Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (2012, Penguin Random House) was the first Spanish-language book I read in a fairly long time that wasn’t a pain to finish. Even though reading in Spanish is no big deal for me, I often have difficulties in finding my way into the books. Not so this time, because I almost devoured this novel in less then a week. Funny coincidence: I did so mostly at cafés or restaurants, which might have helped in the creation of atmosphere. Funny because the story is structured in twelve recipes, each belonging to a specific event in the life of Tita, the youngest of three sisters in a matriarchic household of rural Mexico during the revolution.
In Como agua…, Esquivel tells the love story between Tita and Pedro, who are not allowed to marry because Tita, as the youngest daughter, is obliged to stay with her mother as long as she lives. Pedro then marries her older sister to be close to her. The rest is family life at its best, lots of conflicts, lots of secrets, some miraculous deaths, and a considerable number of love stories on the side, including occasional pregnancies. I admit the final choice Tita makes didn’t convince me, especially because Pedro turns into a jealous nagger, and their first love-making isn’t exactly built on consent. Also, the ending is a little too much of magical realism for my taste. But let’s say that until chapter eleven, Como agua para chocolate is a fascinating and entertaining read.
How did I come across the book?
I was given a gift certificate for a book store for Christmas, and wanted to invert in female Colombian authors only. That plan didn’t work out for various reasons, so I ended up adding female authors from other Spanish-speaking countries, and ultimately, male Colombian authors, as well. (So be prepared for the next reviews!)
When and where did I read it?
As I said, mostly in cafés or restaurants in Bogota, but also before going to bed. It took me less then a week to finish.
Cada persona tiene que descubrir cuáles son sus detonadores para poder vivir, pues la combustión que se produce al encenderse uno de ellos es lo que nutre de energía el alma. (p. 102)
Children and the Afterlife of State Violence. Memories of Dictatorship (Palgrave Macmillian, 2016) is based on the doctiral thesis of Daniela Jara. It treats transgenerational transmissions of memory in affective terms in the Chilean context. Through individual and group interviews, Jara opens up the discussions about the transmission of historical trauma in family contexts. She does, however, not understand the family as a necessary unit for investigation, but rather, an ideal case for the observation of affective transmission. The book is full of amazing stories and interpretations about growing up during the dictatorship (1973-1990), and what consequences a culture of fear can have on the communicative patterns among family members and with outsiders. The book is especially concerned with descendants of the disappeared and political prisoners.
When and where did I read it?
During a very intense week, in which I read two more works on transgenerational transmission of memories, watched several documentaries of the so-called post-generations of different Latin American countries, and mixed these with a soap opera about a family in the German Democratic Republic.
How did I come across the book?
I was searching for books to review for a special issue of a journal edited by some of the MemoriAL people. I wanted to connect different books on the topic of transgenerational memories, and was lucky enough to find several (upcomming!).
Era como si Dios hubiera resuelto poner a prueba toda capacidad de asombro, y mantuviera a los habitantes de Macondo en un permanente vaivén entre el alborozo y el desencanto, la duda y la revelación, hasta el extremo de que nadie podía saber a ciencia cierta dónde estaban los límites de la realidad.
Gabriel García Márquez
When on October 2nd Colombians were asked to vote for the Peace Agreement established between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the ficticious Macondo once again became the more real reference for Colombia, as shown in the now viral quote from A Hundred Years of Solitude by Colombian Nobel Price winner Gabriel García Márquez. Only when taking into account the emotions on the sides of all parties involved can we get closer to understanding why a tiny majority of voters pronounced themselves against the agreement.
Shock and Disappointment
Sunday evening, October 2nd, my husband and I sit in front of the computer screen, live-checking the results of the plebiscite. When the first numbers come in, we are relieved: approximately 53% Yes-votes, only the quorum of about 4,5 million has to be reached. Every five to ten minutes now there is new data, and the quorum is soon reached. However, the advantage of Yes-votes becomes smaller and smaller. The urban centers are almost completely done counting. Incredulously we hit the refresh-button, hectically browsing the regions hoping to find a place were there are still many votes to count. When at 1am over 99% of the votes are in, it becomes clear that those who voted at all – a mere 37,4% – decided with a tiny advantage to dismiss the agreement. Silence surrounds the otherwise buzzing family whatsapp chat, and I see many stunned comments from friends of mine on facebook. Nobody really understands what just happened. Why would you revoke a peace agreement?
Many of my acquaintances and relatives are surely not ardent worshipers of the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. Nevertheless, they all agreed in that this vote had nothing to do with voting for or against the current government, but to express general support for the efforts made to reach peace with the FARC. Especially in the urban centers, the conflict has become less and less visible. The more affected regions majorly voted for peace, while the people in the cities were skeptical.
