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A Memoir

by Emma Reyes ; translated by Daniel Alarcón

Pub Date: Aug. 8th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-14-310868-9
Publisher: Penguin

An artist’s epistolary girlhood memoir of abandonment, poverty, and survival.

The very existence of this book, notes Alarcón in his introduction, is remarkable—perhaps more so than what is in it. As a Colombian native who established herself as a painter in Europe, Reyes didn’t know how to read or write when most of the events occurred. She never knew her father and didn’t know her mother was her mother. One day, a boy “asked me if I had a dad and a mom, and I asked him what those were, and he said he didn’t know either.” Reyes spent much of her early life locked in rooms, watched by no one, even taking care of the infant son born to the woman she didn’t know was her mother—until the woman abandoned that boy when the author was 4: “That day remains, without a doubt, the cruelest of my life.” Reyes and her sister would soon be next, reluctantly taken in by a convent, where they were continually questioned about their lineage; if they had been born in sin, they couldn’t be baptized, confirmed, and saved. But they could be exploited, made to do the work that was beneath the others and accepting their fate “because we were daughters of the street, because we were poor, because we were stupid, despicable, pitiful beings.” Reyes spent 15 formative years there, praying in a Latin she didn’t understand but was forced to memorize in order to escape a hell that seemed all too real. The memoir ends on the verge of her leaving, giving no hint of the extraordinary life that would involve close friendships with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, “as part of a Latin American and European cultural elite.” She mesmerized her friends with stories of her childhood, and one of them suggested that she write them down. This book is the result, posthumously published in 2012 to great acclaim in her native Colombia.

An unsentimental and inspiring depiction of rising out of atrocious circumstances.