Arts & Culture / Mosaic / February 9, 2014

Grostephan offers an outsider’s look inside Colombia

The Alumni Room was so packed for Friday afternoon’s Caxton Club reading that Knox visiting Professor of English and author of “Bogotá,” Alan Grostephan, compared its energy to a football game — but with reading.

Jokes aside, Grostephan struck a different mood when silence fell and he read aloud the first lines of his novel, released in June, 2013, which centers around a family living in a slum on the outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia where he taught writing for a number of years.

“More than a knocking, it was a clicking. Not metal on wood or metal on metal, but a tongue clicking against the roof of a mouth. No, it was softer, the hand of a man who was certain of the power he kept over another man’s house. Because no one ever knocked in this town,” he read from the novel, which made the Wall Street Journal’s list “Best Fiction of 2013.”

Born and raised in Minnesota, Grostephan has an MFA from UC Irving and taught high school English and an after-school writing workshop at a school in a low-income Detroit neighborhood before traveling to Colombia. There he began a writing workshop for local youth in the Cazuca slum, to whom his novel is dedicated. He is also the editor and translator of “Stories of Life and Death,” a compilation of pieces by those with whom he worked.

Professor of English Nicholas Regiacorte, who introduced Grostephan, told the audience about how he’d met Grostephan when the latter was on his way back from seeking out the graves of some of his ancestors in a small Illinois town with his wife.

“I thought, ‘Ah, that’s my kind of people, who go to look up the names of the dead.’ And then I really knew him when he sat down at our table and he mopped his place with a piece of bread,” Regiacorte said.

“In ‘Bogota,’ Grostephan’s nerve to tell a story, to not to give up on the integrity of each character’s story, distinguishes it for me as a rare book,” he added. “It’s the kind of writing that compels me to show as much generosity as a reader, to follow [the characters] down muddy banks. Or into each others’ arms.”

After reading from the first several chapters of his book, which follow a man named Wilfredo, his wife, and their two sons through the violence and hardships of their life in the slums, Grostephan took questions from the audience, discussing how many residents of the slums attempt to escape violence by moving to the city and the nature of evil or religion — or lack thereof — in his tale.

He hoped that his reading would convey a certain message to writers in the audience.

“I think it might be useful for them just to see that this is a project that in some ways I had no right in undertaking. I’m not Colombian, I never lived in the slum, I [only] worked there. But you’re not necessarily restricted to your own experience. The outsider’s vision is valid and interesting,” he said.

One creative writing major present for the reading, sophomore Rachel Janis, is in Grostephan’s creative nonfiction class this term.

“It was really cool to see him perform. He’s such a good reader, he takes his time and I really appreciate that he reads in a way that connects to people. And I felt connected even though I haven’t even been to the place that he read about, I felt what the characters were feeling,” she said.

Editor’s Note: Janis is a blogger for TKS.

Tags:  alan grostephan bogota book Caxton colombia literature nonfiction reading

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Kiannah Sepeda-Miller
Kiannah Sepeda-Miller intends to major in English literature with a double minor in educational policy and journalism. This is her first year serving TKS as co-mosaic editor, having previously written for News and Mosaic as a staff writer. Previously, she worked as a freelance editor for high school and middle school students and motivational speaker Craig Zablocki.

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