Many have resigned to insecurity, or don’t even know peace, since the conflict goes on for decades. When the media cite 52 years as the duration of conflict, what they mean is the conflict with the FARC, who orginated in 1964. The historical, social, political and economic context that has fueled their existence, however, is rarely mentioned. The enormous inequality in income distribution, conflicts about landownership, drug trafficking and paramilitarism are as well part of this conflict. They are deeply rooted in Colombian history and often don’t figure prominently in media coverage about the FARC. In the almost 300 pages of the agreement, these aspects are mentioned , but many Colombians doubt whether the regulations – especially concerning drug trade and organized crime – can actually be implemented. The rural population’s hopes for peace are counterbalanced by the doubts and fears of a mayority of urban residents.
Jealousy and Fear
For many, especially the maximum sentences for human rights abuses and the right to political participation of the future ex-guerriller@s was a key issue. Also, many opposed the promised financial support from the state to reintegrate ex-combatants into a civilian life. But the campaign of the No! did also manipulate voters from the less affected cities with purposeful and systematic misinformation. The post-truth election battle was characterized by laments on how the “gender ideology” would destroy the “traditional family structures”, or that the country would sure fall prey to communism should the agreement be ratified by the voters. It simply did not matter that none of these issues were actually part of the agreement. Often, the No! votes were based on a feelingt of greed: “Why should they get this much money from the State when I myself have to struggle to survive?” “Why are they allowed to particpate in congress, when nobody asks me for my opinion?” “Why don’t they have to go to jail, when I am prosecuted for every oh-so-little offence?” And even if these questions are based on a wrong understanding of the issues accorded in the peace treaty, they do offer insights into how people are feeling. And many historical injustices will persiste even under the agreement . Fear, greed, anger and defiance are all expressions of a diffuse feeling of disadvantage, whose relevance for peace research became painfully obvious with the victory of the “No”.
But a permant cease-fire and the decommissioning of the FARC would be a great advance, especially in those parts of the country where the armed conflict is still a reality. Which is why many people in the cities took to the streets to demonstrate for the agreement after the first shock about the “No” had passed. It was a new feeling of solidarity and joint fighting that found its expression on the streets. In Bogota alone, 40.000 people participated in the third March of Silence, thereby aligning themselves with a tradition of silent protest . When on October 7th, the Nobel committee anounced Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos as the laurate for the Nobel peace prize, euphoria was back. The sign from the international community to not give up now brought back hope and courage to many deceptioned “Yes”-voters. The “back and forth between rejoice and deception, between doubts and revelations” will likely continue a little longer, but the people of Macondo are determined to break down the limits of reality to reach peace.
 A German Version of this text was published on Friedensakademie-Blog.
 The complete Spanish text can be found here: https://www.mesadeconversaciones.com.co/sites/default/files/24_08_2016acuerdofinalfinalfinal-1472094587.pdf (last accessed: 13.10.2016).
 See also the report about voters in Ciudad Bolivar (one of the poorest neighborhoods of Bogota with a high amount of displaced persons, who – in contrast to most other strongly affected regions – majorly voted “No”) from Colombian newspaper El Espectador: http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/paz/un-no-hacerse-escuchar-articulo-659274 (last accessed: 14.10.2016).
 The first March of Silence took place on February 07th, 1948, to protest violence against members and supporters of the Liberal Party. The second March was convened on August 25th, 1989 after the Liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán was killed.
“To be a good teacher, you have to be part stand-up comic, part door-to-door salesman, part expert, part counselor.” – Bob Solomon
Halfway through the semester, it’s evaluation time again! And just because I like my seminar, that doesn’t mean my students do, too, especially considering that lately I forced them through tough theoretical readings and noticed an increasing disatisfaction on their parts. But, and that might be worse, I also noted an increasing disatisfaction on my part, because discussions would become slow and time and again they tried to force me to give them some ready-made answers to questions where “it depends”. Plus, many times I just feel they prefer to stick with their preconceptual ideas of affect, when for 8 weeks now we’re actually reading different approaches they could chose from to have a fruitful discussion. However, I also see evaluation as an opportunity to reassess my expectations and impressions of my performance, because in the end the important thing is that we all learn something from this.
So yesterday I handed out the evaluation sheets, and shockingly got the results back this morning already. I was hoping for some time to digest, especially since yesterday’s session wasn’t what I would call a complete success. Now the reason I got the sheets back so early is because they’re computer-based and converted into statistics, and my report is now full of colorful lines and circles which I feel I would need an introductory seminar to statistics to actually fully grasp. But then again, there’s the comment sections, and these do time and again offer clues on what the lines and circles might mean. First of all, let’s say it worked out fine, I’m mostly above average, which I think is great considering the international (50% are exchange students!) and interdisciplinary backgrounds (there is even a sport science student!) of my students and the demanding readings, and especially that this is the first seminar I invented all by myself.
