Notes from Mexico’s 12th International Book Festival
MEXICO’S 12TH ANNUAL IBF recently concluded as Day of the Dead celebrations got underway in Mexico City’s historic central plaza, El Zócalo. 225 publishers and distributors attended the fair, including 75 independent book houses and 13 independent magazines. Editors, publishers, and writers spoke about emerging literary trends in Mexico, the ease and difficulty of publishing here, and how Mexico’s literature is being shaped by foreign writers in the capital and Mexican authors living abroad.
The cheapest way to travel to the IBF is by metro, which at this time of year is full of vendors selling technicolor glow skulls, Creedence Clearwater Revival blasting from strobe-lit backpacks, and toenail filers. The crowd I was part of had the grace of a beached whale. After bellying up out of the subway, we were bathed in the bladder’s perfume.
Visually, IBF visitors had much to confront as well. Book and magazine covers ranged from the psychedelic to the profane. Chip Kidd, who designs book jackets for publishers such as Alford A. Knopf, recently gave a TED talk (see right) on how book covers should match the content within. Kidd described his work for David Sedaris’ Naked, where instead of a book cover, Kidd dressed the book in a pair of shorts so readers could take Mr. Sedaris’ pants off without having to talk to him — a move that Mr. Sedaris admittedly approved of. In the act of pulling out a book, Kidd’s art allows readers to get a sense of the story they’re getting into.
The festival had multiple stages, satellite cafés that hosted spoken word slams, and music concerts where Steely Dan was reported to have appeared on stage looking lost.
Moebius, Mexico’s Dead Poets Society, was born in the 1980s and hosted one of the many satellite poetry events going on during IBF. One of Mexico’s long-time resident poets, Leopoldo Ayala, gave a reading to open the event. Leopoldo is a poet who mainly writes odes to the revolutionary spirit of Cuba and performs as though it were something the audience could hold. His use of baby talk, nostalgia for the past, and rage, however, gloved the audience’s hands in hyperbole, depriving his performance of that human touch he hoped to inspire.
During the performance, the electricity was cut. When the lights went out, Leopoldo became more sincere. In Spanish he said, “Those of us gathered today are not here to talk about whether we want more light or no light in the world, we are here to talk about someone having the heart to see either way.”
Car headlights illuminated a crowd as alive as the passengers on board the Titanic, but the poets’ performances weren’t bad, being commensurate with the depth that their audience seemed to be at rest.
The theme of Ayala’s talk was Cuba’s revolutionary spirit and its place in modern-day Mexico. In one poem entitled “Carmen,” he talked about revolutionary spirit and how “hope sweetens or ripens our Mexican identity, but liberty tastes it.”
Traditional themes of “crime holding its vigil over us from the North” appeared in his poems, but he also added a touch of imagination that made these tired themes find new life: “Death is face down, but what does the night sky see on its back?”
He concluded his performance with a talk about the importance of social movements and referenced the momentous battle that has recently been waged in Mexico’s capital over the historic overhauls to the country’s labor law. He said, “Now is not the time to write poetry,” instead saying it is time to expose and accuse. “[Going on] Strikes is our only inheritance, to act together, and when we do, then it will be time to write millions and millions of poems.”
Stepping up to the challenge, one of the most impressive young poets was Rodlin Georges, from Haiti. A former chemistry student, and now a student of philosophy, he writes in Creole, French, and Spanish. “We are more animals than light,” he wrote. He writes about how people discover themselves in a world like Haiti, or a world like Mexico City: “I simply come undone,” he says, “then, I dress myself in the silence of your lips.” He spoke of Haiti as “a place where everything is music.” It is made of “laughs of the poor” mixing with those of the women, and “the children singing with the drunks,” asking us, Is this so bad when everything is music? The answer, perhaps, is yes.
Rodlin comes from Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic, a town called Ouanaminthe. His dad works in agriculture and his mother passed away a year ago. He said, “Before, poetry in Haiti was focused on social problems. Today, poetry is still critiquing the government, but I feel more people are not critiquing so much as they are educating.”
He commented on the fact that he sees more themes being explored in Haiti’s poetry today than in recent years. Although he grew up reading a lot of books from France, quick to name-drop Victor Hugo and Montesquieu, he says he now alternates between writing in his three languages, often preferring Spanish. “Living abroad [here in Mexico City] helps me write.”
But many Mexican authors have found their literary homes abroad, writing in expatriate communities. Benjamin de Buen, for example, used to work as a sports writer in Mexico before packing for the literary scene in Melbourne. De Beun also shifts between writing in multiple languages. His current working manuscript is in English and Spanish. When asked what his literary influences were at an early age, he simply responded “Super Fudge, Judy Bloom.”
“Mexican writing,” says de Buen, “is so much more internally reflective.” He points to other Latin American works, such as Niebla, by Miguel de Unamuno. He says that he knew he wanted to be a writer after reading the passage when the main character of the book visits the author because he is thinking of suicide.
“That book showed me how many openings and holes there are in writing.” He got on a flight to Melbourne, switched from journalism to creative writing, and took a step through one. “Living abroad in Melbourne helps me write,” he added.
When asked for an opinion about letting Spanish bleed into his English manuscripts, he referenced Junot Diaz. “He [Diaz] uses so much Spanish in his writing. But his Spanish is so full of attitude, I found myself laughing out loud. But just putting Spanish in there to be ‘authentic’ is not worth it unless you have something to say.”
“The danger of Mexico,” he says, is the seduction of its “vast deserts, the landscapes in the north that are so big, so overwhelming, that I often found myself trying to make stories work for the setting. But that’s all backwards,” he said. “You’re trying to fit a circle into a square and I learned that I have to detach myself from the things I find interesting, like the landscapes of my home country, and focus on making the scenery work for the story.”
He is currently working on a book called “The Scratch,” which is about an amateur soccer team and their lives off the field in Mexico. Although he was a sports writer, he’s not trying to make the book autobiographical. “Not an alter ego,” he says. “One of me is enough.”
Independent book publishers in Mexico don’t seem to think so, as they continue to expand their search for upcoming authors. Some notable companies for interested writers in Mexico are Manda, Generación, Proyecto Literal, and their “Limon Partido” series for unpublished writers, La Piedra, and for those into erotic poetry, Fridaura.