- On “The Peach Orchard”
It’s so clear, you see, that if we’re to begin living in the present, we must first of all redeem our past and then be done with it forever.—Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard
The first version of this essay was a two-page piece about the mechanical difficulties of dragging a body through a cobblestone street.
Of this draft, the only thing that remains is a line about a necktie. A man tugging on a piece of cloth and feeling a limp body tug back. Which is, coincidentally—apart from a pair of very tattered underpants—the only article of clothing that remained on Roa Sierra’s body after the riot.
The two-page piece was quickly dismissed in workshop, and I didn’t successfully return to it until nearly three years later, while living in Wenzhou, China, a small city by Chinese standards, about two hours south of Shanghai.
I had tried to write this essay again and again over the years but failed as many times as I tried. The necktie remained through every failed draft, even as the essay morphed from an impressionistic lyrical piece to something altogether different from anything else I’d ever written before.
Thinking back on it now, it does not seem the least bit accidental that I would finally be able to return to a moment in history defined by riots, protest, and rumors of conspiracy while being forbidden to even so much as mention the words “Tiananmen Square.”
When this moment finally came, however, it hardly felt like a continuation of a long process but rather something like starting anew. I threw out every [End Page 163] previous draft still in my possession and started by reviewing all the available information, documents, and asides, making copious notes on the colliding and sometimes even coinciding first-, second-, and thirdhand reports of the Bogotázo, Roa Sierra, and Gaitán, and all the surrounding events and characters I could track down.
As I did this, I often came back to that necktie.
A single article of clothing on a single lifeless man and this moment in history like a loose thread one cannot help but pull and watch it all come undone.
When everything could have been different—but wasn’t.
I remembered interviewing my grandfather for the first time. I held a notebook full of names, dates, and sketches of our shared but destroyed city, and for the first time ever, it seemed real, this notion that things had not always been as they were then. That there might even have been a beginning to the violence I had only known as timeless and irrevocable, and I remember this moment as if it were a moment in a deep sort of motion—wind, rush, and pull—though it is and was a perfectly static memory. And as I returned to it one last time, I knew that this would be my end goal, to recreate that almost-ness and that rush, so I modeled the essay on plays rather than other essays or stories, to maintain what I believe is the inextinguishable immediacy of this Roa Sierra walking a few paces behind Gaitán and pulling the trigger on an entire country.
If I were to attempt to render one of the most important moments in the history of not merely my home city but my whole country, I felt I had to present it as accurately as I possibly could. Which meant that I would not only include the events as factually as sources allowed, but that I would present it in its own urgent, irrevocable, and furious terms.
Because for me, nonfiction is not merely the absence of fiction but the sincere essaying toward something universally human and singularly personal. Something irrefutable but almost inexpressible that exists not solely in its quantifiable parts and facts but in the immeasurable space between those facts and the incalculable sum of those parts made whole.
In this sense it felt like a hybrid form, somewhere between research and reenactment.
The first few steps, nevertheless, were relatively boring and tedious. First...