Rodríguez
Alberto Salcedo Ramos is intelligent, observant, and anchored in literature, as is demonstrated by this interview, which took place in Kaufman Hall, the designated building for learning modern languages, literatures, and linguistics at the University of Oklahoma. The conversation began in a spontaneous way during the beginning of the Tierra Tinta Conference where Salcedo Ramos participated as keynote speaker. The questions are centered on his book El oro y la oscuridad: La vida gloriosa y trágica de Kid Pambelé [Gold and darkness: The glorious and tragic life of Kid Pambelé] (2005), which earned the chronicler Le Prix du Livre du Réel (2017), in France, awarded by Les Éditions Marchialy. It should be mentioned that the book in question served as the inspiration and basis for the television program Kid Pambelé (2017) by Channel RCN in Colombia. During the interview, the chronicler reveals his acute knowledge of popular culture, he tells about his methodology for writing chronicles, and he gives us the opportunity to get to know him as a man of letters.
Luvia Estrella Morales Rodríguez: Tell me about the genre of the book El oro y la oscuridad. Is it a chronicle with the structure of a novel or is it simply a nonfiction novel?
Alberto Salcedo Ramos: It is a report that has aspects of a biographical profile and the structure of a novel. It tells about the life of an ex-boxer, delving deep into his soul as well as his pysche. That genre of the biographical profile allows one to explore the human condition and makes the readers, by getting to know a person profoundly, with all their lights and shadows, end up in some way getting to know themselves better.
LEMR: What should we, your readers, understand when you say "Colombian chronicle"?
ASR: Well, when I write about a situation or about a person from my country, I aspire to universality. I don't want my work to be stamped with any demonym. To write about an Argentine soccer player is not to write an Argentine chronicle, just like producing the profile of a Cuban musician does not equate to publishing a Cuban chronicle. Hemingway used to say that telling the story of one man equates to telling the story of all men. This is what I aspire to, although sometimes I write about people from my country and on other occasions about the inhabitants of other places.
LEMR: Why does the topic of boxing appear repeatedly in your chronicles? Does it have to do the with the theme of relapse among the North American new journalists of the sixties? I'm thinking of Gay Talese and Norman Mailer.
ASR: I was familiar with boxing before knowing that Gay Talese and Norman Mailer existed. I grew up in a forgotten town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia where boxing was an activity that awoke great passion. When I was a boy I saw the great matches of Muhammad Ali, Roberto Durán, Rubén Olivares, and many other boxers, so I became a boxing fan before becoming a a reader. First there was boxing, and later, much later, those writers that you mentioned arrived. For me, boxing, at first, wasn't a subject related to literature, only a primitive, savage passion. I simply liked to watch two guy hitting each other. I enjoyed the action, the drama, the ferocious struggle of two antagonistic forces. John Schulian, an expert on boxing, says that we fans of this sport are a particular kind of voyeur. We want to see another form of human nudity, and that is made easier in the ring because there a man shows himself for who he is. There aren't any costumes or staging. The boxer fights with a nude torso, in contrast to other athletes who tend to wear attractive t-shirts. Besides, in team sports the defeat can be divided; in boxing the loser alone has to accept his failure. I began talking primarily like the fan I was at first, and I ended up talking like the author I am now. There, in that chronological arch, is the synthesis of all this, no? At first boxing interested me because it aroused the savagery I carry inside. Afterwards, when I became a writer, I discovered that boxing is also magnificent raw material for liteature, because it allows me to show the human condition.
LEMR: Are there North American writers who have stylistically or thematically influenced you?
ASR: In Latin America pompous writers abound. I will always feel closer to narrators who avoid artifice or who at least make an effort so that it's not notable. In any case, I recognize myself as a tributary of the baroque culture to which I belong. That culture has also produced marvelous writers, like García Márquez and Cabrera Infante. I like the way the great writers of the United States narrate. Not long ago I was rereading old chronicles by Mark Twain, and it astonished me that they felt so recent even thought they were written more than a century ago. The chronicler who wrote those texts has a way of looking at things that is as clever as it is original, and a language that remains lively because it is stripped of the pompous style of that time. The same thing happens to me when I read Hemingway and Salinger, and the greats of nonfiction, like Talese and Joan Didion.
