Photo: Liz Prieto

A Book to Deal With the Pain of Losing Your Country

Forced to become a globetrotter, she ended up writing a book in English about the country she left behind. This is the story of Liz Prieto.

As told to Rafael Osío Cabrices by Liz Prieto

In December 2002, thirteen days after I had my first daughter, I had to leave my country without prior notice or wanting to do so. 

Since that day, I’ve done voluntary work in an ex-pat community in Brunei. I’ve sold fruit juice in Gabon. I had a daughter in Singapore. And in the Netherlands, where I live now, I wrote a book about Venezuela, because I’ve never stopped missing my country. 

This is my story.

When the oil strike started in Venezuela in December 2002, the order from Shell headquarters was clear: all personnel and their families must evacuate Venezuela immediately. I was living in my hometown, Maracaibo, with my husband at the time, a Dutch who worked at Shell, and our 13-day-old daughter. We boarded a plane with the rest of the Shell people in Venezuela and left for Aruba. I could only pack the most essential things.

We waited in Aruba for the situation to improve. It didn’t, so Shell issued a new order: all personnel must be repatriated. For us, that meant going to my husband’s home country, the Netherlands, where I’d never been and I didn’t understand the language.   

I had to leave my corporate communications agency, my home and my family behind. The cultural shock was incredible. Soon after, my husband asked to be transferred to a new destination, something he’d been thinking about for some time. I traveled with my baby to Miami to stay with my mom for three months. Once things calmed down in Venezuela, we went to Maracaibo to pack the apartment and baptize our daughter with my family around. 

I started to wonder what to do with my life, so I joined a creative writing program in Amsterdam.

I and my daughter left in March 2003, and we joined my husband in our next oil camp: Brunei.

Brunei is a Muslim country, but it’s pretty flexible with the rules. The problem is there’s nothing to do there. The sultanate only has 300,000 inhabitants and we were living in an expat community of about 60 families. I couldn’t work there, but I joined the Outpost, a Shell department for the company’s women, and worked voluntarily doing newsletters, some graphic design, and calendars.

During our time in Brunei, our second daughter arrived. There were some complications with my pregnancy, so we decided to go to Singapore because the hospitals in Brunei weren’t good enough. Even when it was a tense birth, it was a wonderful experience; the nurses offered me a menu to choose my dinner, the service was five stars… I never felt more like a reina as I did in Singapore. I wanted to stay there but we went back to Brunei for a while, and in 2008, we were back in the Netherlands. This time, I found a job at Shell. I was a contractor and it was great. I was part of a team of 30 women, after seven years without working. That changed my life, and they were even waiting for me when we returned from our following stop, in Africa.

Things started to change a lot in Gabon when we arrived in 2014. We were living in the city, not a camp, and I created a juice company. Our daughters were older and had the time of their lives going to the jungle to see elephants and chimps. However, in that climate, with those trees, in a city you could enjoy like Maracaibo in the ‘90s, a strong nostalgia for my country came upon me.  I started to feel the need to go back home.

When the time to return to the Netherlands came, my husband went through depression and our marriage collapsed. In 2016, during the separation, I started to wonder what to do with my life, so I joined a creative writing program in Amsterdam.

I had written journals for years, for myself, just because I’ve always been a good reader. But this time I found a new passion, in a moment where I needed to look into myself. I was going through something that I couldn’t share with anybody. 

In the program, I found that I was able to bring my emotions out and I poured them into characters. I worked on several fiction stories around those characters I invented. In that program, you get feedback all the time about your writing, which is very good, and people said that I had to put all those characters in a single story, or in a book. I didn’t see that coming. I realized that I’d written ten stories of 5,000 words each, and a writer coached me to develop a book from that. I decided early on that it wouldn’t be a novel, I knew I didn’t have enough experience to try that. I was also aware that it was bold of me to write in English. Actually, I had to sacrifice some of the richness of my mother language, of my expressiveness, in order to write in English, but I wanted my non-Venezuelan friends to read a book about my country. Back then, many people asked me if there was a single book that could explain what had happened to Venezuela, not only the politics and the economy but what happened to common people, chavistas or not. 

We haven’t been to Venezuela in fifteen years and my nostalgia… well, it’s still there.

So I finished my book, which is a work of fiction, based on many stories I read or heard about what Venezuelans were experiencing. One of the characters, for instance, is a horrendous man, a criminal, who doesn’t want his children to be like him. Another one is a boy walking to Colombia. Another one is a girl suffering from cancer… That’s why it’s structured as a collection of individual stories, and they’re short because they’re painful. I realized that I could form a sort of ecosystem of characters that explain our recent history. 

I published it on Amazon, in March 2021. Its title: My Broken Conuco. When people started to say that it should be translated into Spanish, I immediately did a version, already available under the title Mi conuco se queda solo.

People who read the book say that it’s very emotional and that they were surprised by the accuracy of my description of what it’s like to cross a border and face immigration officers. Of course, I was using my experience. 

Now, I live in The Hague, just by the International Criminal Court. I worked at Shell until September. I’m looking for a new job, wondering what I’ll do next. My daughters are about to go to college, one to study Animation, the other one to study Psychology. I’m probably going to another place again, maybe in Latin America.

We haven’t been to Venezuela in fifteen years and my nostalgia… well, it’s still there.