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Mario Angel Quintero: The level of chaos in the streets of Colombia has decreased

Photo by Zeljka Somun


Mario Angel Quintero: The level of chaos in the streets of Colombia has decreased

by Darko Vlahović on 18 of August 2022.

George Mario Angel Quintero is expected to participate at the Festival of the World Literature held in Zagreb and organied by the publishing house Fraktura. Ahead of the Festival we exchanged few words on various topics.

Colombian-American essayist, dramatist, short story writer, visual artist, musician, director and playwright of the theatre company, George Mario Angel Quintero first and most of all is – a poet. Once upon a time, when reading poems written by Cesar Vallejo, he awakened and embraced his inner poetic zeal, and today he requires poetry to be “direct experience, instinctive and concrete; an experience of collision, of surprise, of the instantaneous, and of verbal magic, and not just the product of a calculated intellectual or erudite operation”, as he personally stated in an essay. Born in 1964 in San Francisco, California, the son of Colombian parents, George Mario Angel Quintero studied literature at the University of California, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. When he was thirty he decided to move to Medellin, Colombia, where he lives today. He writes and publishes poetry, prose and essays in English and Spanish under a different names: for Americans he is George Angel, and for Colombians Mario Angel Quintero. A collection of his poems “My luz y otros poemas” (My Light and other poems) has been published in Croatian by publisher Druga priča, translated by Željka Somun. He is expected to participate at the Festival of the World Literature held in Zagreb in September and organised by the publishing house Fraktura. Before the Festival we spoke about his poetry and the literature in general, about migrations and belongings, about the United States and Colombia, and this poet of the enigmatically changeable name explained the possibility of simultaneous existence in different realities, of bidirectional motion – departing and arriving at the same time – of an in-between which is called life.

