Eyes on Latin American Literature: Jonathan Franzen Opens the International Book Fair in Guadalajara

There was much to talk about during the 26th edition of the world’s largest Spanish language book fair, and it wasn’t just limited to discussions about books.

An anxious crowd of young book lovers forms a line outside the FIL an hour before the public opening.

The Feria International del Libro, (FIL) for short, a world-wide recognized commercial and public book fair hosted by the University of Guadalajara in the city’s Expo convention center, was marked this year by substantial controversy over the selection of Peruvian novelist Bryce Echenique as the fair’s annual awardee. Echenique has been widely accused of plagiarism on numerous accounts by many in the literary world who, in turn, were outraged upon hearing he had been selected by the FIL jury. The FIL and its president Raúl Padilla were subject to harsh criticism in the weeks preceding the fair, and until this past weekend, it had been unclear if they were going to revoke their decision, as it threatened to tarnish the fair’s prestige among the literary community.

Long-standing President Padilla decided to proceed with honoring Echenique but opted to do so in a discrete ceremony, canceling the traditional opening-day ceremony in Guadalajara and instead presenting the author with his prize in his native Peru (which includes a $150,000 cash award.)

In place of the traditional award ceremony, the FIL instead choose to honor the literary great late Carlos Fuentes (an ALOUD guest in 2011), in a ceremony that included his wife Silvia Lemus and American novelist Jonathan Franzen. Lemus bestowed upon Franzen the newly inaugurated “Carlos Fuentes award,” and the author remarked that it was “personally meaningful to be here [in Guadalajara],” having met Fuentes and Lemus just months before Fuentes passed.

Jonathan Franzen, Silvia Lemus, Jorge Volpi

When asked about his interest in Latin American literature, Franzen admitted that after having paid attention to some of the great authors of the 1970s during the “Latin boom” (Fuentes, Márquez, Llosa) he hadn’t been keeping tabs on authors coming out of Latin America. Speaking from the stage of the expansive and diverse FIL, he said he is now ready to change that. Recently, he has been reading Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez and mentioned that his decision to participate in the fair was a testament to his interest in keeping a close eye on Latin American literature.


Other authors to keep your eye on:

Juan Villobo (Mexico)
Diamela Eltit (novelist, Chile)
Guillermo Calderón (playwright, Chile)
Angel Ortuño (poet, Mexico)

Here’s a video clip produced by Kattia Hernandez that follows my experience at the fair.

-Reporting from Guadalajara, posted by Maureen Moore

Revving up for some revolutionary Eastside history: Ruben Martinez’s “Variedades”

ALOUD author Rubén Martínez, who joins us at the library later this season for a look at Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West, takes the stage tonight to host Variedades: The Ballad of Ricardo Flores Magón. The story of Magón, a Mexican revolutionary whose turn of the century politics fomented for awhile in L.A.’s eastside neighborhoods and downtown, is animated through music and theatre in a multimedia performance at the Ford Amphitheatre. The salon-style variety show is an ‘unearthing of radical L.A. history’ and features local performers Quetzal, La Marisoul, Chicano/Son, Los Illegals, Ceci Bastida, and Josh Kun, among others. Read up on this revolutionary character in L.A.’s history in today’s LA Times piece and catch the show tonight at the Ford.  More info here. 

The revolution continues in Central Library’s Getty Gallery with the exhibition: A Nation Emerges: The Mexican Revolution Revealed  (through February 2013).

¡Qué Vivan las Bibliotecas!

Library as history. Library as art. Library as culture.  Library as the skeleton of existence.

In the spirit of the Mexican Revolution photographic exhibition, A Nation Emerges: The Mexican Revolution Revealed, currently on view at the downtown Central Library (through June 2nd-visit while you can!), I thought it would be fun to lead you on a photographic journey to the libraries I recently visited on a spring trip to Mexico.  From the 19th century former girls-school-turned-central library of Oaxaca City to the cultural centers/libraries that house private collections of philanthropists and artists, to the ultra modern Vasconcelos library of Mexico City, my visit confirmed libraries are very much alive in Mexico:  ¡qué vivan las bibliotecas!

Saturday morning at the Central Library reading room, Oaxaca City

In the history and archeology department of the Central Library, librarian Javier Rodríguez conserves and repairs book covers and spines himself, using this press.  The rare book collection in this department is kept in a glass case; he says researchers from UCLA and the Netherlands are the most frequent users of books from the collection, many of which date back to 1880.

With extremely limited funds, this particular department is without internet access or a digitized catalog.  Whereas seeing a typewriter and card catalog among the shelves was nostalgic for me as a visitor, Javier longs for an upgrade into the 21st century to better display the collection and share it with the rest of the world.


Students in the science department; books can’t be checked out and taken home, so most studying is done at the library.

Blocks away from the tired and outdated Central Library is the Biblioteca Henestrosa, founded in the year 2003 by philanthropist Alfredo Harp Helú.  Part exhibition space, part library, with over 60,000 titles, the library specializes in Latin American literature and Mexican history. It’s named after the Oaxacan writer, linguist, and politician Andrés Henestrosa, known for phoneticizing the Zapotec language and creating a Zapotec-English language dictionary.    The tall stacks are a treasure trove of colorful spines with wooden ladders resting up against them, inviting the visitor an ascent to the top.


I happened upon this beautiful copy of “Lecturas Mexicanas,”dating from 1901.

Next up was the Institute of Graphic Arts of Oaxaca, an art center and library founded by the great  Francisco Toledo: Oaxacan artist, activist, and philanthropist.   The center holds an extensive collection of art books from Toledo’s private collection, with paintings by Remedios Varo adorning the walls, and the scent of Oaxacan coffee wafting into the book galleries from the adjacent café.  What more could you want from a visit to your local library?



