Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Friendship, solidarity, and freedom: this week, our editors present literary news under the banner of liberation.

Borders fade into the background during literary festivals and book fairs in Spain, El Salvador, and Kosovo this week as our editors report on an increasing resolve to disregard distance in honouring literature, gathering readers, publishers, and writers from around the world. Madrid glows with a rich festival of poetry, history is made in El Salvador as its first multilingual online literary publication is unveiled, and Kosovo pays tribute to women artists and writers in its capital. 

Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor, reporting from Spain 

A rowdy concert, out-of-control house party, or public protest are what come to mind when I think about the police showing up to a gathering in Madrid. However, it was a poetry reading whose audience had spilled out onto the street in front of bookshop Desperate Literature which brought them to give a warning on a warm Tuesday night on May 28.

Over the past two years, I have become involved with the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid, first by doing some introductions for the more or less monthly reading series, and eventually becoming their Director of Literary Outreach as we began to make plans to launch Madrid’s first ever anglophone poetry festival. A grassroots and volunteer outfit from the beginning, the series started by accident on March 27, 2012 when poet and Episcopal priest, Spencer Reece, held what was intended to be a “one-off” reading on the patio of the Catedral del Redentor for Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. In partnership with bookseller and co-founder/co-manager of Desperate Literature Terry Craven, and scholar Elizabeth Moe, Reece was unaware that the series would eventually evolve into the packed and vibrant Unamuno Poetry Festival. In the end, the week of May 27 through June 1, 2019 would see eighty readings spread across five venues, including a lecture series hosted in the historic Residencia de Estudiantes, where Federico Garcia Lorca, Salvador Dalí, and Luis Buñuel all lived and studied. Taking place in the mornings, these panels counted poet Mark Doty, Laura García-Lorca (niece of Federico García- Lorca), and local Madrid native poet Óscar Curieses among their ranks, alongside many others. 

While the theme of the festival was poetry and friendship, there were many other threads running through the week. Poet Jericho Brown commented in his Friday evening reading at the International Institute that he was deeply moved by the intersection of queerness and spirituality that was prevalent throughout many of the readings. Poet Sheila Maldonado noted a similar strength in relation to latinx and chicanx poetics. For my part, the bilingual anthology which gathered one poem from each poet, expertly translated into Spanish by poet and translator Jorge Vessel, was one of the festival’s most important elements as it allowed for bilingual readings throughout the week, so that a mixed audience could be introduced to a huge wealth of contemporary American poetry, as well as a few writers from the UK and poets Pádraig Ó Tuama and Caitríona O´Reilly from Ireland. While the festival drew a mostly Spanish and American audience, one enthusiast for Chicano studies flew in for the festival from Istanbul, inspiring hope that the series will continue to grow and become even more global in its ambitions.

By just a couple days, the festival overlapped with the expansive Feria del Libro in Madrid which is located in Retiro Park each year. I was able to attend one fantastic panel about Afro-Spanish women writers, led by bookseller and editor Deborah Ekoka, before I had to leave, and the Feria will continue until June 16.

Nestor Gomez, Editor-at-Large, reporting from El Salvador

The Feria del Libro de Arte y Literatura was held from May 3 to May 5 at El Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) in San Salvador. Sponsored by MARTE and the Cámara Salvadoreña del Libro, the book festival continued its mission to promote a love of literature and foster a learning culture for the whole family. The festival had over twenty-five hundred people in attendance and this year’s new theme of “Discovering New Worlds” featured new work by the Premio Hugo Lindo recipient Víctor Mata, a writer’s discussion titled “Do you want your child to be a reader?,” a dialogue on “Dalton, The Subversive Poet in Prison,” a reading by the writing workshop Ecfrasis, a presentation on the youth theater work “El Coleccionista,” and more. In addition to the many presentations and discussions, the book fair showcased many children’s books at the Punto Infantil as well as mature literature by publishers such as Editorial Delgado, Clásicos Roxsil, Kalina, and Dirección de Publicaciones e Impresos (DPI).

One notable presentation at the book festival was the release of the inaugural issue of La Piscucha, the first ever online multilingual literary magazine of El Salvador featuring Salvadoran artists and writers from around the world. Willy Palomo, Editor-in-Chief for English, wrote a Facebook post describing his June 2018 trip to El Salvador “with a mission to find poets to translate into English and find translators willing to translate the poems of our diaspora into Spanish. My goals were modest: I just wanted Salvadoran poets to be aware of one another, no matter what borders, what languages and what differences stood in our way . . . Inside its web pages, you will find eight different poets, three articles, two interviews, one short story, and nine visual artists whose work has been translated into English and Spanish . . . I want Piscucha to be a platform where we tackle issues urgent to El Salvador and its diaspora. Where we translate our different dreams, struggles, and learn to stand in solidarity with one another.” Not long after the magazine’s release in El Salvador, another launch event was held in Los Angeles featuring several team members of the English-speaking branch of La Piscucha.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Kosovo

Between June 5 and 9, Pristina held its 21st Book Fair, and this was a particularly special one, as it coincided with the celebration of Pristina’s own liberation in June 1999. In fact, the first Pristina Book Fair was among the first cultural activities organized in the newly freed city. This edition of the fair saw the participation of approximately one hundred publishers coming from Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia, and the larger Albanian diaspora. Some fifteen hundred new titles joined the fifty-five hundred-plus existing books displayed at the fair this year, which was expected to receive about forty-four thousand visitors. Readers were lured in by the discounted books and the opportunity to meet their favorite writers in the forty promotional events organized during the book fair, including Fatos Kongoli and French literary critic Juan Asensio.

Pristina is also home to the FEMART Festival, “the biggest Feminist Festival of Women Artists and Activists in the region.” The Festival is hosting its seventh edition between June 10 and 16, and its theme this year will be “Freedom Versus Shame.” Throughout the week, the festival will feature a variety of different performances and activities, from poetry readings, theater performances, discussion panels, and even a Mastercall on how to improve Wikipedia to include the biographies of more women in its pages. But the Festival’s most poignant piece was its opening performance at the Grand Hotel where “wartime rape and sexual violence was committed against women in Kosovo,” to highlight the fact that although evidence of such crimes was found within the hotel, these crimes were never prosecuted. In fact, for the duration of the event, the basement of the Grand Hotel in Pristina, will feature an exhibition by Eliza Hoxha, “Be My Face,” to commemorate the victims of war-time rape and “to show solidarity with women that have been victims of sexual violence and have not had the courage to speak.”


Read more dispatches on the Asymptote blog: