The FOCUS Lecture Series is back, and in person for the first time ever! The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students hosted Jordan Salama ’19, an author and journalist who has written for publications including The New York Times and National Geographic, in conversation with Professor Christina Lee of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
In the late afternoon of Tuesday, December 7th, students filed into the drawing room of Campus Club. The club’s drawing room was packed, the rows of folding chairs already full as people clustered at the back of the room and angled themselves so they could see.
The crowd – mostly composed of students, but which also included many other members of the Princeton community – was there for the first in-person event in ODUS’ FOCUS Lecture Series. After months of bringing fruitful discussions about race, identity, privilege, and progress to Princeton over Zoom, the FOCUS Lecture Series was finally brought to campus. The event featured Jordan Salama ’19, an author and journalist who has written for publications including The New York Times and National Geographic, in conversation with Professor Christina Lee of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. Joe Rolón, Butler College Director of Student Life, provided a welcome on behalf of the Latino Princetonians, an Employee Resource Group sponsored by Princeton’s Office of Human Resources.
The discussion centered on Salama’s new book, Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena, which was named one of the best nonfiction books of 2021 by Kirkus Reviews. Every Day the River Changes is an account of Salama’s journey along the Magdalena River in Colombia. He traveled down the river in 2018 as part of his senior thesis – which was advised by Professor Lee. Although neither of them knew it at the time, it would provide the basis for his debut book.
Salama was born in New York to a Syrian Jewish father and an Iraqi Jewish mother. His maternal grandparents had settled in Argentina before coming to the United States. Lee was born in South Korea but raised in Argentina. At the beginning of the discussion, she recounted the Spanish and Portuguese Department’s reception in 2019, where she had met Salama’s extended family. She was surprised to learn that his grandmother had lived in the same neighborhood of Buenos Aires in which she had been raised. The neighborhood, Flores, was safe for Korean immigrants such as her family in part because of the Jewish community that was already there. For Professor Lee, it was a reminder of the affinity between marginalized groups and the ability of people to empathize across cultures and identities.
Because of their similar (and, evidently, intersecting) backgrounds, Lee and Salama made a natural advisor-advisee pair. Lee teaches a class on the concept of identity in the Spanish-speaking world, and when Salama came to her with the idea of tracing a path down the Magdalena and collecting stories along the way, she saw an opportunity to support a unique research topic that explored identity and history in one of the most misunderstood parts of the globe.
The Magdalena flows nearly a thousand miles, from the northern Andes to the Caribbean Sea. Salama spoke about familiarizing himself with the river and its surroundings – how it seemed about as far as a place could be from his upbringing in New York. He had little prior connection to Colombia, but through sheer coincidence (which included a Princeton classmate with relatives living near the Magdalena) and more than a little curiosity, he stumbled on the Magdalena and the people who depended on it for their livelihood.
Professor Lee remembered urging Salama to write more about himself and his experiences over the course of his thesis work, something he was initially skittish about. “It’s a very uncomfortable thing to write about yourself,” he said. But as he traveled along the river, he realized that people were far more willing to share their stories if he would share his. “Being listened to is a vulnerable position to be in,” he remarked. He recalled one story from the book, at Professor Lee’s prompting, about searching for a hotel in Barrancabermeja. He had planned to stay at a Radisson, until his taxi driver told him about a grand, old-fashioned hotel that was scheduled to shut down the very next day. Of course, he decided to stay there instead.
He introduced himself to the hotel manager. And, as it turned out, the manager of this aging, faded hotel in a corner of Colombia was from Queens, not twenty minutes from where Salama had grown up. He began asking Salama questions about his own life, and Salama answered. “It’s not that I hadn’t gotten used to these kinds of questions before,” he said, noting how careful he was with his answers at first. But his willingness to talk about himself led people to trust him enough to share their own stories, and to see connections with each other that otherwise would have remained hidden. “I was finding traces of my own family and of my own identity in a place that was very far from me” added Salama, remembering his surprise and excitement at discovering just how much he really had in common with people halfway around the world.
As he adapted his thesis into Every Day the River Changes, Salama spoke about overcoming the journalistic urge to excise his own experiences and identity from his writing, and how his brand of writing is strengthened by including elements of himself. “In so many cases,” he said, “I’ve come to realize that in this world of low attention spans and so much content, it is those little pieces that tie yourself to the story, that are bridges to the reader.” His readers in the United States might have a harder time connecting with the stories of people in the book than they would connecting with the author’s own story – his own background could serve as an entry point for readers or a bridge between two apparently disparate worlds.
The floor then opened to questions from the audience, which did not shy away from difficult topics. The first question dealt with reporting on the extractive industries that surround the Magdalena – a student wondered aloud how Salama had gotten past the danger of reporting on such controversial and publicity-sensitive industries. He responded that doing his project initially as a student (and an American student at that) offered him significant protection, and that he hadn’t gone to Colombia initially to ask hard-hitting questions about the gold, oil, fishing, or timber industries that dominate parts of the country. But this privilege was shattered when he learned that Luis Salamanca, a Colombian anthropologist who had first showed him around the Andes, had been murdered for his conservation efforts the day before he was scheduled to defend his thesis to the Spanish and Portuguese Department.
Another student asked about the ethics of journalistic neutrality, and gave the example of a reporter photographing a starving child rather than helping them. Salama replied that he had not had to choose between journalistic integrity and the well-being of others. “I’m not trying to feign the fact that I wasn’t involved with people,” he said. He recounted buying two children a meal after he learned that they wouldn’t be allowed to return home until they had caught five fish, one for each member of their family. He did not regret the gesture, or building other relationships with the people who appeared in his work; nor did he think that it undermined the message or the impact of his work. In his words, “We are moving towards a world with a different kind of objectivity … a moral objectivity.”
The last few questions dealt with the nature of Salama’s writing process itself. He described one of his most important habits. At the end of every day, he said, no matter how late it was, he took an hour or two to write down (in longhand, no less) everything that had happened. Large portions of his books and articles, he added, came from the process of rereading and transcribing these notes, so painstakingly written down in the moment.
As time ran out, one more audience member asked him if, given his Iraqi and Syrian Jewish background, he was thinking about writing another book along the theme of his own identity. He responded that, “In this country, we’re told that Arabs and Jews are against each other, but I think I’m both.” It was difficult, he said, to see “things that you feel you’re a part of being pitted against each other.”
But he also smiled, and said “Yes, I’m working on something along those themes. But that’s all I can say.”
Full album of event photos are available on the ODUS Smugmug site.
The FOCUS Speaker Series is a program designed to offer students and the wider university community the chance to participate in meaningful discussions with some of the foremost anti-racist writers, activists, and thinkers in the world. New FOCUS events can be found on the FOCUS website or on our social media, so please continue to check back!