Introducing ‘The Book Of Emma Reyes’

August’s Babbel Book Club pick is the memoir of a Colombian painter who escaped an impoverished childhood and found success.
Book of Emma Reyes

Welcome to August! As we enter the hottest time of the year, we’re heading to Colombia for a memoir by Emma Reyes, a successful but fairly unknown painter during the 20th century. The Book of Emma Reyes is the painter’s personal recounting of her journey through childhood, where she faced abject poverty and parental neglect. It’s a deeply moving look at an artist’s early life.

To start, here’s a brief overview of the book. And if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!

The Book

There is a myth about art, which is that only those who are tortured are capable of making really great work. Fortunately, this idea has been widely debunked, as it’s harmful to aspiring artists. There are plenty of painters and writers who were affluent throughout their lives and managed to make popular art. Yet it is often those who have faced strife and overcome it who can best enlighten others on what it means to be alive. In beautiful prose, The Book of Emma Reyes does just that.

Reyes is a painter, not a writer, and so this book is not a typical memoir. It’s a collection of letters Reyes sent to historian Germán Arciénagas, who had asked Reyes to write him about her life. She acquiesced and sent him several letters about her childhood in Bogotá, Colombia, which she was far removed from by the time she was writing. The memoir is filled with anecdotes from her life, about her mother’s abandonment of her and her life in a convent thereafter. Despite the benefit of hindsight, Reyes doesn’t use her letters for much self-reflection. Instead, she tells her story from the perspective of her childhood self. Observations are presented to the reader and not commented on, so you are left to form your own ideas of Reyes’ childhood. It is not the most uplifting bildungsroman, admittedly, but it is wonderfully written and ultimately hopeful.

The Author

As mentioned, Emma Reyes is not really a household name. She was connected with household names, however, including Gabriel García Márquez and her friend Frida Kahlo. Born into poverty in 1919, she eventually moved from Colombia to France in order to study art. In the 1950s, Reyes worked with Diego Rivera, a famous Mexican painter who introduced her to the international art world. These connections would cement her place in the artistic canon. Her artistic career started by painting scenes that evoked her home in Colombia, but eventually moved into more abstract art later in life.

During her lifetime, Reyes did not have much writing published, instead focusing on her visual art. When the historian she was writing to showed her letters to someone else, she stopped writing to him for two decades. This book was published only posthumously, as she had requested, first appearing in Colombia in 2012, nine years after her death. Reyes claimed to not be a writer, but this book was met with widespread acclaim and has cemented her legacy as a notable memoirist.

The Translator

Peruvian-American novelist Daniel Alarcón translated this book from Spanish, and also provided a foreword. In this case, Alarcón has his own list of literary accomplishments, having published a number of popular fiction books, including Lost City Radio and The King Is Always Above the People. He is probably most famous, however, for hosting the podcast Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language response to This American Life that is produced by NPR. You can also read our interview with Carolina Guerrero, the CEO of Radio Ambulante and also Alarcón’s wife, here.

The Language

As the second most-spoken language in the United States and also in the whole world, Spanish probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. It’s a Romance language that developed on the Iberian peninsula, and it spread throughout the world because of the Spanish colonies established during the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s the official language of dozens of countries and is considered one of the most useful for Americans to learn because of how widespread it is.

It’s worth noting that not every Spanish is the same. Colombia has its own dialects, filled with various pronunciations and vocabulary. While this doesn’t affect a book in translation much, it’s still good to keep in mind for your own purposes.

Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the Spanish language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.

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