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History, Identity, and Traveling: A Reflection on 2017’s McGill Lecturer, Santiago Gamboa

Chelsey Crabbe (History ‘17)

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In his lecture, “The Art of Narration and Travel Writing (a Latin American Writer in India)”,weaved an inspiring tale about the realities of his profession as both an individual and a Latin American writer by specifically focusing on his tales of living in India. Gamboa has written eight novels amongst other works, mostly in Spanish and translated into a variety of languages. The writer has also acted a Columbia diplomat at UNESCO in Paris as well as to the Columbian Embassy in India. Obviously well-accomplished, Santiago Gamboa impressed me not only with his accolades but his grip on the pulse of the world, understanding the humanity within each individual, no matter their country of origin.

Santiago Gamboa
Photo: https://alchetron.com/Santiago-Gamboa-557724-W

As a History major, I couldn’t help, but notice that world history is undeniably entangled in the reality for writers today. History is connected to the expectations of certain writers as the world expects Westerners to write about travel, harking on the previous periods of conquering and imperialism. The story of someone from England, for example, traveling down the sticky and mysterious Congo River is not a surprise to an expecting audience. However, in Latin America, writers are expected to reflect on simply the local as a way of exemplifying the West’s fascination with their image of this region full of exoticism, revolution…and rum.

Amidst, all of these expectations, travel writers also risk entrapment from international stereotypes. Gamboa mentioned that it’s difficult steering clear of common labels and, therefore, writes about the everyday composing stories around real people and experiences. The writer also mentioned a quote by Saul Bellow exclaimed within a 1976 Nobel Prize Lecture:

“Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them, and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what this life is for.”

I found solace in this quote because it, first, gave some affirmation that my Thesis about the importance of art and cultural heritage has some validity, and, two, the few lines spoke about finding humanity and the meaning of life. The latter is quite intangible and unanswered, but I appreciated the nod to writing and art as a way of finding some type of answer.

As Gamboa continued with his moving prose, I began asking myself if he ever experienced a confusion about his identity, feeling the pressure to break the pattern of Latin American writing about the land and the local world. All the while, exploring his identity as a nomadic travel, an observer, unattached to any country having lived and traveled through countless locations around the world. I wondered if this tension if he ever felt it, affected his writing, the friction of these two identities causing a tension that ultimately created a masterpiece. These are the questions that ran through my mind during his lecture

Finally, as a traveler myself, an aspiring writer as a hobby at least, I unpacked every phrase, picked up on his linguistic techniques, and his emotional prose. I found that Gamboa’s approach to writing about a particular place starts at the root of the culture, from digging within and starting at the smallest levels of observation rather than looking down upon a plane of Western stereotypes. What stuck with me was his memory of finding the most beautiful aspects of Indian life within the most harrowing of environments, in this way, I found his exploration similar to finding art within tension. So, what did I think about this year’s and my final McGill Lecture? Outstanding! I’m going to have pick up one of Santiago’s novels this summer.

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