You were born in San Francisco, and in 1995, at the age of 30, you moved to Colombia, country of your origin. Why did you decide to do that? Usually the migration routes go in the opposite direction. Reading your question, I find a word that can perhaps center our discussion about migration, and that indeed marks an inflexion point in our developing consciousness regarding identity. That word is "origin". Now, when you mention my moving to Colombia, and refer to it as the country of my origin, I take it you mean, of course, the country of my family's origin. Because, there you have it, how could Colombia be my country of origin, if I was born and raised and lived my first thirty years elsewhere, in another culture, and speaking another language? Well, my upbringing was marked by two distinct realities separated by the thin membrane of the front door of my parent's house. On one side of it, I listened to, spoke, read, and wrote in Spanish. I ate food from Antioquia, the region in Colombia my parents are from. I navigated a world of values and perspectives on life that defined the former generation's world view in the city of Medellin, Colombia's second largest city. On the other side of the membrane that split my life, I grew up in Northern California, in and around San Francisco, both in urban and suburban contexts, studying at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and later as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing. It is important to stress that these realities were not only simultaneous, but were also completely discrete and rarely came in contact with each other. One instance where this occurred is my name. My mother wanted me to have a typical Colombian first and middle name, in this case, Jorge Mario. My father argued that English speakers would perpetually mangle the name Jorge. So he anglicized it to George. Thus I am named George Mario Angel. In Colombia, the matronymic is added and I am George Mario Angel Quintero. This name influenced my literary work. I have two distinct bodies of work, one in English as George Angel and another in Spanish as Mario Angel Quintero. It is only when I publish in a third language, with source texts from both languages, that I use my whole name. Given the above, I think it is important for me to conceive of my identity as well as that of many others, as having multiple origins. Maybe the origins are only there to incite a trajectory, an in-between. Maybe that is our best description of living: an in-between. The picture is not the dots; we only see the drawing by connecting them. When we think about animal migrations (birds, whales, etc.), the process has a back and forth movement. It is never one directional. In moving to Medellin in 1995, I was able to move back and forth at once. - So, you spent about half of your life in the USA and half in Colombia. Do you consider yourself American or Colombian? And is that even important to you? We live in relation to the people and things around us, and so our value can only be understood in relation to others. Colombia or the US are important to me only to the extent that I have interacted with them and have deepened my understanding of each. There are ways that I do things that are a result of being Colombian or of being from the United States. My responsibilities as a citizen I owe to the world. I do not sing anthems and no flag anywhere can demand my aggression toward another. A great deal of violence has been done in the name of ardent membership to groups. That is not my way. What is inside of us, that dot mentioned above, is mysterious and at times contradictory. I am more interested in what is between us and the nature of our contact. - You wrote plays, prose fiction and essays, but you are first and foremost a poet. For poets, language is a key element of creativity. You write and publish poems in both English and Spanish. Which language do you feel is your primary language? Spanish or English? Which language do you feel better in? Continuing with my theme of in-betweeness, I must admit that I have two native languages. Each has been the doorway to a distinct and full body of work. In this sense, I am at least two different writers. What has been surprising is how different the personalities of the two writers are. George Angel has written work that is lyrical in its descriptions of mental and emotional states, using language at times as if it were an organ of the body, and at others as if words were to be pressed, like an olive or a grape, in order to yield whatever essences of experience they may contain. For example, the vast majority of the over a hundred songs that I have written and recorded are in English. Lately, much of the writing in English has focused on the slippery literary area of voice. In other words, the story or poem becomes about how it is being told. We read to sense what the speaker/narrator is going through, both emotionally and in terms of a changing understanding of the world. Mario Angel Quintero, on the other hand, is a much more public writer, in the sense that he has taken on the task of capturing much of the sights, sounds, and attitudes alive in the city where he lives. So much stimuli comes together with irony, humor, and sadness, and becomes a sonorous alternative version of the city, one that reveals itself by harmonizing its contradictions. Besides writing this poetry that literally inhabits the here and now in a Spanish that is always remaking itself, Mario Angel Quintero is also the side that has also done extensive work in theater and performance. - How much of you was shaped by growing up in the United States and having a top Anglo-Saxon education? Explain to me if there is a difference in the poetic inspiration you drew while living in the USA, compared to life in Colombia? I guess the temperament of Medellin is completely different from that of San Francisco. How are your poems created? Reading, and the written word as an alternative and parallel reality, has been available to me in English since my early childhood. Certain teachers have opened the doors to different aspects of creative expression. In the case of poetry in English, a high school teacher named Kathryn Tann introduced me to writers like WB Yeats, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Coleridge, Blake, and Elizabeth Bishop. Meanwhile, I was discovering writers like Faulkner, Melville, Welty, Cather, and others. Later, at the university, I would become enmeshed in the worlds of Chaucer, Rabelais, Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, and all of these experiences reading led me to search for my own expressive voice in poetry and prose. After having published professionally in English for the last 35 years, I