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August 03 2011


“Why’s this so good?” No. 6: Alma Guillermoprieto’s view on Bogota

I first read “Letter from Bogota” in a Latin American History class in college. About 50 kids were crammed into an old, long lecture hall, the kind you see in movies about blue bloods and their schools: the dark wood floors, the lead-paned windows and the reading nook tucked into the back wall – the one that’s always a bit too small for any modern human.

It was a strange place to be reading about cocaine, bombs and Pablo Escobar, but in some ways, it was oddly appropriate to be sitting in such a relic. Readers – especially writers who are first and foremost readers – are the most shameless about nostalgia and its curios. (Why else would a first edition be worth anything to anyone?)

And although my toes curl with embarrassment to admit it, a weird alchemy surrounds that moment when you read something for the first time and realize that you will never think about writing, or reading, in the same way again. I am sure there are poets who can recall with startling detail the first time they laid eyes on a Robert Lowell poem. Or novelists who can tell you exactly which class they were skipping when they read the opening line of “On the Road.”

Our professor was a Mets fan who doubled as a sentimental lefty. If memory serves (mine, not his), he had spent a good portion of his 20s in a van, driving around Mexico and Central America, eventually landing in the academy. He remains the most enthusiastic academic I have ever met. He was enthusiastic about the Cuban Revolution, he was enthusiastic about the Porfiriato, but more than anything, he was enthusiastic about Alma Guillermoprieto.

When he asked us to read the first essay in “The Heart That Bleeds,” his face lit up, and before any of us had the time to get through the first paragraph, he burst out with, “Good lord! Look at how she starts this piece! Window fitters in Bogota! She was asked to write about one of the most violent scenes in modern history, much of which she witnessed firsthand, and she is talking about window fitters!”

Since then, I have read the opening paragraphs to “A Letter from Bogota” maybe a hundred times, marveling at the clarity of the choices made, the muscularity of the sentences and the intelligent detachment with which Guillermoprieto describes the routines of the glaziers of a place where extreme violence has become routine. Her opening sentence:

Among the few people to have benefitted from the current faceoff between the government and the cocaine traffickers are Bogota’s windowpane fitters.

There it is! If there’s a better, “Wait, what the fuck is she talking about?” hook, please let me know.

The man said his name was Carlos Lopez, and added, as he and his partner eased another pane of glass out of their truck, that he expected to be extremely busy that day. Eleven bombs had gone off the previous night, most of them in this neighborhood, which is called Teusaquillo and is one of the pleasantest in Bogota. It dates from the nineteen-thirties, and if the orderly rows of red brick houses with tile roofs don’t quite achieve the English look that was so clearly intended, it is partly the fault of the vegetation – splendid purple-flowered sietecueros trees along the curved streets, and blood-red begonias and blue agapanthus crowded into the narrow front yards.

I’ve never been to Bogota, but if I go, the first place I’ll ask to see is the Teusaquillo. It’s a sign of great writing when you read about a place, and the picture in your head is so clear that your inner cynic wants to see what’s being described, just to double-check.

Because the streets here are not very wide, the detonations shattered an inordinate amount of glass, some of it as much as two blocks away from the target sites. Thus Carlos Lopez’s euphoria as he saw himself surrounded by buildings full of business potential.

A less gifted writer, even if she had chanced upon the genius of starting this piece with glaziers, would have taken a more somber tone. The question “How are these people living like this?” would have resonated throughout the piece. In Guillermoprieto’s hands, the glaziers retain their humanity, their humor and their ambition. They are not sacrificed to clumsy invective about foreign countries and George H.W. Bush and Pablo Escobar and who is at fault.

It takes a hell of a reporter to write about violence with confidence and an appropriate level of humor. If nothing else, Guillermoprieto’s reports from Latin America in The New Yorker are a primer on how to shrug off the early, easy angles (those dripping with significance) and find the guts of a story.

I doubt I’ll ever make a choice as stunning as starting an essay about Pablo Escobar and narco-violence with a window-fitting. The standard is too high. But thievery is part of every writer’s job and the passages you love, especially the openers, have a way of embedding themselves in your head. Whenever I sit down to start writing anything, the question “Where are the glaziers?” is never far from my mind.

Jay Caspian Kang is a columnist at Grantland. His first novel, “The Dead Do Not Improve,” will be released in 2012.

January 10 2011


The year ahead in narrative: Little piggies, extraterrestrial life, and how we’ll tell each other stories in 2011

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we asked a bunch of smart people for their predictions of what 2011 would bring for the evolving world of journalism. But because of an editing error, we forgot to post one set of predictions.

Here’s Andrea Pitzer, editor of our terrific sister site Nieman Storyboard, on what 2011 will bring for narrative and storytelling.

In the coming year, long-form text/print narratives will continue at a handful of U.S. newspapers, and we’ll still see stories from talented writers who will manage to cobble a career (sometimes a stellar one) out of their teaching and books or magazine articles. Aspiring storytellers will get less personal coaching, even as a broader range of people will be able to access information on craft via YouTube and writers’ networks.

Digital stories will continue to nibble away at print’s dominance of fabulous narrative—look for more things like Jay Caspian Kang’s “The High Is Always the Pain, and the Pain Is Always the High,” or Jake Bogoch’s “School of Fight” to introduce you to talented writers you’ve never heard of. A few places, like Slate, Frontline, and nonprofit journalism orgs, will continue their savvy commitment to carving out digital space for storytelling with news value that takes time or space to unfold.

These are all extensions of existing trends. So what will be new in 2011? I predict that the shift to visual narrative will pick up the pace a little, with at least one new storyteller producing surprising short-form nonfiction narrative video that will grab and hold an audience in the millions about an important issue. (By this, I mean a constructed story, not the situational video records like the death of Neda Soltan or the innovative testimonials of the “It Gets Better” campaign.)

And we’ll see social media reflected more and more in our story constructs and in the stories themselves. Curation tools are beginning to make it possible to tell stories in new forms that can make use of literary techniques — I’m still thinking about the way that Mandy Jenkins of TBD managed to recreate the moment-by-moment suspense and confusion in the wake of a death outside a D.C. nightclub. These kinds of tools for gathering and presenting social media will make it possible for new epistolary models like Slate’s mock presidential Facebook feed or collaborative Twitter efforts to serve as inspiration for nonfiction narratives.

Still, this new storytelling will likely be pretty messy through 2011. Telling a story depends on building a compelling arc, but it also relies on an audience finding a way to engage with the narrative. Quality work may fail to connect to audiences; other new-style narratives that have innovative, exciting aspects may not yet work as a whole.

I also believe that the future is often a surprise, and so it’s possible that Geico commercials, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or something that we can’t even imagine right now might play an important role in how we’ll tell stories in the future. But I wouldn’t give up on Instapaper and long-form stories just yet.

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