LEMR: In Antología de crónica latinoamericana actual [Anthology of current Latin American chronicle] (2012), edited by Darío Jaramillo Agudelo, and Mejor que ficción: Crónicas ejemplares [Better than fiction: exemplary chronicles] (2012), edited by Jorge Carrión, one meager reference to North American new journalism appears. Regarding that topic, could you delve into the influence originating from North American journalists on Latin American chroniclers?
ASR: In Latin America there have always been great narrators of nonfiction. I say that it has to do, in part, with our dizzying reality and with our nature. We have a tendency to leave an immediate testimony about the facts that impact us, for good or for bad. Our journalism has almost always responded to that. Some academics have told us how in Latin America this type of narrative journalism began to be done much earlier than in the United States. In the nineteenth century, José Martí was already saying that telling tales through newspapers served to "democratize intelligence." His argument was that papers, since they were massive, would allow stories to reach a broader public, and that could be taken advantage of to produce a type of attractive tale that would generate greater interest. You can find great literary pieces in Latin American journalism a the end of the nineteenth centry and the beginning of the twentieth. The poet César Vallejo, for example, wrote in 1927 a memorable chronicle about the burial of the ballerina Isadora Duncan. Vallejo uses the funeral as a pretext to draw a fresco of the era and produce an insightful portrait of the great ballerina. I can cite other cases for you. The Mexican Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera published in 1880 the memoirs of a vagrant, that is to say, already at that time an opening was showing in certain popular topics of everyday life that were of little or no interest to the scholars who were running the press. This would later be a fundamental characteristice of narrative journalism.
Having said that, in the journalism of the United States there has been, in my opinion, more vigorous exponents because there, journalism has combined better with literature. The two Latin Americans I mentioned , Vallejo and Gutiérrez Nájera, did much better with the pen than with journalistic work. In the American school the need for a solid journalistic base in these pieces was understood much, much earlier. That there would be a complete investigation, timely and verified, and not only a beautifully written text. For that reason, I have loved the exponents of narrative journalism in the United States, from John Hersey to David Remnick, via Jon Lee Anderson and Gay Talese, Joseph Michell and George Plimpton, Truman Capote and Jimmy Breslin. Thanks to them I learned that we tells stories in order to understand the world around us, to explain certain social phenomena that could not be understood by means of traditional journalism, of mere facts.
LEMR: In El Oro y la oscuridad there are references to the lifestyles of Afro-Colombians. How can this lifestyle be understood in other countries?
ASR: When I tell stories, I deal with certain conflicts about human beings. It is true that those conflicts are determined, in part, by the geographic space to which one belongs, but also that there are essential problems common to all men: lack of love, diseases, wars, death. Tolstoy used to say: "paint your village well and you will be universal." That is what I try to do. Whatever the topic is, and independently of the place to which the people I write about belong, I aspire to that universality.
LEMR: Why is Pambelé an important figure for Colombia? What does he teach?
ASR: Pambelé is a human being who was devoured by the character that he had to portray during his moment of fame. This is a common story in the world of sport. It has happened to boxers, to soccer players, to baseball players. In stadiums we witness, day after day, a representation of the myth of Icarus. There we see how certain people ascend suddenly and collapse afterwards, when their wings melt as they enter into contact with the sun. When I write about those beings, I don't pay as much attention to the athletic results as to their personalities. The writer Albert Camus used to say that the most important things he learned about human beings he learned watching what happened on the soccer field. In sports, human beings tend to act on the fly, under pressure, and that makes them show themselves as they are.
LEMR: In all your books you appear as a character. What is the objective of your voice appearing, of your appearing?
ASR: More than appearing as a character, I use certain scenes in some chronicles in which I accompany the protagonists. One should include oneself only when it is unavoidable. For example, when certain experiences happen to someone that are untransferable and that help to better show reality. If I tell of a car accident I survived, logically, I have to appear in that story. If my character is a guy who tends to be violent and beats me up, I include myself in the tale, because in this way I better express him. The most useful phrase I know about this topic was said by Martín Caparrós: it is not the same to write in the first person as to write about the first person. In the first case, you simply adopt a narrative point of view, while in the second you talk about yourself. The worst that can happen is for a chronicler to include himself in a scene without need, only because of narcissism. When Truman Capote includes himself in the tale that he wrote about Marilyn Monroe, he better expresses her although it seems that he is talking about himself.
LEMR: Is the literary testimonial less, equal, or more valuable than literature that transfigures reality?
