Set in a tumultuous time of Colombia’s history, Vanessa Blakeslee’s novel Juventud explores the equally complex relationships between Mercedes, a young privileged teen in love for the first time; her father, a secretive man with a dark and crime-filled past that Mercedes has only heard whisperings about; her boyfriend Manuel, a young believer seeking changes for his nation; and her mother, a woman living in America whom she hasn’t seen since she was a baby. A dizzying and heart-rendering tale of the complications between these relationships, Juventud exposes the longings of young idealists and the pressures set upon us to protect the ones we love.
I spoke to Blakeslee about the story of Columbia, the dangers of first impression, the way she’s learned to shoot a gun and more:
Kati Heng: Your novel Juventud not only takes place in, but is entirely connected to the story of Colombia itself. What is your connection to Colombia? What about the country fascinates you?
Vanessa Blakeslee: At Rollins College I became acquainted with several students from Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. They told stories of getting driven around by private chauffeurs in armed cars, having maids dress them until they were twelve; one young woman in particular, from Colombia, told a harrowing story of how she believed her father had somehow been involved in a tragic incident with her first love, after which she was convinced to finish her studies in the U.S. Her story in particular sparked the premise for Juventud, bolstered by my brief stint as an American expat in Costa Rica in 2008. There, I met more Colombians who had fled their homeland in the tumultuous decades before, my landlady included. I’ve never been to Colombia, but my travels in Central America and other developing countries influenced the book.
Colombia became more fascinating as I researched. I became riveted and appalled by the history of U.S. involvement there. The most surprising and disturbing facts I learned concerned the paramilitary atrocities of the 90s and early 2000s. In the US, we have been led to believe that the FARC and ELN guerillas were the most brutal forces to contend with, the “enemy” so to speak – when in fact the “paras” carried out just as many terrorist tactics, if not the majority. Yet the mainstream media remains silent on these privately-funded, unofficial “armies” who carry out the dirty work of politicians, the wealthy and multinational corporations against the poor. I was also keenly aware that many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, maybe the FARC, but little else. In Juventud, even though the characters are fictitious, Manuel’s idealism, Diego’s protectiveness, and Mercedes’ suspicions are all informed by real events.
I’d love to travel to Colombia, should the opportunity and funding arise. To discuss the book with audiences for whom the events may have very well touched lives would be extraordinary.
KH: In the story, protagonist Mercedes has a major moment learning to shoot a gun, to be able to defend herself. Have you ever learned to use a gun?
VB: I have shot guns on a number of occasions, from the 9mm handgun used by Mercedes and Fidel to an assortment of rifles, and I have target-practiced in both shooting ranges and outdoors, on the rural properties of friends and family—shooting cans and that type of thing. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania amidst uncles and cousins who are avid hunters, and so was familiar with guns from the time I was very young. The few times I’ve target-practiced I was actually a decent shot, which is pretty funny considering that I am a nerdy bookworm who would choose an afternoon spent at the Musee D’Orsay over one at Shoot Straight any day.
What I have learned from my limited experience shooting guns is that they are incredibly serious business; they are tools with one clear aim, and that is to kill, and you can’t escape this fact whether you are aiming at a cutout of a human or an aluminum can. But when I mean serious business, I mean exactly that—as wary as I am of guns, I believe they have their place, and it’s terribly naïve to think they don’t. If society ever breaks down and hipster city-dwellers are ever forced into the rural countryside to survive, the fact of the matter is that all the well-intentioned veganism would be out the window pretty quickly, and you’d have to kill animals to survive, never mind defense against those who’d want to steal what you have. If it ever comes down to that, then my cousins who know how to shoot and skin game will survive, and my eccentric intellectual friends and I won’t. So I’d be interested in learning how to shoot and kill for survival purposes, and that’s about it. But it’s not high on my bucket list anytime soon!
KH: A big part of the story revolves around Mercedes connection to know her mother, whom she doesn’t get to meet until she’s 16. Can you tell me a little bit about the dynamic of “the grass is always greener” when it comes to people?
VB: I haven’t had the experience of meeting a long-lost or estranged family member, but for a young adult Mercedes, I well imagine, it’d be difficult for her not to be hoping for a Hallmark card moment in reuniting with her mother, even if Mercedes knows better. I believe we live in an age now where the siren call of “the grass is always greener” allures more than ever, because the Internet offers a seemingly endless array of choices. We’re convinced a more satisfying connection is one swipe or click away on our social networking profiles, when the truth is, getting to truly know a person takes a very long time. It takes a few months of regular, casual interaction just to see what his or her personality is on the surface—I’m not talking about fakeness here, per se, but rather, the social persona we wear among newcomers and acquaintances. Only after a few months of knowing someone socially are you able to really see patterns and where another person is coming from on a deeper level.
Now, you may be able to observe certain red flags by how someone treats a waiter, but outside of red flags, human beings reveal themselves over a long period of time, and a certain level of commitment is required to reap the longstanding rewards of intimacy, whether that intimacy is romantic, platonic, or familial. I fear for many of those who flit from one person to another believing the “grass is greener,” that such individuals will end up perhaps not alone, exactly, but having greatly overlooked some extraordinary souls who take getting longer to know.
KH: So many of the problems between Mercedes and her parents result because of the secretive nature of her father. Sometimes, the secrets are kept to protect her from his past; sometimes, secrets are kept in order to allow her to grow up and figure life out on her own. How open do you think a parent should be? Some secrets, no secrets?
VB: Discretion and the revelation of secrets from parent to child probably depends on a few factors, not the least of which would be the child’s age. But once a child is old enough to understand certain facts, it’s probably more harmful to keep the information secret than disclose. Does Diego, the father of Mercedes, go overboard in keeping his secrets, and protecting his daughter from knowing what’s really going on around her? I sense that in his case, he felt certain that once he divulged one thing about her uncles or grandparents, for instance, that would only lead to more questions—the explanations impossible for a young daughter to comprehend. So he just decided, forget it, she doesn’t need to know anything, at least not until she’s grown-up, or nearly. But I wonder if he ever would have been forthcoming about any of his past if Mercedes didn’t bring it up and insist on answers.
KH: What are your bookshelves like? Do you alphabetize or sort by category? What books have you had since you were a teenager? What books are by your bed right now?
VB: My bookshelves are only somewhat categorized, and by no means alphabetical. I have a set of shelves dedicated to story collections and anthologies, another to novels, and a separate set of shelves by my desk which hold all of my craft books and teaching resources. Books I’ve had since my teenage years would include all of Austen and most of Dickens. Beside my bed I have the never-ending stack I hope to get to sooner than later—right now, Ann Hood’s The Italian Wife and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which I’m nearly through. Lately I find I am either not reading at all, or I enter a period where I’m reading three books at once, plus a nonfiction title on my Kindle. Throughout the house I have ARCs scattered here and there of books I’m slated to review. I live and create within an organized mess.