What I learn from this, is that I have to continue thinking about how to make my learning philosophy much clearer, because my students want “clear” and “exact” answers, when I want them to learn that precisely those do not exist in many of the texts we’re reading and the problems we’re working on. In a similar vein, this goes for me chairing the discussions. I do not like to interupt people in class, and of course I do not have something to say about every comment they make. But for them, this might often look like I don’t care, or don’t moderate strictly enough. So I’ll have a look at the university’s advanced vocational trainings on these issues. Overall, the survey left me quite motivated, however, and I will try my best to make some concepts a little clearer in the next sessions. Also, there was this one comment that really gave me the feels: “This is one of the best seminars I have ever had. (…) You’re a wonderful and inspiring instructor. This is university as it should be.” How would I not want to make the most if this class now?
Sensuous Scholarship by Paul Stoller (1997, University of Pennsylvania Press) partly comes across as one of the many stories I hated when I started studying Anthropology. Curiously, stories about far away people in far away places doing nearly everything very differently from what I had known were difficult to read for me. For a long time, I didn’t quite see any sense in reading about shamanic rituals in Central African villages or time conceptions in the Brazilian Amazon. But as with good wine, good scholarship also has to mature, I assume. So I ended up enjoying stories about far away places and discovering similarities, or better even, different approaches to same problems that offer new perspectives on my own culture.
The intention behind Sensuous Scholarship is not first of all to engage the reader with far away places, but much more to advocate for a different, less text-based kind of scholarship. Now this is not to say that it is less of a scholarly work – the biggest deception for me was precisely this: it is just another averagely scientific text. Even in the central part of the book, where Stoller writes about the connections between body and memory and how the past becomes embodied memory, he stays well behind Michael Taussig’s eye-opening essay History as Sorcery (1984 [!]). What I had hoped for, was a little more sensuousness in language, too, that would support the idea that “the world, for the sensuous scholar, remains a wondrous place that stirs the imagination and sparks creativity” (p.136).
How did I come across the book?
Searching for methodological approaches to researching affect, it sounded like a catch. Plus, it had a section on memory and the body.
When and where did I read it?
Mid-january, two-day home-office session while trying to write a synopsis of my research project.
At some point – I was already giving up a little on the book, because I felt it didn’t move me in the way I had hoped for – this passage struck me as revealing:
Lying unconscious on the dune, Chefferi’s being is momentarily lost between the worlds, between the Red Sea and Tillaberi, between the colonial past and the postcolonial present, between his presence and that of his medium. So it is when Hauka spirits encounter themselves and others in the netherworld between possession and “conscious”.
Chefferi is neither “European” nor African; he is neither man nor woman, Christian nor Muslim. (p.72f)
And I came to think that maybe what I am searching in my readings about far away places – beside some theoretical insights for my own projects – are those moments of human encounter, in which difference disappears for just a brief moment, and through whatever means, (in this case, spirit possession,) and people connect with each other on a different level, on a level where it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you understand.
The Vulnerable Observer by Ruth Behar (1996, Beacon Press) is a mixture of memoir and diasporic ethnography, or maybe more precisely one that crosses borders, both geographically and in genre. The collection of six essays covers a remarkable range of topics: memory, trauma, death rites, classism, racism, feminism, and, most importantly, lessons on how to write and become a good observer. An observer that is touched and committed, and who has no fear of being moved by the stories she comes to know and engage in. Half of the essays have already been published elsewhere, however, especially the one giving the book its title is already another classic on anthropological practice and writing. I was also especially touched by the invisible border that divides the life of two women in My Mexican Friend Marta Who Lives across the Border from Me in Detroit, and the longtime traumatizing effect a childhood injury can have on ones life in The Girl in the Cast. The last one, Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, is a plea for an anthropology that engages and embraces feeling, while at the same time defending another classic in anthropological writing on affect, namely Renato Rosaldo’s Grief and a Headhunter’s Rage.
How did I come across the book?
I’ve known the title for years, and always wanted to read it at some point. Now that I am preparing a seminar for undergraduate students, I could finally get it done. I’m still not sure which of the essays will go into the syllabus, because many offer possibilities on discussing the ways affect works in anthropology.
When and where did I read it?
At work, for work. I read each essay on its own, so it’s been six days in total. One could possibly make it in one session, but since the stories are deeply moving, I preferred to take it slow – you’ve been warned.
The programmatic final of the book can indeed be taken as a poignant summary:
Call it sentimental, call it Victorian and nineteenth century, but I say that anthropology that doesn’t break your heart just isn’t worth doing anymore. (p. 177)