On Monday, Nov. 29, Jordan Salama ’19 visited Princeton’s J-Lats student group for a discussion of his new book, Every Day the River Changes. Written as an extension of his thesis in the Spanish and Portuguese department, the book describes his time exploring Colombia’s Magdelena River amid an important political and cultural transition. He also spoke at Campus Club on Tuesday, Dec. 7, in a conversation with professor Christina Lee of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
Salama sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss his reflections on the river, his writing process, and the future of Colombia. This transcript has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
The Daily Princetonian: An old woman once told you that “to understand the river is to understand the country.” If you can, talk about how you first came to understand the Magdalena River.
Jordan Salama: When I was in my first year at Princeton, I knew that I wanted to write, but I didn't necessarily know what kind of writer I wanted to be. I thought that I wanted to work in television. I tried fiction; I'm terrible at writing fiction. But I also had a great interest in Latin America and the environment.
The summer after my freshman year, I was given an opportunity through funding from Princeton to do an informal internship with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs all of the zoos and aquariums in New York but also has a conservation project in countries all around the world. I was talking with their Latin American team, and one day, I got a call. There was an opportunity for me to go to Colombia if I wanted to in August of 2016. I said “yes” immediately, though not thinking about what that would entail.
A lot of people were nervous for me, and I didn't necessarily realize how nervous I should have been for myself, because Colombia at that time was very much in transition out of conflict. The one person who really encouraged me to go was a family friend, Sandra. When I called her to tell her that I had this opportunity, she said, “Oh my God, you should stay with my 96-year-old grandmother in her house. She’ll take care of you.” And when I showed up, this grandmother was very kind, but she locked the door at 7 p.m. every night when she went to bed, and I couldn't leave the house after the sun went down. It was her way of keeping me safe.
That's when I started keeping journals, taking notes of my encounters and who I met and what I saw during the day. I realized that Colombia has a huge amount of diversity of people, but also a biodiversity; it’s the second-most biodiverse country in the world, filled with a kaleidoscope of landscapes and species. I realized, too, that there was a big story to be told in this country that was going through a transition and what it meant for all of its people, communities, and also the different natural worlds that Colombia encompasses.
When it came time for me to do my senior thesis at Princeton, I looked back at those journals that I wrote in Sandra's grandmother's house in Cali [Colombian city]. I was reminded that there was this elderly woman which I referenced in the book, who mentioned to me that if I wanted to understand Colombia, there is this river — a cross section through all of this diversity. And that's how I realized that I wanted to understand the Magdalena, because in reality, what I wanted to do was understand this country that really encompasses many, many different countries and many different people's communities. A river has lots of power, I think, as a connecting thread among disparate peoples and cultures.
DP: There was a striking moment during your J-Lats talk when somebody asked you what your favorite part of writing was. You then replied, “I hate writing.” When you were locked in that house with Sandra’s grandmother, why was your impulse to sit down and write about the river?
JS: I actually love taking notes in a notebook. After a long day of stimulation and new experiences, I love recording them, because I think so much of the work of a writer, especially a nonfiction writer, is to preserve fleeting moments of beauty that happen every day.
What I don't love as much is after the adventure is over, and I have to sit down at my desk and put all of those experiences and notes into something that somebody else will read. It’s just really hard, and so much of my time “writing” is staring at the blank page and not knowing what to do. But somehow it always works itself out.
DP: While you were at Princeton, you took John McPhee’s [’53] Creative Nonfiction course. How did that class inform your experience in Colombia?
JS: It was probably the most formative course that I took in college, because it opened my eyes to a new way of writing and thinking about the world. It sounds silly now to say it, but I didn't really know what creative nonfiction was before I took John McPhee’s class. His class taught me that there is a genre in which stories that are completely rooted in fact can also be as enjoyable and as entertaining and informative all at once as a piece of fiction writing.
DP: Unlike much of McPhee’s writing — I’m thinking of A Sense of Where You Are, Oranges, and The Headmaster, for example — you are not as much a background presence in your book as you are a central character, serving equal parts as a narrator and interlocutor. What inspired that choice for you?
JS: When I was writing it as my thesis, my impulse was to be the background character — again, because I've learned from John McPhee, and that's one of the things that he emphasizes a lot. But I think that where the world is going in terms of readership, people are aching for personal connections to places and to people that are different from them. It's a beautiful thing, if done correctly and well, to be that bridge for people.
DP: Why do you think that people should care about the Magdalena River?
JS: Oh, lots of reasons. But I think that there are two schools of thought on this. One is that people are generally interested in places that are deeply steeped in traditions of storytelling, whether through legends or present-day amazing stories. Colombia is filled with these stories. There are an unbelievable quantity of tales that people tell along this river, which is a really special thing in itself.
But also thinking more on a more global scale, this river cuts through some of the most biodiverse landscapes on earth — everything from vital carbon sinks for fighting climate change to mountains that harbor some of the rarest species in the world. How should we not as a global community care about these places that are very much under threat? And how, as a global community, can we support them?
DP: Almost more so than the river itself, the people along the Magdelena are the beating heart of your book. In talking with them, you come to understand both the river and the country. You learned about the myths surrounding the river from this young boy on a tree stump, for example, and discussed the art of filigree with a man who had been making jewelry for decades. How did you learn to ask better questions over the course of your journey?
JS: When I show up to a place like the Magdalena, it’s very rare that I come with specific questions so much as I try to immerse myself in people's lives and just have conversations. Then I’ll exchange stories about myself so that people feel more comfortable sharing their own stories. By nature of spending several days with a person or a family, you can go deep, and then inevitably, they will say, “Well, if you're interested in this kind of story, you should talk to X person.” That's how I can find whom to speak with next.
DP: What's one example of that happening in a surprising or interesting way?
JS: Well, you mentioned the filigree jeweler. I didn't know that he was going to be a part of the book. I didn't go to Mompox with him in mind as somebody whom I wanted to interview. What I did know was that this town had an incredible history; it was kind of forgotten by the river as it changed course, and I wanted to explore how that affected society in different ways. A lady I was staying with mentioned in passing that there was an amazing elderly filigree jeweler who worked on his front porch for something like 75 years. Immediately when you hear something like that, a light bulb goes off in your head — you're like, I need to meet this man. So one morning, I walked over there, and he was making his filigree. I sat down right next to him, and the whole day, I just kind of talked to him and watched as he did his work.
DP: A fair amount of your book is also about the effects of climate change in Colombia. What were some of the signs of climate change that you saw along the river?
JS: Everything from drought to floods to things that aren’t climate change, but which are all tied into the same environmental issues. It's fisheries being depleted, species being eradicated because of poaching. And of course, towns that are so hot that you can never imagine them getting any hotter because they were already so insufferable and oppressive and unhealthy. These are the communities that will continue to be most affected as the years go on.
DP: If you were to write another book on Colombia, what would you write about?
JS: The Magdalena is a very musical river. If there had been any one topic that I could have included more in the book, it would have been how so much of Latin music has arisen from stylings that were born along the banks of this river and the rivers around it. Colombian music is really interesting to me now as a result. I would love to do something where I could interview different musical artists from the country and explore how their work exists in conversation with social and cultural environmental issues that the country faces as a whole.
Anna Salvatore is a news contributor for the 'Prince.' She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.