When Albalucía Ángel left Colombia in 1964, she could not have known her outbound journey would be, in fact, a constant return to her homeland. Nor could she have imagined that she would revolutionize Colombian literature with her experimentation and—let it be said—open the door for her fellow Colombian writers to the domains of mysticism, to consciousness as a form of writing in these times of uncertainty and brutality.
She was born in 1939 and spent her youth in Pereira, reading, listening to everyone around her, memorizing the voice of the people that one day would echo in her own writing. There, in Pereira, she lived through the ninth of April, 1948: the day of the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán and the thwarted Colombian revolution. There she led a film club, and the young folks around her wondered what manual, what dictionary they needed in order to talk to this young woman so imbued in her own thought and so disposed to wordplay.
Still young, she decided to travel to Bogotá to study at the Universidad de los Andes. She took courses in art, literature, and philosophy. There she became fast friends with Marta Traba. On that university’s campus, the strength of her thought was beginning to take shape when she said to professor Antonio Panesso Robledo, who taught philosophy, “I don’t think, therefore I am.” But Bogotá, like Pereira, was too small. Both cities limited her. She traveled to Barranquilla, where she wove one of the most important friendships of her life, with Álvaro Cepeda Samudio. In this city, she worked for Aerolíneas Peruanas, earning the money she needed to set out on the Donizzetti for Europe. Colombia was no place in those days for a rambling woman—one who didn’t know it yet, but was beginning to get the feeling. Colombia was, rather, the place she would write about, the story she would tell.
She lived in Rome, studying film and continuing her studies of art history. Thanks to a chronicle she wrote about Picasso, Alberto Baeza Flores told her one day that she should be a writer. And, if a former secretary of Pablo Neruda said it, it had to be true. He even gave her a notebook, which Albalucía held on to for days, not knowing what to write. Until, that is, she talked again with Baena Flores and asked him where to start. “How do you write a novel?” Albalucía inquired, to which the Chilean responded, “Haven’t you read novels? Well that’s how, the same way you read them.” After that, Jorge Zalamea Borda told her that if she wrote the way she talked, she would be a great writer. And so was born the great torrent that would become the indispensable novels of Albalucía Ángel.
In Paris, in the notebook she was given, she started writing Los girasoles en invierno [Sunflowers in winter] in 1965; the novel would be published in Colombia in 1970. Meanwhile, she kept on traveling through different European cities. And singing. She was a girl with a notebook and a guitar, waiting for the chance to step up onto the same stages as other singers of her day: among them none other than Violeta Parra. This was how she supported herself while she wrote. Later, in London, she wrote Dos veces Alicia [Two times Alicia], published in 1972.
Over the course of her journey, the European comings-and-goings of the woman who would soon become the speckled bird, she kept appearing and disappearing. She was like Halley’s Comet; so Mercedes Barcha told her when she put her up in Gabo’s house, where she slept in a small bed belonging to one of the writer’s children. In those days she met Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, she met Cortázar in Paris. She built a deeper friendship with José Donoso. She participated in literary salons, intense conversations where almost no one acknowledged that she was a writer too. One day in 1972, when editor Carlos Barral published one of her books, she bumped into Mario Vargas Llosa on the way out of the publishing house. He looked at her bewildered. “What brings you here, Albalú?” She had just picked up a copy of her new book, Dos veces Alicia. That night at the usual salon, Vargas Llosa asked if anyone else was aware that Albalucía was a writer, but nobody paused to answer. They had no interest in the women writers who also formed part of the wonderful moment of Latin American literature in which they were living. This woman writer, the one who sang, carried on down her path. Remaining in that world didn’t matter to her. She had to keep on living and writing.
Meanwhile, in 1972, Albalucía suffered an attempted carjacking and a traffic accident in the midst of the incident. She saw death, lived through this trial, and came back. She says she came back because, on the other side of life, they gave her leave to return so that she could finish what would become Estaba la pájara pinta sentada en el verde limón [The speckled bird was sitting on the green lemon tree]. She submitted the manuscript for the Vivencias prize in Cali, Colombia, and won. But the prize would cause her many headaches. They doubted her as a woman writer; maybe Gabriel García Márquez really wrote this, they said. The press headlines denigrated her: “Zany Pereira Woman Wins Literary Prize.” They attacked her from all sides. But what more can you expect from a culture as rooted in patriarchy as Colombia’s? How could they accept that a free woman, a woman who believed in freedom, who had never been tied to any one place, to any slavery, to any man, had won a literary prize? How could they tolerate a woman like Albalucía as the Virginia Woolf of our literature? She never went to collect the prize. It was said that nobody read her because her writing was confusing, because no one understood her. How strange, then, that Colombian intellectuals read Proust, Joyce, Kafka, but were unable to understand the writer who, through delightful, intelligent, caustic experimentation, invented a distinctly Colombian way of telling stories, a stream of consciousness in tune with the literary forms of the moment that took flight in the Latin American world. In those years, her book of short stories Oh gloria inmarcesible [Oh undying glory] was also published in Colombia, causing even more scandal and commotion than her previous books. Her detractors called it “pornographic.”
