My big idea was conceived in a shanty town in Chile in the 1990s.
Guayacan had been a thriving part of the north Chilean town of Coquimbo at one time. British people had gone there too in the 1890s. Guayacan was built around a copper foundry in the 19th century. The foundry owners lived in big houses built of high-quality mud-brick, while the workers of the foundry inhabited wattle and daub houses although with big gardens at the back. While the copper foundry furnace burned night and day, there was money. But when I went there a hundred years later the foundry was gone and only clinker on the beach remained as evidence of its former existence.
The little fishing port with its old houses was now a crumbling shanty part of town. Faded glory gave it quaintness, but each earth quake took its toll and many houses now leaned precariously. One big house had a preservation order on it, but the earth quakes had taken no notice of this – they had shaken the front off it. The house stood with no front so you could see into the rooms with their outdated wallpaper. It made you feel uncomfortable looking into the private space now exposed.
I spent a lot of time doing work on my old house that in the 19th century had been the post office. I liked living there, but as I observed the old houses, I came to realize that termites would eventually eat all the new beams I’d had put in, and all my renovation work would return to dust.
Of course doing up houses has an immediate benefit in providing a place to live, and places to rent out and so have an income. But ultimately the whole shanty town would be swept away by modernity, and be no more.
My efforts in the shanty town were destined to return to dust, and I would also return to dust maybe in the English cemetery close by. I expected to be immortalized as the ‘Gringa of Guayacan’ one day since I expected to remain living in Chile. What I realized, however, is that the written word has an efficacy that other creative efforts do not have. The written word is not swept away; it does not turn to dust. So it is that I started writing.
It was here in the shanty town that I conceived my big idea – the idea that would direct my life and become the fire of my soul. I started writing every day except Sundays. I’ve done this for 26 years now. Even while everything was collapsing around me, and earth tremors shook the house, I could still write.