Words of Wisdom from Eduardo Galeano

Monday, June 15, 2009
Before this morning, I didn't know who Eduardo Galeano was. Now I know that he is a Uruguayan writer whose books have been banned in more than one South American country, but who seems to inspire many.

I intend on finding some of his books today, because of his essay is the Washington Post's (occasionally resurrected) Book World. It's part of the series that makes up one of my favorite books The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think And Work (not the one written by Annie Dillard, which I still have not read). More a series of anecdotes than an essay, there were three paragraphs that I wanted to tear out of the paper and keep with me always. I managed to tear two (worried that doing this on the Metro, I both looked bizarre and would get newsprint all over me), but accidentally threw out the third.

There is one about how is book saved a life, and another about how a book he wrote got past prison gaurds. But the ones that stuck with me are more universal. Here are the three anecdotes that could be carried in any writer's wallet, all of them difficult but worthy things to strive for.

  • A few years ago, at a school in Salta in the north of Argentina, I was reading stories to 8- and 9-year-olds. Afterward, the teacher asked the children to write to me, commenting on what I had read.One of the letters counseled: "Keep at it, you'll improve."
  • At one of my storytelling sessions, in the Spanish town of Ourense, a man in the back row kept staring at me, an unblinking, impassible mask. When the reading ended, he approached slowly, fixing me with his gaze as if he wanted to kill me. Fortunately, he didn't. Instead, he said, "It must be so hard to write so simply." And after that remark, the highest praise I have ever received, he turned on his heel and left.

  • The Bolivian town of Llallagua lived from the mine, and in the mine its miners died. Deep in the shafts in the bowels of the mountains, they hunted veins of tin and lost, in a few short years, their lungs and their lives. I spent some time there and made good friends.

The last night, we were drinking, my friends and I, singing laments and telling bad jokes till just before dawn.

When little time remained before the scream of the siren that would call them to work, my friends fell silent, all of them at once. Then one asked, or pleaded, or ordered: "And now, my brother, tell us about the sea."

I was speechless.

They insisted: "Tell us. Tell us about the sea."

It was the most difficult challenge in all my storytelling life. None of these miners would ever know the sea; each was doomed to die young. And I had no choice but to bring them the sea, the sea that was so far away, discovering words that could drench them to the bone.

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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

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