But in her writing, in her freedom, and in her travels, she persisted. She published Misiá Señora [Miss Señora] in 1982 and Las andariegas [The rambling women] in 1984. The latter was more an epic poem than a novel, and would mark a breaking point in the work and the wayfaring of Albalucía Ángel. Because, now more than forty years old, our writer discovered that a new phase of her life had begun. At that moment, a force that had come up from behind found its most intense expression. Albalucía is a galactic woman, a woman of many places who then had to start living anew. And so she traveled to Assisi, to meet again with the teacher who had been with her since childhood: Saint Francis. She kept silent for two years and started writing Los cuadernos de Arathia Maitreya [The notebooks of Arathia Maitreya]. Twenty-eight notebooks written by hand, in unusually perfect script, representing a swerve in her work toward a world of rapport with consciousness. And, since the journey never ends, since she always went from one place to another, staying nowhere, she settled in the forests of Norway. There, her adventure and her writing continued. She distanced herself from Colombia; she had no intention of returning. Every so often, she came back to Latin America. They were reading her in Chile, in Argentina, in Mexico, in Peru, in the United States, in Europe. In Colombia, silence. They didn’t want to read her, because in those parts they didn’t read free women like Albalucía Ángel.
During those years she traveled to Chile, where she started a project that she would pursue for many years to come: a book of interviews with Latin American women writers called De vuelta del silencio [Back from silence]—a book that remains unpublished to this day and is soon to be printed for the first time in Medellín. On this literary trail, as she tells it herself, she spoke with forty women: with Luisa Valenzuela, with Silvia Molloy, with Nélida Piñón, with Elena Poniatowska, with Carmen Ollé, and with many more. These were intimate, powerful interviews. Albalucía didn’t stop: she was a witness of the present, a woman with a new vision. She seemed to be everywhere at once: in India, in Latin America, in the United States, in Europe. She lived outside of time. And while she decided not to come back to Colombia, we started to read her in Colombian universities. Male professors like Cristo Figueroa and Isaías Peña, female professors like Paulina de Sanjinés and Betty Osorio read her work in their classes, and the cult around this woman writer from Pereira started to grow. Women and men had appeared who were able to discover in her body of work the greatness that would transform our conception of writing.
In 2002, she finally returned to Bogotá; she returned from that journey that seemed to offer no way back. A group of women helped her publish a limited edition of a new novel, Tierra de nadie [No-man’s land]. But her biggest surprise at the time was discovering that, in this country that had denigrated her, there were hundreds of people reading her, talking about her work. She wrote two more novels that, along with the one before, make up the New Consciousness trilogy: No hay mariposas en el bosque [There are no butterflies in the forest] and El regreso a la montaña [Return to the mountain], both unpublished to this day. In 2015, forty years after the first publication of La pájara pinta, Colombia finally gave her a decisive welcome. Ten years before, in a series of events celebrating Colombian women writers, the Ministry of Culture had recognized her for the first time. But the most important moment came when new generations of readers finally met with new editions of La pájara pinta (2015) and Oh gloria inmarcesible (2016), published by Ediciones B, and Los girasoles en invierno (2017), published by the Universidad de los Andes press. And the number of her titles republished by Colombian presses continues to grow. Soon Misiá Señora will be on shelves, and surely the day will come when we’ll see the publication of her works on consciousness: Los cuadernos de Arathía Maitreya, La cartilla del Panda [Panda’s primer], and the complete New Consciousness trilogy. Albalucía has ceased to be only a cult writer; every day, more young people read her, because she has always been ahead of her time, as Jorge Zalamea used to tell her: “Albalú, you were born a hundred years too soon.” Now, she has finally found her place. And I have no hesitation in saying that, more than a writer who came before her time, she is a wise woman who came to echo in many times. A bird who embraced madness completely because, as she says, it did her no good embracing madness halfway, and who jumped without a parachute to show us life can be lived that way: without handles, without containment. A rambling woman who has written with a deliberate consciousness of language and history, who with her great shamanic figure can go out onto the streets of Colombia—or any other part of the world where she might find herself—to bring us her powerful energy, her songs: I am peace, we are peace. A woman of many names and many frequencies: Arathía, Arathaia, Aihtara. A woman who bore witness to so many revolutions in the twentieth century, and who in the twenty-first continues to watch the collapse of the culture whose story she told.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.