Yolanda Reyes is a writer and educator born in Bucaramanga, Colombia, in 1959.
Professionally, among multiple and important responsibilities, she has devoted herself to the development of different activities around the promotion of reading and literature, of which we can highlight:
• One of the founders of Espantapájaros (Bogota, a pioneer project in the promotion of reading from early childhood.
• Author of numerous essays that gather her research work about the formation of readers.
• Adviser of various national and international organizations programs in the design of policies and guidelines on childhood, reading and literature.
• For more than ten years now, a regular columnist for the newspaper “El Tiempo” of Bogotá.
• Obtained a “Special Mention” in the Simon Bolivar Journalism Award for her column “The DNA of Colombia”.
• Director of Alfaguara’s “Nests of Reading” (Nidos para la Lectura), a collection that has rescued, edited an published an ensamble of outstanding works of literature for young people.
• Teacher of the course “Writing for Children” as parte of the Master in Distance in Books and Literature at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the Book Bank of Venezuela.
We can highlight part of her most outstanding literaty work:
“El terror de Sexto B” (Sixth Grade B terror), Alfaguara, 1994; “Premio Noveles Talentos de Fundalectura”, selected in the Honor List “The White Ravens” of the Youth Library in Munich, as well as in “Los mejores libros para niños” (The Best Books for Children) of the Banco del Libro (Book Bank) of Venezuela.
“Los años terribles” (The terrible years), Norma, 2000: Literary creation scholarship from the Ministry of Culture of Colombia, and a finalist in the Norma-Fundalectura Award.
“Una cama para tres” (One bed for three), Alfaguara, 2004: selected in the Honor List “The White Ravens” of the Youth Library in Munich.
“Pasajera en tránsito” (Passenger in transit), Alfaguara, 2006. Selected by Arcadia magazine in Colombia as one of the ten best fiction books of 2007.
Finally, to complete Yolanda´s productive literary work, we can mention some other of her best known titles: “Los agujeros negros” (The black holes), “El libro que canta” (The book that sings), “Cucú”, “Ernestina la gallina” 8hen Ernestina), “Mi mascot” (My pet), and the “La Casa imaginaria: lectura y literatura en la primera infancia” (The Imaginary House: reading and literature in early childhood).
MASTER CONFERENCE 4: LITERATURE, A SPACE IN WHICH ALL OF US CAN BE RECOGNIZED
The Light of Darkness
Literature, a space in which all of us can be recognized
“I have lost the children’s fear of pain,” I was surprised when I heard myself saying the phrase, in front of a group of community leaders at a library.
We had arrived to one of those villages of Colombian warm earth, that perhaps some of you can associate with the mythical “Macondo” of Garcia Marquez and with towns near the Caribbean Sea, even though they may not have views of the ocean. The people of this town were trying to resume the life that had been taken from them before and after a paramilitary massacre in February, 2000, when some armed men forced the people away from their daily activities, quite literally from their everyday life and they were killed, rounded up in the plaza, or from the surrounding pathways and roads. Many men and women had been stigmatized as collaborators with the guerillas.
I knew the story before going to the town, and had read the news reports about the massacre, just as I had heard of other massacres that occurred during the past decades in my country and transformed a defenseless civil population when it came to war.
One thing is to know history from an apartment in a residential zone of Bogata, that has been filtered by the newspapers or diminished by news stations, and another is to hear the victims repeating the necessary and healing ritual that begins by them telling what happened even though they still do not understand why. There we were attending one of the most ancient rights of humanity; that of spitting out the words, from one side or the other to rewind the facts over and over, and over again just like children – and not only to tell the story face to face with us, the outsiders, but to return and tell it among themselves; to themselves.
Following implicit hierarchies, perhaps remainders of a patriarchal world, the men spoke at the beginning; first the leaders with more experience, afterwards the younger men, until finally it was the women’s turn. One of them told how she had placed her children on a donkey, with a recently purchased television set and fled to the mountains and were saved – old gestures that literature had converted into symbols; the donkey, the treasures, and above all the instinct to save the children. She added that even now after many years there were many details about where her children were during those terrible days, what they ate, and why back streets that they had not counted on were opened to allow them through.
