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Restrepo, Laura: 1950—: Journalist, Political Activist, Novelist

Laura Restrepo: 1950: Journalist, political activist, novelist

Few writers have been able to craft together fact and fiction so flawlessly to produce a created world that deals with so many real world issues as Laura Restrepo. Making a splash in the 1980s with her journalism and spending time as an exile because of it, Restrepo is no stranger to the dangers that are prevalent in the world, and is able to express the multitude of angles that these dangers represent through her characters and narration. Most important to the core of Restrepo's work is her love for her home country of Columbia and discovering the past of the war and the drug culture that has destroyed parts of the country and how from that past the country can be rebuilt.

Raised on Unconventional Education

Laura Restrepo was born in Bogotá, Columbia, in 1950, the eldest of two daughters. Restrepo had an unconventional childhood; her father believed strongly in education, but he also believed that much of a child's education should be found through experience, rather than in conventional schooling. Restrepo's father left school when he was 13 years old, and her paternal grandfather had been completely self-educated, having never attended schools. Her grandfather, who was a published writer, proved the value of self-education by teaching himself six different languages, including Latin and Greek. Instead of attending school when she was a child, Restrepo learned about the world in much the same way as her grandfather had learnedthrough opening her mind to the world in which she lived. Restrepo entered college when she was 15 years old, and she finally became a more traditional student.

Restrepo's father loved to travel, but hated flying, and so he would pile his wife, Helen, and two daughters, Laura and Carmen, into a Volkswagen and leave for extended trips, never stopping anywhere long enough for his children to complete a year of schooling. In a lengthy interview with Jaime Manrique of BOMB magazine, Restrepo related a story about how she attended a public school in Corte Madera, California for only one day, because the following day, the family moved on to another location. She also told of how at the age of ten, when the family was in Denmark, she spent six months attending a ceramics night school. Later, when the family visited Madrid, the school rejected her because she failed required admission exams in arithmetic, grammar, and embroidery, which under the rule of fascism was considered a basic requirement for admission to the school. Instead of teaching his daughter competency in the required subjects, Restrepo's father located a flamenco guitar teacher who made house calls, although she had no affinity for the guitar. Instead of schools, there were visits to museums, to ancient ruins, and to the theater. Rather than learn about grammar and mathematics, Restrepo and her sister listened to her father's favorite music, read good books by important authors, and learned about geology and nature by exploring the land, rather than through photos in a book.

At a Glance . . .

Born in 1950 in Bogotá, Columbia; divorced; one child, Pedro. Education: Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, degree in philosophy and letters.

Career: Professor of literature at the Universidad Nacional and at the Universidad de Rosario in Bogotá; adjunct professor at the University of Seville; author, 1986.

Awards: Mexico's Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Prize and the Prix France Culture Award for Dulce compañía.

Address: Agent c/o Crown Publishing Promotion, 201 East 50th Street, New York, NY 10022.

For the first 15 years of her life, Restrepo led a idyllic existence, sheltered from much of the poverty and violence of the world by her protective father. Since Restrepo had not finished any primary or secondary program that would lead to a degree, she was obliged to take exams at the ministry of education. She took exams in all the required subjects, including organic chemistry and the geography of Colombia. Her father prepared Restrepo for the exams, in an intensive program of home schooling, and with her father's help, she passed all her exams. This was the first time that a member of her father's family had earned a diploma. After meeting the requirements for admission, Restrepo enrolled at the Universidad de Los Andes, in Bogotá.

Acquired a Different Social Awareness

When she was 16, in her sophomore year at college, she began working as a literature teacher in a public school for boys. Of this job experience, Restrepo says that she learned a disturbing lesson from the students in this school, all of whom were from the lower class, were older than she was, knew more than she did, and had experienced more. She told Manrique that these students changed the direction of her life. Restrepo found that "beyond the nuclear family and the land of wonders that is high culture, there lay a whole universe to be explored that was broad and remote, fierce and exciting." She quickly committed herself to learning more about her country and to learning more about the poverty and violence that permeates much of Colombia. As a sheltered daughter in a middle class family, Restrepo was completely unaware of the lives that existed just beyond her own narrow experiences. Her father had sought to educate his daughter through experience, but these were experiences from which he had sought to shelter his oldest daughter. When he found that he could not protect his daughter from the world, Restrepo's father responded with anger. She countered by rebelling against her father's efforts to control her and left the safety of her family. Restrepo's father died a few years later, before she was able to see him again. Eventually, Restrepo gave up teaching and joined the Trotskyist Party, a revolutionary Socialist group who were dedicated to a Socialist economic system and to gender equality. She was planning on transforming the world.

