Hay Cartagena, now in its eighth year, is one of Colombia’s most important cultural events, and one of the Caribbean region’s biggest and best literary festivals. The 2013 festival ran from 24 to 27 January. Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace, winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, was on the programme at Cartagena this year, and NGC Bocas Lit Fest Director Marina Salandy-Brown was there too, to fly the flag for our own festival.It’s 25 years since the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts started in the village of Hay-on-Wye, on the border between Wales and England. Over that period, Hay has spread to several continents, bringing the world’s best writers to readers everywhere — including the city of Cartagena de Indias, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Marina shares some notes from her Cartagena diary:
Saturday: living the picaresque
Cartagena de Indias was one of the first cities founded by the Spanish on the Caribbean coast of South America. For many literature lovers, it is famous as the place where Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez started his illustrious career as a writer, and where he set some of his great novels and love stories, such as Love in the Time of Cholera.
García Márquez is considered by many the finest exponent of “magical realism,” in which the distinction between fantasy and reality are blurred, and there is equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. We who live in postcolonial countries in this part of the world know that “magical realism” is not strictly a literary device — we live that life. Nevertheless, being in this beautiful city and port, which García Márquez described as “so beautiful that it seems a lie,” is like living inside one of his literary creations — not least since the festival site and our hotel are next door to the novelist’s home, and the very same birds we know from his novels wander over to stare and comment, while the horses’ hooves click hauntingly outside on the stone-paved streets.
However, I never expected to be living inside another sort of novel, and to be tricked by a pícaro. The picaresque novel was invented by the Spanish in the 1550s, with the anonymously penned Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and His Fortunes and Adversities. The picaresque hero is one of my favourite literary characters. We all know him as a clever rogue who but starts off as an innocent is forced into servitude by the harsh realities of the times, and drifts into a life of petty crime and trickery in his struggle for survival.
I have to smile that against my better judgement I went along with a charming young schemer here, and played myself right into the role of another character in the picaresque novel, the silly burguesa. The sim card that the super helpful bellboy just happened to have spare in his pocket and gave me for my cell phone is a dud. Why did I, against all my instincts, go to the grocery shop on the corner and swipe my credit card for a telephone service that has not worked once? I was in a rush, yes, but forgot the rule that whatever seems too good to be true usually is. The news for the charming trickster, though, is that he won’t get the sim card back. I will bring it home as a relic of my accidental starring literary role.
Sunday: discovering Lovelace
How many writers from the Caribbean came to Hay Cartagena? Well, apart from the Colombians — and none of them is from Cartagena, or any other place on the Caribbean side of the country — there is the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura Fuentes, the creator of Mario Conde, the enigmatic police detective who is soon to become a celluloid character. And our own Earl Lovelace is the sole writer from the English-speaking Caribbean.
It is the first time that a writer from Trinidad and Tobago has been invited to Hay Cartagena, and it probably won’t be the last, given the very positive response here to the author of Is Just a Movie. Today Earl participated in an hour-long one-on-one conversation before a large audience. Bogotá university professor Monica Maria del Valle — a great fan of Earl’s work — got into Salt (which won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), his short stories, and his latest novel. Earl rose to her incisive, informed questioning, and in the process I learned quite a lot about him and much more about his writing. The audience — many of whom, I am certain, came out of interest in discovering something new — chuckled and clapped through the hour as they listened attentively to the consecutive interpretation into Spanish.
Earlier in the day, students who have read Earl’s work in English — amazingly, some of his writing has been translated into Japanese, but none into Spanish — heard the author read the humourous scene in Is Just a Movie that gives it its name. They asked about Trinidad and Tobago, and grabbed the opportunity to interact with the writer, whom they could almost never have hoped to meet otherwise. That is one of the positive aspects of festivals of this sort. And writers meet each other, too. It is organised serendipity, but it works. New authors are discovered, deals done, friendships forged, alliances made, ideas exchanged.
Earl was also on a panel alongside the Israeli writer David Grossman, Pakistani Kamila Shamsie, British travel writer Michael Jacobs, Colombian Mauricio Rodriguez, and Jonathan Weiner of the United States. Grossman — who spent seven years in the Israeli army, even though he is well-known as a peacenik — said, perhaps not surprisingly, that he would torture a man if it meant saving the lives of many. There was a hush from his fellow panellists, but it served to underscore Earl’s point that when talking about security one has to be clear whose security is being considered.
Earl was also in the company of some impressive poets in a poetry gala held on a high stage in a wide, cobblestoned 16th-century square one starry, starry night — with balmy breezes wafting up from the Caribbean Sea just yards away. Herta Muller, the Romanian-born 2009 Nobel Prize winner, read in German; the wonderful Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli thrilled us with the passion of her verse. Also in the line-up were Antonia Colinas from Spain, American Edward Hirsch, Venezuelan Leonardo Padrón (Venezuela), Welshmen Owen Sheers and Eurig Salisbury, and the grandmaster of Colombian verse, Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda. The writers wowed a vast audience of word-hungry enthusiasts. Afterwards, as we made our way to a post-event gathering in a nearby bookshop, our Trini author was glad-handed by a throng of new fans. Right up to the end he was still signing autographs.