All of the testimonies were frightening, but I noted a difference between the men and the women. The men tended to tell about facts, while the women focused more on sensations, emotions, and the words that had not yet been spoken. Framed by a uniqueness and by the color of each voice, the memory that sometimes tends to think as one, here was revealed by all of its many sounds, many memories, fragments of memories, with bells, noises and different bodies; I noted how a lack of continuity among the facts motivated us to tell it over and over again, to search for threads that provided temporary unity and space to the brutality of the events. There were also variations. Each story, every memory, we know was a search for sense, an interpretation. I had been asked to attend this encounter to write for the children, to try to give words to The Black Holes, the title of the book I was going to read at the library. I wanted to investigate about what the children knew.
— The children? - They asked me with surprise.
— Yes, how do you speak to the children about this? – I insisted, but because of the strange looks on their faces, I changed my question. You have spoken to the children about this, haven’t you?
They gave me answers like “they were very young, and don’t remember, or they don’t understand, or they were born after the massacre”. Or they would say: “Of course they have heard us talk about that, but directly as you say, or talk with them, or for them, no. “Just as we are talking here, no.”
It was a small town and the older children and the adolescents had not yet gone to bed and were running around. Thirteen years had passed and the adults had not stopped talking about the massacre, they could not stop talking about the massacre, but they thought that the children did not hear.
—The children have ears – I blurted out – just as parents declare when they state that they do not know how to handle the smallest ones, while the children stand there listening to them speak.
— How old were you in February, 2000? I asked one of the younger leaders.
— Eleven- he answered me. I felt that his voice sounded different from when I first heard him speak of his experiences. I thought of the clarity, the sensitivity of being eleven years old: an age when we have the sentence structure of adults and all of the questions, all of them, and the revolution of adolescence is just beginning. I asked them to think back when they were eleven years old and how they were, and I think that we understood that from the outset of each childhood that at that age one knows about most everything.
It was at that moment when the phrase was spoken – I have lost the child’s fear of pain.
It sounded strong. Of course it was not true. I recalled a phrase by Toni Morrison: “In some societies there are people whose work is to remember”. It occurred to me that my work, (our work) was anchored in this: remember and give words. Accompany the children a thousand and one times to where the monsters live and stare at their yellow eyes, without blinking once, like Max the King of the Monsters. On another day, inspired by his magic tricks, I read stories to those adult leaders, mostly men that had witnessed killing and dying and had run from their village, and later in an act of bravery decided to return to this ghost town to confront the tasks of reconstruction, both material and symbolic in their ravaged land. However, they were fearful to talk about it with their children.
Seated in a circle, staring at the shining eyes of my audience, I felt like that librarian in the book by Margaret Mahy, or like Scherezada, so unprepared to solve practical matters, so vulnerable when it came to running, or performing tasks of coordination and strength, so inferior to all of them when it came to confronting tragedies, but “so Scherezada”, trying to find words to speak about the unspeakable; trying to open pathways to the souls of the children where artists had traveled and return to the soul of our own childhood. We read “The Red Tree” by Shan Tan and it was moving to note that a book about a faraway tree was providing us with shade and shelter in that village. I, along with a little nine year old girl from the village who had apparently read the story many times because she had it practically memorized, read the story twice. Within a little girl are all little girls. I thought of Ana when I returned to Bogotá.
I have not lost the child’s fear of pain.
Ana’s mother was dying. Ana was a reader at the library of “Scarecrows” and was three years old. During those days I conversed a lot with her father in the yard, while she played with other children. She would run away and return in order to be in contact with what was happening, getting close to adult conversation so typical of children when they are afraid to hear what we really say. We talked often about how her mother was getting along, if she was improving or getting worse, and looked for ways to help the family handle the situation during those final days in which the prognosis was negative, though hope was still not lost.