Restrepo graduated from the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, with a degree in philosophy and letters. She next did postgraduate work in political science at this same university. For a while, Restrepo was a Professor of Literature at the Universidad Nacional and at the Universidad de Rosario in Bogotá. In large part, though, her career has been dedicated to political activism, beginning when she became a militant member of the Socialist party. Restrepo respond-sedto poverty and injustice with action. After college, she moved to Spain, where for three years, she was a member of the Socialist Workers Party during the post-Franco period. While in Spain, Restrepo participated in protests against the Argentine military dictatorship. Restrepo next moved to Buenos Aires for four years, where her son, Pedro was born in 1980. Eventually, she returned to Colombia to dedicate herself to a career in journalism and to publish a magazine, Week, which focused on politics. As she sought to support herself and her son, Restrepo found work as a reporter, where she investigated many of the problems that would later emerge as plots and amplifications in her novels.

As a journalist for the magazine Semana, Restrepo began writing about national and international politics. She went to Grenada to cover the invasion, and she also spent time in Nicaragua, while reporting on the war between the Sandinistas and the Contras. Then in July of 1982, Colombian President Belisario Betancur nominated Restrepo to serve on a commission that was charged with negotiating the peace with two of the rebellious forces that had been plaguing the country, the M-19 and the EPL. Restrepo was also writing during this period, and eventually she became the political editor for Semana, where she published columns each week that detailed the progress of the peace negotiations. Her experience as a commissioner of peace would eventually lead her to abandon journalism, while she devoted herself to the attempts to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the years of conflict and bloodshed. In spite of her efforts, there were frequent disruptions to the truce, which eventually failed. During this period, Restrepo became disenchanted with the actions of the Colombian government and began to be very vocal in her criticisms. As a result of her work, Restrepo received death threats, and was forced into exile in Mexico for six years. Her book, Historia de una traición, is an account of the failed peace negotiations. In this book, Restrepo relates many of the events that were not covered by the Colombian press or media. While in Mexico, Restrepo stayed in contact with local guerrilla forces in Colombia, trying to create a new peace, which finally happened in 1989. With peace in Colombia, she was finally able to return to Bogotá after so many years away.

Emerged as a Writer

Restrepo began to write at age nine, when she wrote a story about poor peasants. This convinced her father that she would become a novelist. In many ways, this first story essentially predicted the themes of her subsequent work, the tragedy of poverty or the disenfranchising of the oppressed. In spite of this early beginning, it took 25 years before Restrepo began to write seriously. In her interview with BOMB, Restrepo says that "the way I look at it now, it was my father's death that prompted me. I believe that since then, I write in good measure out of love for him, in his memory, and to feel him not far away." When she began to write novels, Restrepo had difficulty in deciding if her work was non-fiction or fiction. She used real events and people as an inspiration for her work because she wanted to tell the stories of real people within a fictional narrative. Eventually Restrepo's search for her own particular style of writing, led to a blend of reality and fiction that makes her work so captivating. She uses her research as a journalist as the basis for her fictional works, but she blends that journalism with literary creativity.

Restrepo's first novel, La isla de la pasión,isablendof history, journalism, and fiction. The story is written while Restrepo was an outcast living in Mexico. She missed Colombia very badly, but eventually realized that she needed to quit wasting the beauty of Mexico in lamentations for Colombia. Instead, she sought a story to write. The result is the story of a young military officer and his family, who because of the revolution, must flee and live their lives on an island in the Pacific. When she was challenged by her publisher to choose either history or fiction as a genre for her book, she added the following note at the beginning of the book: "The historical facts, places, names, dates, documents, statements, characters, living and dead persons appearing in this story are real. So are the minor details, sometimes." In this way, Restrepo managed to circumvent her publisher's decree and make her first novel what she wanted it to bea story about real people and events that lends itself to her own style of creativity.

Restrepo's second novel, El leopardo al sol, tells the story of a deadly feud between two families, who are involved in the Colombian drug cartel. Initially, this novel had its beginning as a series of reports that Restrepo did while working as a television news reporter. She had been sent to investigate why two families had started killing each other. Later, she converted her reports into a long magazine article. Finally, she was asked to transform her reports once again, into scripts for a miniseries, which she did. The miniseries never aired because the television studio received a visit from a lawyer. Restrepo related this incident in an interview with Helen Elliott of The Weekend Australian. Restrepo told Elliott that the lawyer "mentioned blowing up the building." As a result, the miniseries was cancelled. Finally, according to Restrepo, she again "talked with the lawyer and said I wanted to write a book about it he was relaxed. 'Write what you wantthey don't care about book, they don't read books.'" Restrepo had spent a total of 11 years investigating the deaths of those who oppose drug trafficking in Colombia, but in the end, she published El leopardo al sol as a novel. Restrepo told Manrique that she never used the word "drugs" in the novel, because she is convinced that "all readers read between the lines." She had no further encounters with either the lawyer who had visited her or the people who sent him.

