The Fiesta That Demolishes the Walls Between the Americas
By Jesús Aguado
The San Miguel Writers’ Conference will take place from Wednesday, February 15 to Sunday, February 19 at the Hotel Real de Minas. At this festival there are three nations united by literature—Mexico, the United States of America, and Canada—and there are no physical walls. Writers and non-writers gather annually to nourish the mind, to share what they have done, or to discover the potential that they have to create new stories (fiction or nonfiction).
From the Co-director’s Perspective
This is the 12th year of the literary festival’s existence, and it arrives stronger than ever. It remains intimate, but it is open to the general public for all those who love literature. This is a fiesta targeted at all those willing to learn about new worlds and new stories, as well as to understand what was behind their creation. Attendees can also learn how to write a short story, a novel, or a memoir.
According to UNESCO, most Mexicans read, on average, two books a year. For that reason the commitment of the Writers’ Conference is to include Mexicans in their programs and encourage them to discover the pleasure of reading. Moreover, Guanajuato has been ranked in the last place in this nation in terms of education. That is why, according to Maia Williams, co-director of the festival, the group “plants the seed” of reading in Mexican children.
Jesús Aguado: The Conference not only takes place during the “month of love,” but also in times of a diplomatic confrontation between the US and Mexico. Will there be political topics in the Conference?
Maia Williams: Our overarching goals are to inspire, inform, and build community. And these days, nearly everything has a political implication—and it’s often negative. What better time than the “month of love” to channel our energies to facilitate thoughtful change and resistance to diffuse these volatile situations. It’s high time for each of us to “use our words” to speak up and write about what matters most. The only politician invited is Mayor Ricardo Villarreal, who will welcome our guests.
JA: From your perspective, how is the literary production in Mexico?
MW: As the director of a literary organization operating in Mexico, I’m in awe of the literary traditions of my adopted country. Fine Mexican writers, journalists, and poets have and will continue to command the literary world stage, and several immediately come to mind: Octavio Paz, Elena Poniatowska, Homero Aridjis, Laura Ezquivel, Carlos Fuentes, and Juan Villoro. Now, let’s open the literary “border” between Mexico and the United States to include a few more stars with Mexican ancestral roots: Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Alfredo Corchado.
JA: It is easy to see that the festival is not targeted to the general public, but to those of the middle and upper class. How does the festival include those who cannot pay to attend the workshops or lectures?
MW: SMWC provides over one hundred full and partial scholarships each year to Mexican writers and teachers, teens, and adults. For three years, our creative writing workshop has included seventy teens from San Miguel and the surrounding villages at no charge. This program, co-led by experienced teacher of literature Rosi Zorilla, and celebrated children’s author Duncan Tonatiuh, will include another forty teens from Celaya who will be joining our seventy local teens to participate in a special writing seminar conducted by the acclaimed Mexican novelist and university professor, Pedro Ángel Palou. Mr Palou will give a keynote address Friday, February 17, at 6:30pm, at Hotel Real de Minas.
Adults are not left behind in these efforts. Annually, we award thirty-five to forty full and partial scholarships to teachers, writers, and social change advocates to pursue and improve their writing.
JA: Guanajuato has been ranked in the last place nationally, in terms of education. How does the festival support educational programs to improve reading and education in the state?
MW: Year-round and beyond the spotlight of the Writers’ Conference, dozens of San Miguel Literary Sala, A.C. volunteers coordinate multiple community outreach programs, all of which promote literacy and increased awareness and appreciation for literature. Approximately one thousand children (as young as four), teens, and young adults benefit from these programs youth each year. They are fueled by donations of time, expertise, and money from the Literary Sala’s 350 members, patrons, and sponsors. Armida Zapeda and Daniela Franco are instrumental in these efforts.
JA: According to UNESCO, people in Mexico read on average 2 books a year, when the world’s average is 10. What does the festival do to promote that reading “is cool” for those in vulnerable sectors where cheap literature is not easy to find.
MW: The Literary Sala does what it can to engage Mexicans of all ages in higher quality reading and writing experiences. As an example, for ten years the Literary Sala has underwritten a popular weekly Spanish-language literary radio show, Sancho Panza de Cabeza (1280 AM), hosted by Yolanda Lacarieri and Jorge Coro (Wednesdays, 7:00pm).
Happily, in San Miguel, there are over one hundred NGOs. Some feed the hungry and build shelter for the homeless; others provide funds for students to stay in school. All of these programs are vital, and I like to think we are all working toward the common goal of strengthening the social fabric of our community and providing opportunities for people to continue learning, so they and their children will have the tools necessary to provide for themselves and the people they care about. We, the people of San Miguel (lifelong residents and expatriates), benefit from these collective successes.
Tickets—for the whole conference or for single events—are available at sanmiguelwritersconference.org or go to Festivals and Events of Qué Pasa for the program of keynote speakers.
Among the keynote speakers are:
From the United States, David Ebershoff
He is a writer, editor, and teacher. His novels, include The Danish Girl, adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Academy Award Winners Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander; and the number one bestseller The 19th Wife, which was adapted into a television movie. Ebershoff’s books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages to critical acclaim and twice Out Magazine has named him to its annual Out list of 100 influential LGBT people. David had a long career as an editor at Random House, where he edited more than twenty New York Times bestsellers and three Pulitzer Prize winners and a winner of the National Book Award.
His lecture The Danish Girl will be held on Saturday, February 18, at 6:30pm.
From Canada, Naomi Klein
Her lecture This Changes Everything will be given on Sunday, February 19, at 6:30pm.
Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist, and author of the international bestsellers, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (2014), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) and No Logo (2000).
This Changes Everything was an instant New York Times bestseller and is being translated into over 25 languages. Nominated for multiple awards, it won the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The documentary inspired by the book and directed by Avi Lewis, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015.
Since This Changes Everything was published, Klein’s primary focus has been on putting its ideas into action. She is one of the organizers and authors of Canada’s Leap Manifesto, a blueprint for a rapid and justice-based transition off fossil fuels. The Leap has been endorsed by over 200 organizations and tens of thousands of individuals and has inspired similar climate justice initiatives around the world.