One day Ana’s mother was taken to the emergency room, and after a series of complications, she never went home. She had left her house, just like every other day when her illness began, and maybe because she thought that she would be returning home, or perhaps because she did not feel well and did not want to worry Ana, she left without saying goodbye. Now, after several months in the hospital, it was important to see her. We talked about all of this in the yard and also hugged Ana as we spoke to and consoled her when she was saddened; and trying to find words to explain why her mother, who was the most important person in her life left without saying farewell.
How can this be explained?
Even though my education is sustained by a diversity of disciplines and knowledge related to children, I have had additional training that I call “self-teaching”, that helps when having to speak with children about difficult subjects. A great part of this training is owed to the literature that has been a shelter to assist in handling matters that one is not able to express in daily life. I was not a victim of some type of censorship or being silenced, rather I experienced a mixture of good intentions, domestic instincts, and above all panic of childhood pain that appears to regulate the relationships between adults and children. This is a necessity that we understand when we have children, their pain and insignificant failures hurt us, while we want them to be happy, healthy, and successful with a smile on their faces, even though we know that all of that at the same time is impossible. I know that you understand that framework.
It is not easy to talk with children in a country like Colombia, where we lived particularly trying decades, and where I have specialized in an abrupt manner to explain the unexplainable: by giving words. Someone had to talk to the children when the adults were overcome by the pain of not knowing how to confront their losses; and not only to read and write for them, but for other reasons I have discovered over time that have helped develop an intuition about accompanying them in their grief. If stories went from our libraries to the children’s homes in peaceful times, it is of greater urgency that they go to the homes in time of war. At “Scarecrows” books may be found to help one converse in difficult times, and literature has surrounded us with content that has helped to move us and weep, but also help us to laugh and to play. With children, even in challenging circumstances, there is always room for laughter and humor. This has been a learning experience, call it collateral that I owe it to children’s literature: this trip to the heart of childhood that one takes when discovering Pippa Longstockings, Max, Matilda. Or long, long before…
In one little girl are all little girls. My mother lost her father at Ana’s age and my mother-in-law lost her mother at Ana’s age, (three years old can be a very strenuous time in life). I remember that my mother seemed to enjoy reading us a sad book titled “Without Family” by Hector Malot; it was she who had learned these first literary lessons related to the theme of this convention. In literature, “Without Family”, the place where one by one the characters were dying, this place where she, and we can fail, die and get sick; a place where she did not fear crying in front of us, and also did not fear our tears, our pain, our fear of fear.
At one point it seemed that she encouraged it so that maybe she would be able to talk to us about what we had not conversed about at other times at home where everything had to go well: the house, school, vacations, the family… Literature, a place where those who feel excluded, or feel that their sentiments are excluded can come and go to and from the real world, with its urgencies, to an imaginary world of dreams and nightmares, playing and gravitating between two worlds, just as Ana did to assure that her father was still with her.
For a time after Ana’s mother died I helped the family by explaining it with simple words, with the most terrible words.
—But, I want my mother to come back – she said many times in those days. At times sad, sometimes furious, occasionally almost in whispers, breathless, like surrendering with just a thread of a voice.
—She is not coming back, my dear. – There was no other way to say it. That is the way death is. Never again.
When we are very sad, no story is good enough. Only tears and hugs. When, Ana was tired of crying, in a certain way she just forgot, and went out to play. The pain of a child is like a storm that floods their little bodies, but it passes quickly, and just as quickly they are hungry or want to play. Later on, when they remember, the sadness returns. Sadness is transformed into fury, and they misbehave, but then they laugh and they sleep, but awaken many times, they rock back and forth with a coming and going movement that is overwhelming and daydream about the loss within them.
Children live between the memory of pain, as well as the erasing of memory because they are unappreciative by nature. They are not like us who look at the past with nostalgia. They go forward. They need to forget in order to get themselves back on track and move on. However, paradoxically at the same time they need someone to reorder the world with words; this distressed world that was necessary escape from.