Restrepo's next novel was very different in both tone and subject. Dulce compañía is the story of a modern archangel in the slums of Bogotá. It seems a strange subject for Restrepo, who had no formal religious training as a child. However, having no formal religious training does not mean that Restrepo was not exposed to religion. Her paternal grandmother was very religious. In her interview with Manrique, Restrepo related that her grandmother would make her pray a "thou-sand Jesuses" with her. In the comedy, Dulce compañía, the protagonist is a reporter who is investigating the appearance of an angel in a Bogotá barrio. Eventually the reporter falls in love with the angel and has a child with him. Restrepo tells Manrique that she was "toying with the idea of breaking the traditional separation between human and divine, between author and character." Dulce compañía won several awards, including Mexico's Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Prize and the Prix France Culture Award.

In her most recent novel, Restrepo wanted to make the protagonist a literary figure in the manner of the detective in the noir genre. In La novia oscura, she created a narrator, who is a journalist. While doing research in the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja, Restrepo saw a picture of a raven-haired woman biting a flower stem. The picture so captivated her imagination that she wanted to write a story to go with the picture. The result is La novia oscura, the story of Sayonara, a child prostitute. To research her most recent book, Restrepo interviewed the people one might expect her to interview, such as engineers and executives. But she also interviewed guerrilla chiefs and gasoline smugglers and prostitutes. As she has with her previous two novels, there is a part of Restrepo portrayed in the story, as the narrator, who is a journalist, conducting research into a mysterious woman's life. Thus the novel incorporated the real author, who did conduct this research, and integrates the factual past with a creative present. The technique of investigating a life, based on a photo, makes the book especially intriguing and popular with readers. In October of 2002, book sellers, Barnes & Noble, selected both the Spanish and English editions of La novia oscura for inclusion in its "Discover Great New Writers" program. Restrepo's novel is the first Spanish language title to be included in this program, which provides a prominent display in each store for the books that are chosen for inclusion.

Saw Writing As Historical Record

Before her books began to be financially successful, Restrepo had to write at night, while working as a journalist and television screenwriter. However, in recent years, she has been able to use royalties from her books to support her writing and research. Of her desire to write novels, she told Andre Mayer of Eye Weekly Online, that "I've been a journalist for many years, and writing novels is a way of continuing to do journalism." In a recent interview with Bill Moyers for his Public Television program, NOW, Restrepo tells Moyers that "for all my life I have only known violence." Now she is most concerned with keeping her family safe and in seeing Colombia become a safer place in which to live. Of Colombia, Restrepo says that while they live in "extreme difficulty," at the same time, Colombians "have such a joyous life." She also tells Moyers that "we enjoy life. The presence of death, having it always so near, always as a possibility, makes life shine, and human warmth be felt very strongly." At one point in the interview, Moyers asked Restrepo about her role as a storyteller in the midst of civil war. She replied that it was her role to keep history alive. She says, "I talk to many people when I write my books and one of the problems is that I have the feeling that everything has to be said now. Because I know if I come back a week later, that person might be dead." She sees her job as recording the past for the future, so that the children will know their history. Restrepo says of her country that, "I know people are suffering a big deal in my country, so what I like to do is tell them your life is worthwhile. It's a beautiful life. Your struggle is heroic. Something will come out of this."

As for her personal life, Restrepo told the Weekend Australian that there had been many men in her life. She has been married at least twice. One husband was an Argentinian, who was at one time a peace worker and later became a politician. They had a son, Pedro. Another marriage was to, as she tells Elliott, "the most beautiful, beautiful man," the Columbian ambassador to Italy. Having little in common, Restrepo eventually left the marriage. Restrepo currently lives on the 13th floor of a very secure building in Bogotá, with her partner José, an analytical psychiatrist. Currently she is teaching two months each year at the University of Seville.

Selected writings

Historia de una traición (History of a Betrayal ), Plaza & Janes, 1986.

La isla de la pasión (Passion Island ), Planeta, 1989.

El leopardo al sol (Leopard in the Sun ), Planeta, 1993.

Dulce compañía (The Angel of Galilea ), Editorial Norma, 1995.

La novia oscura, Grupo Editorial Norma, 1999; reis-sued in English as The Dark Bride, Harper Collins, 2001.



BOMB, winter 2001/2002, pp. 54-59.

Weekend Australian, September 7, 2002, p. R06.


"Bill Moyers Interviews Laura Restrepo" PBS Now, (March 13, 2003).

"Historical whore story," Eye Weekly, (March 13, 2003).

Sheri Elaine Metzger

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