Monday, January 29, 2024

Q&A with Paula Delgado-Kling




Paula Delgado-Kling is the author of the new book Leonor: The Story of a Lost Childhood. It focuses on the life of a former child soldier in Colombia. Delgado-Kling is originally from Colombia and lives in New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Leonor?


A: When I was in graduate school at Columbia University, I began to research a policy paper about child soldiers in Colombia. I could not find any information about it. I decided I would go home to Bogotá and start to collect my own testimonies.


Initially, I had thought that it would be an article. Nineteen years later, I still followed the same woman, whom in this book I call Leonor. I found myself wanting to return to Bogotá to hear the latest in Leonor’s recovery.


The events in her life were a testament of how something that may seem political can be very personal. For example, access to birth control, which is frowned upon by the Catholic Church that is predominant in Colombia, could have made a big difference in helping Leonor’s mom and in turn, in Leonor having a more tolerable childhood.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I first met Leonor when she was living in a government home in Bogotá. She was living in an NGO, under the care of a loving couple. She was 17 years old, and two weeks prior, she had been part of the revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC.


My research involved staying in touch with her, through 19 years, and patiently listening to her story. It was initially hard because she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it was difficult for her to recall dates and places with context.


With the help of her mother, and as Leonor received government-sponsored therapy, she put her memories back together and shed new light on past traumas. 


One summer, a couple of years into writing this book, my agent asked me to corroborate every single fact in the book. I spent 10 days sitting on my tush and produced 65 pages worth of footnotes. This is all to say, Leonor’s is a true story. I hope that I have gotten to the absolute truth of what she thinks her story is. 


What most surprised me was that young children, maybe as young as 8 or 9 years old, become involved in illegal drug gangs because they start out as messengers relaying information without being noticed by authorities, or they happen to overhear a key bit of information and suddenly, because of this, they are involved.


I was also surprised that women are the silent victims, and are targeted simply for being the girlfriend, wife, sister, or daughter of a man who actively participates in the conflict. 


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “In the end, Leonor’s story has no neat resolution, but Delgado-Kling never wavers in her devastating portrait of unspeakable suffering.” What do you think of that description?


A: My mentor, the wonderful editor Tom Jenks, always told me: write cool what is hot, and hot what is cool. In other words, as a writer, widen the scope and give space to devastating events, and provide a solid narrator to guide the reader. 


From Leonor’s point of view, for her to have trusted me with her story, which contains “unspeakable suffering,” is special.


I think it helped, as we combed through details year after year, that sometimes we spoke on the telephone. and it was easier for her to speak her mind without having a face on the other side, a face that likely revealed emotions as she spoke and that would signal to her the distress and painfulness of what she was telling.


For us to speak on the telephone gave her freedom to say whatever she wanted without a face on the other side reacting. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: This is a story about a real person. I hope to bring some light to the darkness of so many children who are forced into these circumstances.


A woman like Leonor is a life of resilience and grit. She worked for two decades with therapists to find her way back to life and happiness, and to do it out of love for her two daughters. Leonor’s is a story of hope, and I hope people read it that way. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a novel, and I’m finding it absolutely liberating to be able to lose myself in the fiction of it. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: If any book clubs or students want to reach out to me, I am always available. Any messages that come through my website,, come straight to me and will be answered by me. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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