During this time we read many books with Ana. Some, recommended by us, were those books about grief that those of us here at this convention are familiar with, and those that she chose were a diverse collection of themes and genres, without any apparent relationship to the death of her mother. Several times, to my great surprise, she chose A Bed For Three, a book that I wrote and was illustrated by Ivar De Coll. In the story, Andres, the protagonist, after many nights of having nightmares, is able to convince his parents to let him sleep in the big bed, in middle of the two with the dragon that pursued him also in the family bed. “If three fit in the bed, why not four?” is the final line of the book and there were Ana’s eyes, lost in front of this family portrait when, in those days I would have liked to have been able to censor myself or disappear. A little boy slept peacefully in that big bed, between his mother and father. Ana looked again, and again, and again, lost in that illustration, asking for the words that would remind her that mothers exist, that there are children who have mothers and can sleep with mother and father in a bed, in a house… Why would I want a book that brought attention to what she did not have, a book that reminded her of her recent loss?
A few months ago I spoke about this choice of Ana’s at a gathering in Buenos Aires. My illustrator friend, Monica Weiss spoke to me about the necessity that we have after a loss or an accident to go back in time with the illusion of arriving just in time to avoid the tragedy. We walk around the area that is intact for a few seconds before, asking inappropriate questions like: What if we had done this or that, or what if we had taken a different route? Many times we think about things and blame ourselves because we did not have the awareness or wisdom, to predict, or grab the object in the air… The mother in that moment just before leaving, change the course. Maybe it is for this reason that we have the desire to return an instant before, in order to prevent the rupture, and assure that it does not happen. In Ana’s case it seemed helpful to revisit that moment, in that room, in that bed, maybe just before it happened when everyone was still together to live that moment that was no longer there, that would never return, as in The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.
Is it possible that the illusion of the word has been neither here nor there since the beginning of time, when children have asked the same thing over and over in a hope of bringing back their mother’s voice, a voice that no longer exists?
Ana María Matute says that writers are joined by a common thread: the evil in the world. I ask myself if what happens is the result of our perseverance with words. Could it be a variation on the idea of Toni Morrison about the use of memory in certain people in certain professions? We are the writers and in a way, we are the readers too, who serve as representatives who write about evil or that strange occurrence that we began to feel since childhood. Could it be the memory of that evil that left our childhood buried, locked up, with no outlets to communicate with that known as adult life. Like being held between the walls of a common place (supposedly “the paradise of childhood”) or to underestimate it can be a mechanism of protection in order to not look back at how we were before, when we had time to know, to play, and to fear, when we are not so busy in our adult lives.
“One always writes against death, says author Rosa Montero in her book “The Lunatic Of The House…” Narrators are people who are more obsessed with death than the majority of persons; I believe we perceive the passage of time with more sensitivity or irony. Over the years I have discovered through the reading of bibliographies and through conversations with other authors that numerous novelists had a corrupting experience at an early age. (She mentioned Nabokov, Conrad, Vargas Llosa, Kipling, and we could name many more)…
Let’s say that at six, ten or twelve years of age a child sees his/her world fall apart or disappear forever in a violent way. This violence can be exterior and objective: a parent who dies, a war, something destroyed. Other times it is a subjective brutality that only the authors perceive and are not willing to talk about; for this reason, the fact that there is no proof of this private catastrophe does not mean it never existed. (I also have my personal pain that I don’t talk about).”
Ana Maria Matute has a book called The Silly Children, a series of stories about kids that don’t fit in, just as there have always been in every generation. At one time they were called stupid or “the town fool” and now they are called fatso, nerd, foreigner, loser or we give them scientific labels like children with attention deficit disorder and we tranquilize them with medications similar to Ritalin. In the prologue of this book I read:
“Many times I have said that if I write, it is because I don’t know how to speak… perhaps part of the reason is the fact that I was a little girl who stuttered: but stuttered seriously… I could not express myself like the other girls, because I felt Isolated from the world that surrounded me…the majority of my childhood passed submerged in a feeling of being unloved and alone…The loneliness of a little girl whose words always caused her classmates, her teachers and even her own brothers to laugh. Laughter and sarcasm, that the passage of the years excuses, but cannot be forgotten…I liked to study, and I did it, but I could not recite my lessons or respond to questions in class.