have come to a few conclusions that are at best preliminary. A literary text, be it poetry or prose, is an event the reader lives through by reading it. As such, each of these events necessarily evolves its own form. The sensory richness, the gathering consciousness, and the rhythm and word music in the representation must carry the commitment and precision of the moment if the surprise of living is to be achieved. - At what point in your life did you know you would be a poet? Who are your poetic idols and "role models"? I still do not think of myself as a poet. Rather, I see myself as a person perpetually involved in poetic and artistic action. I can trace this kind of poetic action to the time I was roughly 12 years old. At that age, I was already writing short stories and playing a mind game where I would put thoughts and observations I wanted to keep into rhyme and verse. Examples of poets whose work I greatly admire: Cesar Vallejo, Emily Dickinson, Vicente Huidobro, Velimir Khlebnikov, Eugenio Montale, Federico Garcia Lorca, Paul Valery, Georg Trakl, Wallace Stevens, Jose Lezama Lima and many others. - How relevant and important is poetry in today's superficial and busy world of social networks? Do you sometimes feel like you belong to another era? What kind of reaction do you get from your poetry audience? How do you communicate with your readers? It sounds paradoxical, but written and spoken communication is currently moving both away and toward poetry at the same time. It is moving away from poetry for the reasons you mention above, that is, it is less thoughtful, more disposable, poorer in vocabulary, and perhaps less conscious in some essential way. On the other hand, discourse today is more poetic in the sense that it is more intuitive, relies more on images and metaphors, and is a constant search for absolute instantaneous expression. I feel that poetry’s saving point today is that it is a kind of short circuiting of language. It is forever discovering the word or phrase that turns everything on its head and reveals the truth at the bottom of a situation. To answer your question another way, the readership for poetry remains as solid as it ever was. You are the director and playwright of the Parpado Theater in Medellin. What is the atmosphere like for theater in today's Colombia? Do Colombians like theater? Independent artistic theater has fought to carve out a place for itself in the Colombian cultural scene. Just in Medellin, the city where I live, there are over a hundred of these theater groups. Theater definitely has its sub-culture in Colombia. The newly named Minister of Culture of Colombia is a theater person. Theater has also been seen as a tool for social change in this country. Colombia still has a long way to go in order to have a popular taste for theater, but it is clearly recognized as an important element in Colombian culture. - Besides being a poet, writer, playwright and essayist, your biography states that you are the founder of several musical groups, and you are also an illustrator and visual artist. Is there a unique poetics of George Mario Angel Quintero in all arts? Whether my artistic productions share a distinct poetics is really a question for someone else. I can tell you that from my perspective I see the different art forms, be they literary, dramatic, musical, or visual, as a step in the creation process. This step can be thought of as the moment of incarnation. - How would you describe the current state of Colombian literature? Have Colombian writers finally come out of the huge shadow of Gabriel Garcia Marquez? The difficulty with talking about Garcia Marquez and what comes after is not so much in the literature that has come afterward, but rather in the archetypal nature of the universe he created. It is necessary to understand his most acclaimed works as additions to a kind of Central and South American mythology. His contributions to the Latin American museum of mythology are particularly successful in seducing contemporary world society, and convincing it that it is possible and worse, even accurate, to imprison the whole range of personality and imagination of Colombian culture in these homespun and folksy monoliths. In this sense, the only mythos that has managed to compete with the characters of Macondo has been the pop mythos of the narco-kingpin, so sellable to today's consumers. I am not saying that these archetypes came out of thin air. Obviously, people existed and exist whose actions inspired these totems. But the dazzling nature of their rendition into representative cultural figures has been a feat of smoke and mirrors worthy of Marvel, or some other such tracker of mass desire. There is good work being done in Colombia, though still somewhat mired in an almost pathological conservatism and plagued by a kind of commercial journalistic approach. Many artists and writers have left Colombia over the years because Colombian culture hates art and has replaced it with simulacra. This has simply become part of the dynamic of being a Colombian artist, and is not, by the way, uncommon in the world at large today. - In recent years, we no longer receive news from Colombia about clashes between government forces and left-wing rebel groups, and news about criminal cartels from Medellin is also becoming rarer. The country is a politically stable democracy, with rapid economic growth. Can it be said that Colombia is a South American success story? Is the insurgency of the FARC and other guerilla groups a thing of the past? Does this mean that Colombians can be satisfied with what has been achieved? It is no longer surprising to see news agencies become tired with a particular story and move on to something fresher regardless of whether change has occurred or not. Now, Colombia has made significant strides forward in the last 15 to 20 years. The level of chaos in the streets on a day to day level has decreased and kidnapping, murder, and acts of mass violence are statistically lower. None of this has been achieved by the government. I have watched two or three generations of Colombians hand their lives over to social work. Such commitment has had a marked impact on this country and on this city. Any transformation that has taken place has been because of the people. The people of Colombia have chosen to dedicate their time and energy to creating alternatives to chaos. Unfortunately, the government has not been a faithful partner in this project. The Santos presidency created a peace process and later reneged on the government's social responsibilities in the aftermath. The Duque government tried to make it seem as if everything was getting better. The truth is that social services are in shambles with health and