The Book of Emma Reyes is nothing short of a revelation. Written by Colombian painter Emma Reyes (translated by Daniel Alarcón), it is a searing portrait of poverty, neglect, abandonment, and harsh conditions. The book was written as an epistolary memoir consisting of 23 letters Reyes penned to Colombian historian Germán Arciniegas over the span of three decades. Raised in Bogota and later Guateque, Reyes endured a life characterized by squalor and neglect but one that also reflects the human condition. With an astonishing tone and voice that puts us inside the mind of young Emma from ages 4 through 19 when she runs away from the convent.
To put it mildly, I was aghast at the sheer misfortune, loss, and neglect but also awed by the humor and innocence.
In the book’s introduction Alarcón recalls how the original version of Reyes (published in 2012) was put in his hands with the admonition to read it. He did more than that ensuring its translation and publication in the U.S. in 2017. The book itself came to fruition in the late 1960s when Arciniegas encouraged Reyes to tell her life story in letter form. Perhaps serendipitously the book landed in the hands of Gabriel García Márquez, a peer of Arciniegas, who then wrote to Reyes about her outstanding letters. But rather than being pleasantly surprised by the accolades heaped on her by García Márquez, Reyes expressed betrayal and thus refused to write any more letters to Arciniegas for more than 20 years! Fortunately, Reyes returned to her letter writing in the mid-1990s after a 20 year hiatus.
Emma Reyes’ life was bleak to say the least. She endured unbelievable poverty involving scant daily sustenance, neglect, and cruel treatment. The poverty became all too apparent in the first letter which detailed the neighborhood playground at the local refuse site. With no real toys of any kind, she fashioned a toy figurine out of the clay mud. Soon thereafter, all of the local street kids learned to play with the figurine named General Rebolllo. Eventually when the children lost interest in the figurine he was declared dead. Of the turn of events, Reyes notes,
“In circumstances like the ones in which we lived, one is born knowing what hunger, cold, and death mean.”
The loss understood at such a young age is heartbreaking but seems the cultural norm to Reyes and her peers as conveyed by the letter.
A selection of art by Emma Reyes (1919-2003)
Later letters reflect abandonment by a mother written detachedly by the name “Miss Maria.” Besides being abandoned, her mother gives up two unwanted boys, one a mere baby which Reyes bonded with. In spare but beautiful prose, Reyes recounts the abandonment of the second child and the ache it caused her:
“I think I learned that a child of four is already capable of feeling that if they no longer want to live, that they should be swallowed by the earth’s bowels.”
In addition to stirring powerful emotions some of the prose is poetic. It was difficult to remember that Reyes was virtually illiterate for the first 20 years of her life. Nevertheless, she was treated scarcely better in the convent where she resided for at least a dozen years before ultimately running away.
There are moments of humor and insight in the wake of the acute poverty, however. There are descriptions of witnessing her first automobile, described in child-like language as
“a horrific black monster advancing toward the center of the plaza. Its enormous wide-open eyes were yellowish and so bright they lit up half the plaza.”
Because Reyes is raised without religion or any sense of the world, she writes innocently of the Nativity story which she describes as a story about a boy named Jesus raised by three fathers—one, a carpenter named Jose; another who was a rich, bearded man who lived in the sky; and a third who wasn’t a man “but a dove who flew all the time.” Reyes and her sister climbed the highest tree, conveying to the nuns that they were trying to view Jesus who they were told now lived in Heaven. Whilst spending more than a dozen years living in a convent up to about age 20; this period of life proves little better than the abject poverty she experienced while living with her mother. Years of labor from cleaning the altar to executing intricate embroidery for priests’ chasubles typifies her cloistered life in the convent.
Her illustrious art career began in Buenos Aires in the 1940s; having had no formal training until receiving an art scholarship to study in Paris. She travelled to Mexico in the 1950s, becoming fast friends with Diego Rivera and serving as his assistant. Receiving art training from Enrico Prampolini in Rome, Reyes experimented with abstract geometric styles. Later in her career in the 1970s-1980s, she incorporated line art. It was while in Mexico and Paris that Reyes encircled herself with intellectuals and other artists. Some refer to her as the “godmother of Latin American art” because of her participation in such circles.
In this compact memoir of less than 200 pages we are introduced to an extraordinary life, often difficult to read of such stark circumstances, but a testament to Reyes’ humanity.
The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir
By Emma Reyes
Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Alarcón
192 Pages. 2018.