I always finished last, treated with cruelty and threats that resulted in permanently cornering and isolating me…Because of this life the world seemed to be separated from me, they rejected me, one might say that I had to invent my own world and life…Afterward I asked myself: who invented my life? I decided that I invented it; and then I began to write. I discovered that loneliness could be something truly beautiful, even though one is ignored. Soon, loneliness changed its shape, it converted into something else. It grew like the shadow of a bird grows on a wall. It flies away and becomes something fascinating: something similar to the revealing of another face of this life that rejects us. This is how I learned to see the light of darkness. I wanted (the opposite of the other children) to be punished in the dark room, so I could see the splendor of apparently nothing. I remember one day when I broke apart a piece of sugar and a blue spark shined in the dark. I cannot explain where that blue spark took me. I believe that even today I can, at times, see the light in the darkness, or better put, the light of darkness. This is what I do when I write.”
While I write groping, I look back and recall that old copy of Without Family and think that literature has dared to take me to the very bottom of pain when nothing terrible has happened to me. I look back even farther and remember The Ugly Duckling and my sensation of not belonging to any family, and I can hear my aunt’s voice reading us the stories of Oscar Wilde, and I think about that man who was persecuted for his homosexuality, inventing stories each night for his children Cyril and Vivian and telling them that beautiful things always bring tears.
I ask where I might have learned more about the human condition, more about pain, evil, guilt and exclusion. Where did I learn of beauty and emotions, laughter and the love that exists in literature? The conversations of daily life insist on educating, normalizing, moralizing, and domesticating us. I am teaching myself to not be so weak, shy, clumsy and vulnerable while defending myself with a voice on the border of breaking. To argue without having to get up from the family table wrapped in a sea of tears, or participate in class without blushing red like a tomato, while being told “that’s not anything” when it hurt me so much, literature revealed other pathways: that which could not be controlled, what one should not say while visiting, what did hurt. If I cite those old stories that I read when I was a little girl it is a reaction against a common place that affirms that contemporary children’s literature is discovering how to approach difficult subjects, because it has always been that way. Laughter, the beautiful and good, but along with tears, the bad and evil: everything together. For this reason it casts a spell upon us, it fascinates us.
Beyond this initial scenario of competition that is school, and also this “cage of childhood”, as Graciela Montes called the playpen where the littlest ones were confined and where, despite their terrible defenselessness, the vulnerable ones seemed to be cornered, weak, sick, old, losers, crybabies – and worse yet if they were males they were called “girls” – the poor athletes, the fearful, those who had nightmares, in short, the different ones. Returning to Ana, in literature, bed and dragon come together as do memory and loss.
Before the impossibility to confront what cannot be controlled, to what is not homogeneous nor predictable, to what implies an unedited response that has not been previously practiced or tested, literature can help manage so many emotions that wrestle within us since the beginning of life, and that we don’t discuss very much with the children, with the adult illusion of what we don’t talk about does not exist. In this sense Rosa Montero is right when she affirms that “maybe, in reality all of us writers write to close the wounds of the unthinkable and intolerable silences of childhood with our words.”
These silences appear to be a paradox amid the noise and unstoppable flow of daily life, with so many distractions that do not invite reflection or choice, but an immediate participation. I believe that all of us know this mixture of silences and noises where the lives of children take place. (It is enough, to imagine a Sunday at a shopping mall!)…Justifiably for this reason, the children, and us too, the not so children, need to find a remote place to speak a different language, different from the language of uniformity. If fifty years ago we were confronted by sexual taboos, today suffering, sickness, death, and even obesity seem to be taboos that conspire against the mandate of collective happiness. Just as older people tend to scold, this way of life is also a response of childhood. To continue talking about little girls, many of them today that are six or seven years old celebrate their birthdays at a spa, getting mud masks and slices of cucumber to cover their eyes. They abandon their childhood to fight everything that is personal, remarkable, hereditary, the imperfections of their bodies: this shapeless and playful body that is the territory of childhood. In Mexico City, at the Children’s And Adolescents International Book Fair last year, I spoke about the male children from my country who had been victims of illegal recruitment with an average age of eleven years old, once again, eleven years old! Today I want to talk from the little girl’s viewpoint, because young girls also live difficult lives, and I’m not only referring to those of Nigeria or Gaza, or so many other girls of war. I’m afraid that the girl’s bodies are one of the properties where the difference is most reduced in importance.
