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Meet the author:
Gwen Burnyeat

Could you tell us what events inspired your story and why you chose to write about them?

My current research focuses on lived experiences of political polarisation in post-peace accord Colombia, where I’ve worked for over fourteen years, speaking to a cross-section of people in different regions with different political orientations. I met the man I call Camilo at an event organised by the Truth Commission, a transitional justice institution created by the 2016 peace accord, in the conflict-torn region of Urabá. His intervention at this event caught my attention: he said he was the son of a cattle rancher assassinated by the FARC guerrilla, and was trying to build bridges between the right, who didn’t want to know anything about peace because they said it was a leftist political agenda, and the left, who didn’t want anything to do with the cattle-ranchers who had suffered in the war because they said they were supporters of right-wing paramilitaries. ‘I’m stuck between two worlds’, he said. I thought these words encapsulated the battlelines that remain in the wake of the peace accord between political identities shaped by war. Afterwards, I spent a day with Camilo in his hometown, listening to his life story, and we’ve kept in touch since.

You pay special attention to the affective relationship between Camilo and his family, especially his mother. How do you think prose fiction can emphasize the impact of political violence on the personal sphere?

During my research, I found that the dimension of polarisation that people often wanted to discuss was within their family or friendship group, what I call intimate polarisation: marriages being strained, people leaving their family WhatsApp, but also finding ways to live with difference, with all the discomforts and identity conflicts that entails. Often, the experiences people told me about took the form of stories that had longer roots than the recent political moment: they went back into the deeper history of their relationships, like Camilo’s relationship with his mother and the different stages he went through in processing his father’s death. I started writing fiction because I think polarisation, perhaps all politics, is something we experience through our own personal stories. I think fiction can do things scholarly work can’t: whereas in ethnographic writing, we have to be clear about the limits of what we can know and observe, fiction allows the writer to inhabit the consciousness of the protagonist and enables the reader to imagine and draw their own conclusions, rather than boxing things off analytically.  I’ve also written an academic article about Camilo’s story, forthcoming in the Journal of Language and Politics, which makes a theoretical argument about how national political events like the Colombian peace referendum reverberate through different storied contexts. I think of academic and creative writing as different forms that complement each other and do different things.

What challenges did you encounter while portraying pain in Camilo’s story?

The man I call Camilo was very matter-of-fact in speaking about violence. I’ve seen this a lot in Urabá and other conflict-torn regions in Colombia: violence is normalised and interwoven with daily life. It becomes part of the culture. What I found so striking was Camilo’s reflexivity about his process of change when he left Urabá to live in another region. In the story, I tried to use some of the turns of phrases he himself used in our conversations. For example, he talked about a process of ‘brainwashing himself’ in his new home, realising ‘people behaved like animals and I could have become like that’. He was also very self-aware about his process of grief, how he didn’t cry when his father died but went drinking instead, and how the encounters with the mothers of the victims made him realise that he, too, had been a victim of the armed conflict, which enabled him to start feeling his own grief differently. I also think it was important that he reflected on how his empathy toward his mother and what she had gone through evolved in response to those encounters. So, in the writing, I tried to honour Camilo’s perspective on his life and the key events and logic he ascribed to it, and transpose those into English and into the context of the fictional story. I think that’s something ethnography does well: being sensitive and alive to our interlocutors’ meaning-making, focusing on the themes and logics they underscore, and translating that for different kinds of readers. In this case, the format of the short story differs from that of an academic article, which creates different rules in the contract with the reader, but the impetus and the relationship with the interlocutor-character come from the same place. As the adage goes, art is a lie that tells the truth.

How does your story speak to the possibility of an otherwise, and what would you like readers to take from it?

Writing fiction is part of what it means for me to do public anthropology: telling the stories I’ve been privileged to gather in a way that speaks to a wider public and which offers Colombia as a mirror to the global north – not a remote, faraway place that is nothing to do with us, but one which is more like us than we realise. In one sense, ‘Between two waters’ is a specific story from a specific ‘other’ land, but it’s also about the political rifts we are all experiencing in the UK, the US, India, Turkey, Chile, at this time of global concern about polarisation.

But I like Camilo’s story precisely because it doesn’t treat polarisation as terminal or pathological. It suggests that divided political identities have porous boundaries. While polarisation itself is a story that is often defeatist and can even be self-fulfilling, I think my story offers an otherwise to polarisation. Firstly, because it shows individuals can change. I’ve collected several of what I call ‘turning point’ stories, like Camilo’s, in which people speak of a change of heart, a softening toward their political other, even while this is fraught with ambiguities. Secondly, it shows the possibilities of bridge-building across difficult political divides when differently-situated individuals mobilise their identity to do the difficult, filigree work of relationship-building across difference. Camilo is unusual in moving between two social spheres that do not usually overlap: the right-wing cattle ranchers and the left-wing and centrist peace activists and institutions. His story invites us to consider how identities are political in the fully anthropological sense – that is, they exist in webs of social relationships, within which conflict is inevitable. That means they are not impermeable. Bridgebuilding individuals like Camilo are important because they can translate between divided political identities, albeit facing many challenges. And I think the world needs more stories about bridgebuilders of all kinds. They are people we can learn from.

Dr Gwen Burnyeat is Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and Principal Investigator of the ERC-selected research project Stories of Divided Politics: Polarisation and Bridge-Building in Colombia and Britain’. She is author of two monographs on Colombia, The Face of Peace: Government Pedagogy amid Disinformation in Colombia (University of Chicago Press 2022), which won the 2023 Public Anthropologist Award, and Chocolate, Politics and Peace-Building: An Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), which was accompanied by her award-winning ethnographic documentary Chocolate of Peace (2016). She is also a writer; her fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review, Critical Muslim and Confluence Magazine, and she is currently completing her first novel. Find her online at

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Read Gwen Burnyeat's story Between two waters

in the Ruptures issue

This interview was conducted by Otherwise fiction and non-fiction editor, Rosa Sansone.

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