Bogota’s Feria del Libro lets Colombia’s literary culture come to life once a year, but the country’s literature scene goes beyond Bogota and its international book fair.
Young, bespectacled Alvaro Carreño is sitting amidst a throbbing bunch of coats, scarves, and umbrellas that crowd the curved paths of a fun, little labyrinth that has been set up inside one of the mammoth pavilions that make up the two-week home of Bogota’s international book fair.
Alvaro chatters with his friend Adriana in Spanish. He thumbs through a stack of five or six fresh books. The books, though, are not written in Spanish. They are in Portuguese. There is more going on beneath the literary surface in Colombia. The scene is impressively diverse and surprisingly international.
What makes Colombia’s literary culture special, says an excited, 20-something-year-old Adriana Rubio, is the richness of diversity Colombia has: its contrasts.
“We have a rich, diverse culture,” she says. “In terms of the symbols that we manage it’s also rich… from the most disguised to the most spiritually precious, it’s a culture of rich contrasts. But ultimately, we’re as good as we are bad.”
Bogota is bookish. And there could be no better way to witness the apex of its bookishness at the capital’s annual international book fair. Throughout a complex of pavilions people mill about, pawing through publisher’s stalls, slipping in and out of relaxed author chats and zoning in on musical performances.
Each year there is a national guest. This year it was Portugal. Next year it will be Peru. What the Feria’s guest brings is not just a national trove of literature, but also its food, its art. This time there was plenty of tasty port to go around. Writers were presented in glowing, fun illustrations. And warm vocal welcomes in continental and Brazilian Portuguese dance off the tongues of the Portuguese hosts that welcome guests into the maze of literary culture.
This year, an impressive roster of some 85 writers attended. There’s a strong international presence. Authors like Iranian-born, Paris-raised, New York-based Lila Azam Zanganeh, American novelist Johnathan Katzenbach and German investigative reporter Gunter Wallraf were invited to speak and join in conversations with writers from other parts of the world on a web of topics. The vibe is relaxed. The writers are accessible. And fun, really. Portuguese writer Afonso Cruz jammed folk on the harmonica with Manuel Kalmanovitz on guitar. Highly esteemed Colombian authors like William Ospina, of course, round out the list.
Oral storytelling was at it’s finest: comical, suspenseful and engaging. Inside one tent, a panel of storytellers were just as absorbed in one teller’s spoken tale as was their audience: a blend of children and their parents, university students, professorial types, writers artists and other Bogotanos. The comedy was accessible to all ages. Children swarmed the grounds.
But the fair is by no means the end-all of Colombia’s thriving literary culture. It is really just the threshold to a more exciting world. As Feria del Libro wraps up this week there are other spots where the literary nomad can find refuge. Inside crowded cafes sprinkled throughout Colombia’s sprawling capital, there is a lively literary energy where writers and artists meet for community just as much as they do to buy books, dream, wonder and sip.
In Bogota’s La Macarena neighborhood, a famous little enclave that many writers and artists call home, Luvina Libreria (Cra 5 No 26C-06) is where there are more than just books and coffee. Luvina is a community of writers, intellectuals, and musicians who host events or simply just stop in to catch up. There are no rules. Dropping in on a conversation feels almost welcome over Luvina’s tables.
Then, hidden in Bogota’s sprawling center, not far from the National University, Casa Tomada (Trv 19 BIS No 45D-23) is another nook for writers and artists to meet. Casa Tomada hosts author talks, lectures, and readings. The espresso is Italian ristretto and simply delicious.
Outside of Bogota, other festivals reel in mighty crowds. The annual Hay Festival Cartagena celebrates Latin American literature in January. It is participatory, smart, and vibrant. The festival normally brings in high profile authors. This past festival saw Mario Vargas Llosa.
Right now Colombia is celebrating its rich history of magical realism and the man who many believe to be the first to pen it into a respected literary genre: Gabriel Garcia Marquez more than ever. Colombia’s new tourism slogan centers around a country that is rich with magic that really happens. Magical realism is, in Colombia, real life.
But Alvaro and Afonso say there is far more that bubbles beneath the surface in Colombia. And that, they say, is where literary types who come to Colombia should turn their attention.
Alvaro wants people who come here with literary interests to go beyond the confines of magical realism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For all his fame, there are others, like Caribbean poet Raul Gomez Jattin.
“He’s a complicated character in our history, a character that shows Colombia’s complicated reality… he was a homosexual, discriminated against… and he was one of the first Colombian poets shunned for his work.”
As thrilling as it can be, Afonso says that writers should break out of the the confines of modern, cosmopolitan life in Bogotá for a moment in order to find inspiration. The rest of Colombia, says Afonso, has plenty of it.
Arms folded, a graying beard framing his face, the writer, illustrator and musician Afonso tells me that there are two kinds of societies: the ones we think of as normal, and then the sedentary ones, where “Indians still perform rituals and drink ayuhuasca and things like that…”
“There are lots of things that we imagine as a utopia,” he says. “And [the Indians here] have them… They don’t have libraries or books, but you can experience things with these societies that you believe are impossible in other societies.”