I read this book in February before going to Colombia on vacation. Whenever I’m lucky enough to travel outside the US, I always try to read books by authors from the countries I’m visiting. I was especially excited for this trip because this was my first visit to South America, and I know I have only just begun discovering amazing works from that part of the world. An obvious author to read would have been Gabriel García Márquez, and while I’ve read Love in the Time of Cholera and loved it, I knew I wanted to read something by a female author. Actually, I knew I needed to read one, given my reading project for the year. Some internet research led me to a great article about female Colombian authors, and that’s how I found Laura Restrepo and The Dark Bride.
The sentences in this book twist and turn, and I got lost in them more than once and would have to double back to make sure I absorbed the nuanced language and emotions. There is so much packed in about life, love, identity, and family that I would find myself pausing mid-paragraph to let the words marinate in brain for a little while. Restrepo introduced me to a society of oil workers and prostitutes that I would not have known otherwise.
This book takes you into the world of people who work very hard for very little. They experience a lot of love, death, jealousy, and poverty, which is a world away from what most tourists, including myself, see from their tropical beach vacations and the candy-colored streets of Cartagena. I did get glimpses of “real life” when I visited a local market, but I was with a guide, and it was very clear that I was separate from the people working there. Class and race are complicated topics in the US, and but I didn’t know what to expect in Colombia. The intersection of Spanish, indigenous, and Caribbean culture has led to a diverse population with its own unique hierarchy that I was unsure how to navigate and yet simultaneously felt familiar. Whiteness is valued and respected highly there, and much of the wealth lies with that population. But at the same time, I feel like there was a higher level of diversity than I am used to, even in New York. It was a different and somewhat uncomfortable experience for me to stand out for being one of the few light-skinned people in a room. And I am pale and sunburn easily and have red hair, so I REALLY stood out. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. For all I know, no one noticed me at all and I need to work on being less self-conscious and more comfortable being in diverse spaces.
I was also very conscious of the women in Cartagena. Short dresses in heels were everywhere, along with stores selling bikinis and accessories for the beach. It’s a different kind of woman than those I read about in The Dark Bride. These women have formed their own small community and rely on each other for support in a society where their presence and professions are frowned upon but tolerated. They come together and fight a government attempting to exploit them. It was bittersweet to me to read about this camaraderie. I have close female friends and feel a strong bond with them, but women are so often taught to compete against one another when it comes to looks, wealth, and marital status. There is a fend for yourself attitude that can be exhausting, and I wonder what life would be like with that level of commitment to a group of women. The portrayal of prostitution was also interesting to me. On the surface, most of the women defended their livelihood and their decision to stick with it, but how much of that is actual choice and how much of that is circumstance? How much are any of our choices driven by circumstance? It makes me consider the debate about if prostitution should be legal. I am all for protecting women and advocating for their health care, but when I think about the women who did not choose prostitution, is legalization the way to go? I do not have any answers to these questions, and it is a much more complicated topic than what can be addressed in a blog post (or at least, this blog post). But this book pushed me to grapple with these questions in a way that I hadn’t before, which made me enjoy the experience of reading it even more. I’m looking forward to reading more of Restrepo’s books and learning more about her country through her writing.