Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Vanessa Blakeslee writes about Juventud from Curbside Splendor.
When the premise for Juventud took root in my imagination and I knew the story largely took place in Colombia, one of my main concerns was how keep my own interest in the material for the months or years it takes to write a novel. The other was how to convincingly pull off a long-form prose work about a time and place I’d never been and a culture that wasn’t my own, avoiding stereotypes while not ignoring the indelible imprint cocaine and civil unrest has wreaked on that nation. Many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, perhaps the FARC, but little else. The more I researched the history of the guerilla movement, the formation of the cartels, and the rough timelines (mid-to-late 1990s) the more riveted I became in telling a story that more truly captures the sociopolitical landscape of Colombia — one that shines a light on the atrocities of the paramilitaries as much as the guerillas, and includes the millions of displaced alongside the wealthy. The depictions we’re so used to seeing from the movies play up the “sexy danger” of Latin America: armored cars, bodyguards, lavish estates, gorgeous women. Those exist in Juventud, too, but I was determined my lyrical portrayal would be much more balanced, revelatory, and grounded.
Google searches and Wikipedia initially sufficed to form the first broad strokes. I chose Santiago de Cali as a backdrop — a lesser-known, southern city and hotbed of violence in the late 1990s. As I turned up more websites about human rights, guerilla activity, and so forth, I ended up condensing the timeline of Part One to a specific five months, having uncovered a series of events in early 1999 that worked well as a backdrop to propel the characters’ motivations — the ELN’s hijacking of an Avianca passenger plane, the surge in threats, bombings, and assassinations of public figures and peace advocates including humorist Jaime Garzón and later, Archbishop Duarte. Cali’s nickname, “branch of heaven,” remained the working title for a long time, one I never quite liked and was all too happy to repurpose as the title of Manuel’s guitar album that he gives Mercedes.
From early on in my research and drafting, I understood that to not include the Church would be impossible, if I was to be true to the story and the setting. Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; the very philosophy behind the guerilla movements in South America is that of Marxist Liberation theology, which interprets the Christian faith from the perspective of the poor, and in the early days of the guerilla movements, the 1950s and 60s, the members adopted Marxist teachings in their advocacy for social justice. When I came across the ELN kidnapping the congregation of La Maria Church in the wealthy Ciudad Jardin district of Cali, I knew this had to affect my characters in some way, and La Maria Juventud was born. I had been wondering what kind of occupation — or preoccupation — to give the first lover of the narrator, Mercedes Martinez, one that her father, Diego, wouldn’t like but would make the young man sympathetic to the reader. Characters are literally born from whatever fictional earth your story takes place; inevitably Manuel and his brothers head up a youth movement for peace, and Manuel reveals himself to be a natural leader.
I felt it was inevitable, too, that Diego is a cradle-Catholic who came into manhood at the height of the cartels, lost his faith, and when ego brought him down, struggled to reclaim it. I also liked the idea of Diego having several sides: a legitimate occupation but with room for some shady activities to go on. I’d spent some time in Costa Rica and liked the potential of sugarcane as imagery, so I imagined he might own a plantation; I began to research the agriculture of the Valle de Cauca region. As is the case with research, some of what you learn informs the narrative directly — such as the scene where Mercedes first accompanies her father in his rounds to the fields, and she briefly describes his operation. In other places, much ends up on the cutting room floor. I’ve spent more hours than I like to admit watching YouTube videos of alpaca shearing, for instance, only to have scrapped that scene in favor of an off-stage reference.
Colombia became more alluring as I researched, and became fascinated and appalled by the history of U.S. involvement there. The most surprising and disturbing facts I learned concerned the paramilitary atrocities of the 90s and early 2000s. In the US, we have been led to believe that the Colombian guerillas were the most brutal forces to contend with, the “enemy” so to speak — when in fact the “paras” enforce just as many terrorist tactics, if not the majority. Yet the news media remains silent on these privately-funded, unofficial “armies” who carry out the dirty work of politicians, the wealthy and multinational corporations against the poor. Who funds these “paras” and why will make your blood run cold.
The diligence required over seven years of drafts only emboldened my interest and commitment to the book, for the more I uncovered, the more harrowing and urgent I found the themes. Juventud translates to “youth” in Spanish, and speaks to not only the singular world of the novel at a certain place and time, but the ongoing humanitarian crises in South and Central America — tens of thousands of children illegally crossing the US border, the continuation of horrific cartel violence in Mexico and other nations. I am indebted to the following texts: Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP, by James J. Brittain; Blood and Capital: the Paramilitarization of Colombia, by Jasmin Hristov; Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, by Garry Leech; Bandits, Peasants, and Politics: The Case of “La Violencia” in Colombia, by Gonzalo Sánchez and Donny Meertens; The Dispossessed: Chronicles of the Desterrados of Colombia by Alfredo Molano, and America’s Other War: Terrorizing Colombia, by Doug Stokes. Readers of Juventud may seek out the resources I used should they want to gain a more in-depth knowledge of the horrors, of which the novel barely scratches the surface. The experience of not only immersing myself in these academic sources, but primary ones — YouTube videos of peace marches in 1999, news articles of that year, interviews with Carlos Castaño Gil from before his death in 2004 — however indirect, helped to position me even more fully in the time and place, and bring Juventud alive.
Juventud Official Book Trailer, curated from footage of 1990s Colombia