¡Viva Literature!

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image by Stephanie Maze / CORBIS

A Mexican saying holds that como Mexico no hay dos–there is only one Mexico. American media these days interpret that notion with a vengeance.

Story after story depicts a country overrun by out-of-control drug wars and murder, where corrupt police officers trip over beheaded victims more often than they nab perpetrators.

And then, somewhere below the radar, is Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara, the foremost book fair in the Spanish-speaking world. Last fall it drew an astonishing 600,000 visitors over nine days, more than 100,000 of them children and most of them buying books. Founded two decades ago, FIL (its Spanish acronym) annually draws to Guadalajara approximately 1,600 publishers and 15,000 book professionals from 40 countries, among them more than 500 authors.

Over the years, a fabulous parade of internationally acclaimed writers from inside and outside the Spanish-speaking world–Margaret Atwood, William Golding, Martin Amis, André Brink, Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison–have come. Multiple prizes, among them the Juan Rulfo (worth $150,000), are bestowed. Art exhibits and music performances complement the literary doings but never overwhelm them. FIL’s aim, according to Raúl Padilla López, its chairman, is “to broaden the horizons of the book in Spanish,” to “aid in its continuing to be modern society’s primary cultural and educational vehicle.”

We gabachos north of the border might learn something from the event.

Every year, like a number of international book fairs, FIL displays its cosmopolitan side, declaring some nation a “guest of honor” and working with that country’s officials, publishers, and universities to present scores of its writers and intellectuals through readings, panels, and debates. Last year Italy basked in the spotlight.

At the same time, FIL provides vibrant forums for its own literary culture, Spanish-language literature, and select writers and cultures from elsewhere. Several events this time celebrated Carlos Fuentes, at 80 Mexico’s grand old man of letters. Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez joined the homage. Mexican luminaries José Emilio Pacheco, Ignacio Padilla, Juan Villoro, and Elena Poniatowska all made appearances. Nicaragua’s Gioconda Belli received the 2008 Premio Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. World-class Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes received a lifetime-achievement prize.

But what truly sets FIL apart, because its founder and continuing owner is the University of Guadalajara–a rare case of a university running a nation’s major book fair–are the 20 or so academic and journalistic forums arranged by the university.

By contrast, at BookExpo America, the big American fair that takes place every year around Memorial Day, the public is not invited. The limited number of panels occur mostly before the fair begins and are chiefly focused on buying and selling books rather than on what’s in them. Foreign publishers and literary cultures receive no honors and scant attention.

And yet we condescend to the Mexicans. Back in the hotel room during FIL, one could turn on CNN and find Lou Dobbs talking with two Newsweek journalists, fresh from publishing a long piece on Mexico’s drug wars, speaking of “a failed state.”

These are hyperbolic words about a nation whose coruscating literary tradition predates anything in the United States. The Aztecs and Maya didn’t use a written language, but, as Margaret Sayers Peden writes in her anthology Mexican Writers on Writing (2007), part of Trinity University Press’ fine country-by-country series capturing national literary traditions, “the 16th century–those early years of discovery, exploration, and subduing indigenous peoples in order to impose the European culture of the conquistadors–abounds in chronicles and letters.”

Such a starting point may trouble, given those sorry Spanish discussions of whether Indians had souls. Better, perhaps, to agree with C.M. Mayo, who writes in her Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2006) that Mexican literature “begins with the poems, myths, chronicles, and prophecies of its indigenous peoples.” In any case, no one who is familiar with the grand arc of Mexican literary and intellectual culture can doubt its richness and stature.

Gazing over the fair’s vast exhibition floor from the pavilion of Planeta, her distinguished publisher, Laura Esquivel, the popular Mexican author of Like Water for Chocolate, takes a deep breath and shakes her head at the din created by thousands of exhibit-hall conversations. She looks hard at the crowd larger than any at Frankfurt, the world’s biggest book fair by number of exhibitors.

“We are close, but very far away,” says Esquivel, an on-and-off New Yorker for 12 years, speaking of authentic Mexican culture in relation to the United States. “A lot of people think Mexican cuisine is Taco Bell. It has nothing to do with Taco Bell. The same happens with our music and literature. We have wonderful, powerful, very important cultural roots. Look at all the young people here. You don’t see any violence. The problem is the media. The media sell through violence.”

FIL serves as a reminder of that for anyone who is suckered by journalistic clichés in the United States about Wild West Mexico. Guadalajara’s eight daily newspapers–yes, eight–vie with one another during the fair, pumping out impressive daily literary supplements that celebrate and analyze the hundreds of authors present. Half-page schedules of FIL events appear as ads every day. Could it be an accident that Guadalajara’s newspapers, so heavily invested in coverage of matters that attract readers, teem with fat classified-ad sections–page after page after page of the literate seeking the literate amid literate copy–now a thing of the past in U.S. newspapers?

In our new, shortsighted media era, in which everyone shares the few remaining foreign correspondents, we cover Mexico, like too many other countries, only when it’s in crisis, when the blood flows. Mexicanidad becomes a cliché of mayhem, as ludicrous as equating Americanness with inner-city murder. In covering what’s south of the border, we operate south of the brain. The loss and embarrassment are ours.

Carlin Romano is the literary critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. From the Chronicle of Higher Education(Jan. 16, 2009), which is nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for best writing; http://chronicle.com.

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