Havana’s International Book Fair opened its doors in February with its usual flair to once again become that huge annual event celebrating the mythical power of books. Perched on the ramparts of the Morro-Cabaña Complex, which provide a spectacular view of the city, the Book Fair hosted thousands of visitors, especially crowds of young people.
Many important book fairs are held all over the world, but the one in Havana stands out because of how popular it is with the Cuban people—perhaps because each visitor gets to feel like an important ingredient in the festivities. The fortress itself provides an impressive backdrop. This is a historical site that is surrounded by natural beauty, a fort that was constructed to defend the capital from pirate attacks. Visitors are free to wander through passageways and narrow tunnels in the search for spectacular book offers.
Ecuador featured as special guest in this 23rd edition of the Book Fair and many talented writers, critics, researchers and publishers from the Latin American country were in attendance to give us a broad view of the culture of the Andean nation. There were also exhibits revealing a fascinating potpourri of the highly prized arts and crafts from Ecuador.
True to its tradition, every year the Fair pays special tribute to two Cuban intellectuals who have been awarded the National Prize for Literature and the National Prize for Social Sciences. This year tributes went to writer Nersys Felipe and historian Rolando Rodríguez. Nersys Felipe is a respected writer of children’s books, which have delighted various generations of Cuban readers. Rolando Rodriguez has written books evaluating events and people in Cuban history. The work of both these writers has been re-published and the Fair had these on hand while providing discussion panels about them.
Several centenaries of important Cuban authors are being celebrated this year during the Fair— Onelio Jorge Cardoso, who is best known for his research of customs on the island, generating amazingly perfect pieces; and Samuel Feijoo, who left us an extraordinary body of poetry that blends with his pictorial work and his research and promotion of several Cuban artists.
This Fair has also given us a wonderful opportunity to revisit the writing of one of Cuba’s principal 19th-century authors, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, on the occasion of two hundred years since her birth. Avellaneda’s books have a unique way of combining extensive knowledge and typically Cuban qualities in various literary genres such as theatre, novels and poetry.
This year’s Book Fair spread out to several cultural institutions in Havana, including the Pabellón Cuba, the Dulce Marí a Loynaz Center for Literary Promotion, the José Martí Society, UNEAC, Casa del Alba and the Center for Studies on Marti. These institutions have held poetry readings, book launchings and debates on subjects of current interest.
The main Fair site at the Morro-Cabana Complex and the several sub-sites have held colloquiums and encounters that have contributed a wealth of ideas towards the intellectual positions of our day. Among these, the Encounter of Translators and Publishers went on for several sessions and certainly made valuable contributions to the efforts being made to bring languages from distant geographies closer together. Historians also held a colloquium that was punctuated with controversy and presented a variety of interpretative nuances.
The Encounter of the Young Writers of Latin America and the Caribbean, held at the Pabellón Cuba, was outstanding for helping us to discover the voices that will be shaping the destiny of the literature in this region in the years to come.
Meetings with hugely relevant figures from world literature, such as Sergei Lukianenko and Gonçalo Tavares, for example, enabled the public to have interesting dialogues.
Among some of the more significant events that occurred during the Book Fair was the awarding of the National Prize for Literature, which this year went to writer Reina María Rodríguez and of the Nicolás Guillén Prize for Poetry to Antón Arrufat. In the case of Reina María Rodríguez, the award recognized not only a body of fascinating work but also her literary sensibility, which is without precedent in the Cuban literary tradition and, above all, her ethical position transformed into language. Antón Arrufat is an author who has had a long fruitful career spanning from the 1960s with his controversial Los siete contra Tebas (Seven against Thebes) and who has recently reappeared as a vital poet totally in synch with his times.
As in years past, the popular Children’s Pavilion provided kids with infinite possibilities for entertainment and spiritual growth. It was a combination of wonderful books and extremely popular kites. And as usual, San Francisco Square was the site for musical concerts in the evenings.
The new publications appearing at the Fair this year included books that were totally different from each other: the novels Posar desnuda en La Habana by Wendy Guerra and Búfalos camino al matadero by Ahmel Echevarría; the book of poetry La gran arquitecta by Legna Rodríguez; and books dedicated to boxing, Félix Savón. Esplendor and Records Boxísticos.
On that note, as we gaze out on the sea from the fortified heights, we once again bid adieu to this yearly appointment with literature in Havana.