The truth is that childhood is not precisely, or at least entirely, a paradise, and a part of that, which we are not used to talking about or recognizing with children, seems to be hidden, or revealed, or both at the same time, within literature. As it has been stated by the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott when referring to culture, we can also say literature allows us to “listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves”, that “invitation to be concerned […] with understanding what is not yet understood”. That world, not made of facts, rather of shared meanings that interpret themselves, organizes another dimension, beyond what is factual, another layer of life that we could call symbolic. Thus, on difficult situations, like the ones faced after a catastrophe –internal or external–, symbolic memory becomes very important.
In The relevance of the beautiful, Gadamer reminds us the meaning of the word symbol:
“Originally, ‘symbol’ was a technical term in Greek for a token of remembrance. The host presented his guest with the so-called tessera hospitalis by breaking some object in two. He kept one half for himself and gave the other half to his guest. If in thirty or fifty years, a descendant of the guest should even enter his house, the two pieces could be fitted together again to form a whole in an act of recognition”
The symbol then was a sort of passport, a little piece of board that was stored and joined, years later, with the other piece, to reencounter an old acquaintance. Once again, the history of words turns out to be more eloquent than a hermeneutical treatise. The following quote is also by Gadamer.
“For our experience of the symbolic in general, the particular represents itself as a fragment of being that promises to complete and make whole whatever corresponds to it. Or, indeed, the symbol is that other fragment that has always been sought in order to complete and make whole our own fragmentary life… The experience of the beautiful, and particularly, the beautiful in art, is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things, wherever it may be found”.
That evocation of a potentially whole order in which we appear to recognize ourselves could help me gather so many loose pebbles that I have been leaving behind on the road: the books in that library that we read with the leaders looking for routes that connected us with childhood… Ana’s eyes looking at the stamp of a loss, revisiting the kingdom forever lost and found again in words…The girls we have been, all of us, in different times: the readers, the writers, the storytellers: the Scherezades who invoke death by weaving stories. And, in that continuum of language, writing as the labor of wandering through life picking up pebbles and cutting them to turn them into symbols, so that when a reader puts them together with his own, he will feel that somebody recognizes him and calls him by his name.
Those cultural lessons are not evident and still need to be taught, in a profound sense that transcends didactics. It would be necessary to teach, for example, and I believe that is the reason that gathers us here at this congress, that books were once the voices and stories of people, and that the experience of belonging to a human family is also reflected in a horizon of common consciousness that is represented through language. That there is a different tongue for using all the brain faculties, and all the voice registers, or better said, to give a voice to “the accumulation of unrecorded life”, as Virginia Woolf once said.
In that possibility of accessing a sensitive knowledge, in that lingua franca that talks to us about ourselves and unites us all, with the human roots we share, there is a promise to be built from bibliodiversity, a polyphony. Or, to say it with the words of writer Alessandro Baricco, “We are all a few pages of a book, but of a book that no one has ever written and that we search for in vain in the bookshelves of our mind”.
Perhaps because deep inside, we are all only boys and girls, we need to read ourselves, wrap ourselves, to find shelter in words.
Mexico City, Friday, September 12, 2014.
 Keynote address read at the 34 Ibby International Congress. “Everyone really means everyone”. Mexico City, Friday, September 12, 2014.
 “Education: The Engagement and Its Frustration” in The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education, ed. Timothy Fuller, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989
 Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and other Essays (Trans. Nicholas Walker). Cambridge University Press, 1987.
 Baricco, Alessandro. Mr. Gwyn (Trans. Ann Goldstein). San Francisco, McSweeneys, 2014