education bearing the brunt of the damage. These social leaders I credited with creating social change a moment ago are disappearing by the handfuls to later be found dead in rivers, gorges, and garbage dumps. The pandemic hit my city so hard economically that many of the houses in working class neighborhoods hung out red flags at their doors to show that someone in their house was literally going without food due to poverty. These are proud people, and to look down a street and see house after house with red flags, you know the situation has to be very serious. - How did Colombia go through the pandemic years? In the spring of last year, violent protests were held for weeks... The Covid pandemic was very tough on Colombia's service economy. Colombians are also very social, and the lockdown demoralized the country. The protests that occurred in the spring of last year, however, cannot be attributed to either of these factors. In the first place, it is important to remember that the protests of the spring of 2021 were actually the continuation of marches that began in 2019. These protests, that occurred all over Colombia, were a reaction to what has been a systematic abuse of power on the part of local, regional, and national government for more than a decade and a half. The protests became as strong as they did because of a disproportionately violent response on the part of the police. This response included murder, rape, and numerous beatings and the firing of live ammunition into masses of people. We will probably never have an accurate number of casualties. - Colombia just got a new president who was elected on his leftist and green political platform. What do you expect from him? Gustavo Petro announced the improvement of relations with Venezuela. What will this new rise of the left bring to Colombia, and what will it bring to the wider region? I am not a member of Mr. Petro's party, nor of anyone else's for that matter. However, there are several noteworthy implications to Petro's having won the presidential election that are of importance to Colombia's present and future. The first is that more people voted for Petro than have ever voted for anyone in Colombian history. This is particularly interesting because Colombia has never had a left wing president, which is exactly what Petro promises to be. All the popular left wing candidates for president in recent times, such as Gaitan, Pizarro, and Galan, were assassinated during their campaigns. So we have a historically unprecedented event occurring on August 7th. This may bring much needed relief to Colombia's middle and lower classes. On the other hand, stiff resistance is to be expected, and Colombia is a profoundly corrupt and bureaucratic country. Inflation is ravaging the average person's paycheck. The right, and even many moderates, have convinced themselves that Petro in the presidency will mean the end of civilization as we know it, and that we are headed for the kind of misery we have had reported to us by the flood of Venezuelans that has poured in from the border over these last few years. So Colombia may be approaching a time of volatility. At the same time, this moment is an extraordinary opportunity for the country to grow on every level. The support and commitment of Colombia's youth, especially with the project of inclusion proposed by Francia Marquez, the vice-president elect, can be felt palpably everywhere in the country today. - His predecessor Ivan Duque introduced a universal basic income for the poorest, Ingreso solidario, which is surprising for a right-wing president. Under what circumstances did it happen? Has the traditional division into right and left lost its meaning? I wish the Ingreso Solidario were something more than a last minute attempt to rally support for right wing candidate Federico Gutierrez, via presidential interference, but the timing and the way it was announced make a strong argument that unfortunately that is all it was. No, it does not seem the roles are becoming blurred, and this is a worrisome fact about the present moment. The right wing is poised to attack the new president before he even does anything in office. And it is vital to Petro's success that he be flexible and always focus on the common good. If he sticks to the politburo playbook too closely, these are going to be a long and barren four years. - It's been a year and a half since Joe Biden took office as US president. Did he meet the expectations of the liberal part of the American public? He doesn't seem to have made much of a difference to his predecessor Donald Trump's restrictive immigration policies, especially regarding Latin American immigrants. On the other hand, Trump's legacy is also visible in the recent repeal of the federal right to abortion. Which direction is the USA going? How do Latin American countries view Biden and his politics? Biden is attempting to lead a country that wants to be, at the very least, two countries. Obviously, he is not the president the progressive left wants him to be. The US is going in various directions at once. The repeal of the right to abortion was disturbing and depressing in and of itself. Sadly, it also makes clear that Biden's predecessor, a narcissistic sociopath you may have heard of, still has his pudgy finger on the pulse of at least part of the paranoid, lost, and frankly unstable fringes of the country. - You were in Zagreb three years ago, now you are coming again. How do you remember Croatia and what do you expect now, in the midst of the global economic crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine? I am interested in the way contemporary Croatian writing makes voice part of the content. On some level, I think this comes from where the country is situated. Croatia, like Colombia, occupies a geographic crossroads. This means events are continually passing over us. Curiously, we resist the historical, perhaps because we feel oppressed by it. I found that there are many parallels between Croatian and Colombian culture when it comes to living day to day and forming community. I felt at home walking down the streets of Zagreb. We are always orienting ourselves to the historical moment, but the perverse habit of living pushes us to stubbornly create bulwarks of identity and commitment that manage to remain intact despite perpetual challenges. My expectations about returning to Croatia, and specifically Zagreb, actually have to do with the people I met there and the friendships that developed on my last visit. The affinity I feel for the country and its people leads me to hope that my work has something to say to Croatians today.

Where to meet George Mario Angel Quintero in Zagreb:

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