ASR: That is a very good question. Raymond Carver used to say that a great author is one who has a special way of contemplating things, and also knows how to give his contemplations an artistic expression. That can be done through fiction and through nonfiction. If you write a short story like "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," you produce literature of high quality, and if you write a testimonial tale like “Hiroshima,” you do the same thing. Literary quality is not an exclusive patrimony of fiction writers.
LEMR: How do you feel? How do you categorize yourself? Are you a deep writer or not so much?
ASR: I would aspire to be an author who accompanies the reader, a kind of orator who tells stories on walks or at the foot of campfires. Cultivating a style that feels close has always interested me, a style that erases the figure of the professional writer a little, the figure of the writer who wants to show his literary resources, who wants to be seen as someone who has expertise. Vargas Llosa says that all literature is artifice, but one must make an effort so that it's not notable. I don't want my style to be a stone that the reader trips over, but rather an invisible thread. I like the idea of seducing more than that of convincing.
LEMR: Are there Colombian chroniclers or writers among your contemporaries who have focused on similar topics to the ones that you develop?
ASR: There are recurrent themes in Colombian authors, like the armed conflict. Certain urban problems related to violence are also common. In any case, the thematic interests are determined in great part by the region to which we belong. Since I was born on the Caribbean coast, I have always felt closer to Eros than to Thanatos. From the beginning, I had a predilection for topics of popular culture, since I grew up in a place where drums and oral tales were heard. At that time people, died natural deaths. The first time that I saw a dead person I asked what had happened, and someone explained to me that a guy named Hugo died and I didn't understand what that meant. Then my mother explained to me that dying is like sleeping and not waking up. As a child, I used to think that all human beings died from old age in bed. Afterwards I discovered that there were other ways of dying that were violent. I saw people die from bullets, torn apart by bombs, and that topic ended up also getting into my writing. Perhaps, although we are such party people, the most frequent theme among Colombian writers is death.
LEMR: Have you ever felt afraid to write about dangerous topics like armed movements or drug trafficking?
ASR: No, no. I have been able to tell the stories I've wanted to tell.
LEMR: The book El oro y la oscuridad was recently awarded Le Prix du Livre du Réel 2017 in France, and now it is being transmitted in Colombia as a television series based on the same book. How does this book serve as a guide to other chroniclers or to those people who are thinking about writing chronicles?
ASR: I have never proposed that myself, I tell you from the heart. I never write under the pressure of thinking that my writings can be helpful to people who want to learn. I only aspire for people to read me. I always have in view a wise phrase from Aidan Chambers: “we write to read ourselves.” I am the first reader of what I write and I might be the only reader I have, so I need to be sincere with myself before thinking about how I will be read by others. Those who worry too much about the public think more like politicians than writers.
LEMR: Of your books, which has given you the most satisfaction? Why?
ASR: Up until now, my most well known book is La eterna parranda [The eternal binge], it is a book that has sold a lot. That commercial part has been fortunate. It is a book that has tells wide ranging stories about the Colombia of the last twenty years. Those stories have had enough circulation in the world of nonfiction, they have been known, one could say. I have a lot of affection for El oro y la oscuridad, the book in which I recount the life of the boxer Kid Pambelé. That book was a more demanding stake from the beginning. I had to tell in depth the story of a human being who, at first, no one was interested in except me, because if you tell me that you are going to recount the life of Michael Jackson, a star of contemporary music, there are going to be a lot of people that are interested, but a boxer who had been news forty years ago implied walking on thin ice.
LEMR: What do the prizes you have won represent?
ASR: One is not more because he has won prizes, nor is he less because he hasn't won them. The main prize at my fifty-four years of age, do you know what it is? When it's time to travel to the jungle or the mountains to do a report, I think I am fortunate because I do something that I dreamed about when I was a little boy. My main prize is to feel the same excitement today as when I was twenty years old and I was carrying out my first job.
LEMR: Lastly, tell me, do you believe that in the future you are going to write using another genre?
ASR: Who knows! I would like to try it but I don't know if I have any talent for that. I always say that I would have liked to be a great cook, but I'm not because I have no talent, and also I like good food too much. The me who cooks could never satisfy the palate of the me who eats. Perhaps the same will happen to me with fiction. A respectable reporter is worth more than a mediocre novelist.
LEMR: Alberto, thank you for coming to the University of Oklahoma, you have honored us with your presence. Thank you so much.
ASR: Thanks to you all.
(This interview took place on October 18, 2017 and was revised on February 27, 2018).
Translated by Christina Miller