Alum’s novel sheds light on life in Colombia

The stories in fiction books often have the ability to transport us to new worlds, new experiences and new ways of thinking.


UW-Eau Claire alum, Alan Grostephan aims to do this in his new novel, “Bogotá.”


“Bogotá” pulls readers into the life of a family who moves to a shantytown on the outskirts of the capital city of Colombia during a time of extreme poverty, war and violence.


“Overall, it’s a book about lives that are kind of unlucky … They’re also just very invisible lives. They don’t get written about all that much, especially in fiction,” Grostephan said. “My real objective was to bring these characters to life and to do it in a way that was honest and interesting, and to give them value.”


Grostephan could not have written about these characters in the truthful and realistic way he does without meeting people like them during his three years of living in Bogotá, he said. While in Colombia, Grostephan taught at writing and theater workshops in a town called Cazucá. The workshops provided kids with educational atmospheres and creative outlets in which they could escape from dangerous home environments.


“I was interested in their stories,” Grostephan said. “I wanted them for myself, but I felt like I could help them and teach them how to tell those stories.”


This interest in teaching writing played a role in his move to Colombia in 2001. However, Grostephan’s love for Latin American culture and his desire to experience it rose out of a Latin American Literature class at UW-Eau Claire.


In the course, Grostephan traveled to unfamiliar places. These places and people gave him an excitement and understanding of Latin America, he said. Grostephan wrote “Bogotá” to “allow passage” for English-speaking American readers to Colombia, just as the books he read in college did for his younger self.


“It’s packed with sensory detail and concrete objects,” Grostephan said.


John Hildebrand, an English professor who taught Grostephan as an undergraduate, said the book accomplishes this task and gives the reader a sense of entering a new world.


“I think it’s a very exciting novel, “ Hildebrand said. “The prose is realistic and very vivid.”


At the beginning of the book, Grostephan describes the town of Cuturu.


“It looked peaceful enough tonight with two street lamps shining over orange brick houses on four streets, but it was a rotten town,” Grostenphan said. “The tallest building was the police station, freshly painted, but abandoned, with its red antenna, its razor wire looped high over layers of sandbags.”


Because of the harsh life in the slums, the novel does not have a happy ending, Grostephan said. This allows the reader to encounter lives that are completely different from the comfortable, secure lives that many affluent Americans are accustomed to, he said.


“I wanted readers to experience what (it’s) like to have potential, to have hope, to have pride and then to be constantly frustrated by your circumstances,” he said.


Grostephan read from “Bogotá” at The Blugold Visiting Writer Series English Alumni Reading at the Hibbard Penthouse on Wednesday. The reading, coordinated by English Fest co-advisor, Erica Benson, allowed Grostephan to come back to Eau Claire to showcase his work.


“It’s important to have alums come back and to be able to share their experiences with our current students,” Benson said.


Grostephan gives the reader the opportunity to take a journey through unfamiliar places and through the lives of people that are often not spoken about.