People on the coast of Colombia ask me all the time what Canada is like. I make awkward hand diagrams of the position of the earth around the sun, trying to explain the endless days and endless nights in the Yukon. Nobody quite understands. After getting over the shock that there is no plantain, yuca, ñame or mango trees growing everywhere, the questions get deeper. What is employment like? How much is the money worth? How much do things cost? What do you mean just about everyone has their own vehicle? How do I get a visa? Oh, it’s difficult is it- what about through marriage?
At this point, I usually try to change the subject before the proposal. But even avoiding marriage is not as hard as the conversation itself. How does one describe an entire place, in a way that does justice to both the whole and its parts? I longed for the comforts of home when life was difficult, but how easy it is to forget the difficulties that exist in this place I call home. In the week since I have been back, horrific but not surprising news reports of Aboriginal communities being starved as subjects for scientific experiments during the 1950s have surfaced. I have trouble connecting these accounts with the popular narrative of the good life we live, and the good life that I do indeed live. Sometimes, I feel that I leave people with an image of Canada that is false, that only serves to re-enforce the stereotypes seen on television.
There is much I have forgotten: broad residential streets, the acrid smoke of forest fires turning the sun red, the wooded solitude of the Yukon, lawns, flavours of blueberries and cheese, the paradoxical relief and awkwardness of being with people who have known me since my birth.
Now that I am back, people want to know what Colombia is like. How is the drug trade going? Am I safe in my community? How can you trust anybody there? Of course, everyone wants to come here, right? I try not to get upset. How do I describe Colombia in a way that does justice to both the whole and its parts? There is so much more to Colombia, and to my life there, than simply armed conflict, corruption and poverty. On the 20th, Colombian cyclist Nairo Quintana came in second in the Tour de France and the country celebrated like only a place full of pride in themselves is capable of doing. I have trouble connecting these events with the popular narrative of Colombia as somehow less-then-us. Sometimes, though, when I speak about my work, I feel that I leave people with an image of Colombia that is false, that only serves to re-enforce the stereotypes seen on television.
I never want to forget: the smell of humidity stepping out of the airplane, mango juice dripping down chins and running along elbows, the view of the Montes de Maria from Mampujan Viejo, chairs in the street as people pass the lazy hot afternoons chatting, backyards full of green fruit trees, music everywhere, sunset over the ocean, people with the ability to laugh at life and themselves, the equal parts excitement and stress of everything new.
There is so much that lies invisible in every culture, every country, and every life. I reflect different ways of being in different moments and situations. I understand you, but I don’t really understand you at all, yet somehow I need you and your understandings. But how do I do this without objectifying you, without turning your story into my story? James Dawes, in his book Evil Men, a challenging read about trauma, violence, perpetrators and the ethics of storytelling, quotes philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, stating “Communication would be impossible if it should have to begin in the ego, a free subject, to whom every other would be only a limitation that invited war, domination, pre-caution and information. To communicate is indeed to open one self, but the openness is not complete if it is on the watch for recognition. It is complete not in the opening to the spectacle of or the recognition of the other, but in becoming a responsibility for him.”
Like it or not, I am Colombia to Canada and Canada to Colombia. This is both blessing and burden, responsibility and joy. I accept that I can never represent the whole of anything. I talk about free trade agreements and about women who quilt to heal residential school trauma. And sometimes, I don’t say anything and concentrate on the complexities of remembrance.