The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir in Correspondence

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Born into extreme poverty in Bogotá, Emma Reyes spent her childhood playing in the streets and garbage piles of her neighborhood. Living with her sister Helena and a terrifying woman they call Mrs. Maria, Emma receives little care or compassion until she and Helena are taken to a convent orphanage. There, they spend their days cleaning and sewing, under the ever-watchful eyes of the nuns.

Told in a straightforward and powerful voice, The Book of Emma Reyes is an extraordinary memoir told through letters that Reyes wrote over the course of three decades.

“If it’s true that certain moments in our childhood mark us forever, then that ride was one of them. It signaled the end of our lives in Barrio San Cristóbal (patron saint of travelers) and was the beginning of a life that would take me along America’s most difficult roads, and later the fabulous ones of Europe. The buggy took us to the Sabana station. Mrs. Maria didn’t say a word for the entire trip. She was so pale and sad that I asked her again if she was going to die, and with a wave of her hand she answered no. We rode along so many grand streets, past houses with balconies, and churches, that I didn’t know where to look.”

Emma Reyes was an artist whose work focused mainly on painting and drawing. She was born in Bogotá and spent most of her later life in Paris. After her death in 2003, she was named a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government.

Published: 2012
Length: 176 pages
Set in: Bogotá, Colombia
Translated by: Daniel Alarcón