From the historic to the contemporary, this journey through Mexican libraries ends in Mexico City’s super modern Vasconcelos library, where the stacks hang from the ceiling. Alongside them swims a gargantuan blue whale- a skeleton of life, culture, and history- quite appropriately housed in the public library.

Whale installation by Gabriel Orozco, Biblioteca Vasconcelos.

- Post and images by Maureen Moore

In Memory of a Master: Carlos Fuentes

Earlier this week one of Mexico’s greatest writers, and one of the world’s most admired champions of ideas and letters, died in Mexico City. An ardent supporter of libraries, Carlos was honored in 2001 with a Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award for his lifelong commitment to literature. The magnitude of his influence was felt when he returned to the Central Library last year for ALOUD, speaking to a truly diverse Angeleno audience that spanned generations, from children to grandparents who grew up with his work. “If the library disappears, we too will disappear. We will become ghosts,” he said when asked about the future of libraries. He saw a void in the world without libraries, and this week the world feels a void with his passing.

         Carlos Fuentes with Sergio Muñoz-Bata. All photos by Gary Leonard.

Carlos will be greatly missed by our entire community for his fierce intellectual spirit and imagination, and for providing an immensely beautiful voice for humanity everywhere. Watch the video of Carlos’ conversation with journalist Sergio Muñoz-Bata:

Consider becoming a member of the Library Foundation to help strengthen the mission of the Los Angeles Public Library.  As a thank you, we have a limited number of signed copies of Fuentes’ novel Destiny and Desire that you can select as part of the ALOUD bookshelf benefit when joining the Foundation at an ALOUD program at the Supporter level or higher.

You can find a range of Carlos’ work at the Los Angeles Public Library. Browse the library’s collection here.

We’ve Had Enough/Estamos Hasta la Madre

When the 24-year-old Juan Francisco was killed last year—another innocent victim of the some 50,000* that have been killed by acts of violence related to the “drug war” in Mexico—his father, poet and columnist Javier Sicilia, said “we’ve had enough.”  Javier made the decision to renounce poetry in order to dedicate himself to giving voice to the voiceless so that the politics governing the fight might shift.

Betto Arcos, Javier Sicilia, Ruben Martinez (L to R) Photo: Gary McCarthy

Sicilia has since become the face of the Movement for Peace and Justice.  Casually dressed in jeans and a khaki vest, and adorned with the now iconic brown weathered hat and a multitude of medallions, bracelets, and rosaries, Sicilia joked during his appearance at ALOUD last week that he sometimes feels like a saint from a small village, carrying the amulets and mementos given to him by those that have crossed his path.  These symbols remind him there is a country of victims out there praying for him and the Movement—for an end to the impunity, crime, and corruption that have ravaged the nation over the past 6 years during President Felipe Calderón’s tenure.

Interlocutor  Rubén Martínez and Betto Arcos, translating for Javier this evening, opened the discussion with a poem from San Juan de la Cruz, the 16th century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic whose poem “The Obscure Night of the Soul” juxtaposes the darkness the soul must encounter in order to reach the light.

A man of deep faith himself, Javier spoke about the physical caravan organized by the Movement for Peace as a way to retake the ancient Christian practice of a pilgrimage—a journey to heal society and to fill political life with spirituality.  After leading a caravan in Mexico this June, which proceeds the July presidential elections, Sicilia plans to take it north to the United States. Starting at the border with Tijuana and moving northeast all the way to Washington D.C., he hopes to bring awareness to the American government and its citizens that they too hold a great responsibility in this suffering, through the consumption of drugs and the supply of firearms that travels from the U.S. directly into Mexico, both legally and illegally. (The impact was underscored when Martínez polled the audience asking, “How many of you know people who have been affected by the violence on either side of the border?” An astounding show of hands were raised.)

The discussion was layered with rich political and metaphysical complexities that comprise Sicilia. When asked what the desert means to him, as is often referenced in his work, Sicilia replied, “It’s a strange, empty place, but only in emptiness can one feel the presence of God.  San Juan de la Cruz speaks of the desert as a  window, where light comes through, but if it is dirty you only see the window.  When we clean it, you only see the light.  Even though there is nothing more than the horizon and the mountains, you can feel God in this landscape.  The presence appears where there is nothing present.”  With a kinship to Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez, he believes the caravans have the capacity to bring back the sacred desert- crossing hell for redemption.

Perhaps one of the most truthful and remarkable moments during the conversation came during the Q & A, when a young man asked Sicilia to describe his encounter with President Felipe Calderón last year.  Sicilia’s generous response, shared with pause and meditation, spoke of his unique meeting behind closed doors, where the two men had the opportunity to speak to each other not as president and citizen, but as Felipe and Javier.

Javier shared with Felipe the story of the prophet Nathan and King David, where the King, whose criminal act of stealing wives from other men created a domino effect of tragedy within the kingdom. One day, when he is called upon to moderate a conflict between shepherds, he asks who is responsible for the conflict.  “You, sir,” responds the kingdom.  In his own defense, Felipe Calderón jumped in to say, “But I didn’t take anybody’s wife,” to which Sicilia soberly responded, “No, but you took my son, and the 40,000* others who have died.  You owe that to the country.”

Sicilia concluded by stating it was in that discussion that “we touched the man. And this helped a lot. The political life has to be humanized. “

To learn more about the drug-related violence in Mexico, watch journalist Charles Bowden (ALOUD, May 2010) talk about “Murder City,” his book on the devastation ravaging the city of Juarez. 

To learn more about the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity’s summer caravan, contact Global Exchange.

*Unofficial statistic.  Many reports say it could be between 50-60,000.  Later in the interview Sicilia uses the figure of 40,000, which is one of the figures the Mexican government cites.