If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of San Andrés as you feel/see it?
The mood is that of an unstable lethargy; it has its highs and lows. Laziness and frenzy coexist here. What I notice the most about San Andrés are its noises and sounds—audible stimuli are particularly striking here. Oralities, for example, are a key to the islands’ histories, but the almost omnipresent construction noises also tell you that this is an anxious island, always unfinished, always intervening in the landscape, always hungry for visitors.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
I can’t decide whether it is the killing of Hety, a singer and local hero, at the end of the day when legislative elections were held last year; or the loss of seventy-five thousand square kilometers of sea territory to Nicaragua in 2012. Both moments, ten years apart, are an example of how broken we are, how vulnerable our position is. Violence—slow, fast, indirect, direct—is exercised against the islands and our way of living here. The drug business has hurt us and takes away innocent victims, too, and the way that the Colombian state relates to the archipelago has caused and will continue to cause irreparable loss.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
San Andrés is a fantastic place. This implies that a good number of things escape common sense. This is a place where cattle that leave their grasslands won’t be removed from the main road because the free movement of these animals is a metaphor for a lost, pleasant past. The cows on the ring road are an image of disobedience.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Anyone who wants to understand this piece of the world should read Hazel Robinson. Her novels and memoirs are brave, unique. She is, to me, an invaluable living memory of the islands.
Is there a place here you return to often?
Many places. My favorite is the beach by my home, particularly in the hours before sunset. I go there whenever I need consolation. I walk five minutes and I’m at the northern tip of the island, facing west, watching frigates and seagulls hunt at sunset.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The island of Providencia. It is the focus of many of Hazel Robinson’s novels, and the motive behind Elkin Robinson’s lyrics and music.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Many. This is an island of islands, very small islands. Some patterns repeat within these islands, but some problems are exclusive. When I came back to San Andrés after many years of absence (and realizing this was decisive for my first novel), I finally saw that I was actually inhabiting a place that was three square kilometers, not the full twenty-seven of the island. San Andrés is small, yes, but each area has its own settlement histories, slang, diasporas, and modes of relating to others.
Where does passion live here?
In the white sand, of course. It’s everywhere.
What is the title of one of your works about San Andrés and what inspired it exactly?
My novel Salt Crystals is inspired by my return to San Andrés and my obsession with understanding the ways in which the past has shaped us, particularly diasporas and our ways of remembering and representing them. I wanted to find my African ancestors, the ways their voices were still present. I wanted to find the voices of my Palestinian, Scottish, and Irish ancestors. I wanted to find the common experiences and wounds from each of the migrations that is part of me, and question the notions of national myths. I wanted to know how we were resisting the pressure of the world, of the state, and propose a thread to understand the Indigenous Raizal people of the islands and my own way of being Raizal. It is a novel about the spiritual shock of coming back.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside San Andrés does an outside exist?”
It’s an interesting question; I’ve meditated on it. At this point in my life, I believe there is no way that the island can exit my soul. I am involved with the island, intimately. I am not always physically present in the archipelago, but my mind is constantly finding connections, both expanding the meanings of San Andrés and building a world around it. San Andrés is the world, the world is San Andrés.
Cristina Bendek was born in San Andrés and Providencia in October 1987. She lived between Bogotá and Mexico City before returning to San Andrés after a thirteen-year absence. Since 2016, she has worked as a journalist, covering the environmental and infrastructure crisis and the international dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua over the archipelago’s western border. A member of the native Raizal community, Bendek questions the narrative of the relation between the islands and the state, and collaborates with social movements concerned with the environment, displacement, and territorial occupation. Her first novel, Los cristales de la sal (Laguna Libros, 2019), is the winner of the first national prize for women novelists, the Premio Elisa Mújica de Novela. The novel has been translated and published in Brazil (Editora Moinhos, 2021), Denmark (Aurora Boreal, 2020), and Costa Rica (Encino Ediciones, 2021). Salt Crystals, the English translation by Robin Myers, was published in September 2022 by Charco Press. Bendek’s short stories and essays have appeared in collections and magazines in Colombia, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Copyright © 2023 by Cristina Bendek. All rights reserved.