International Writers’ Congress: Puerto Rico demonstrates post-pandemic cultural strength with a major congress of Latin American writers | Culture

For three days, the autonomous municipality of Caguas, a city near San Juan de Puerto Rico, became the capital of literature in Spanish. After the parenthesis of the pandemic, a time when literature was a lifeline for millions of people, writers, booksellers and readers came together, some for the first time in two years, to celebrate the communion of literature. About twenty authors from Peru, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Spain participate in the I International Writers’ Congress held on the island, to celebrate the word in Spanish and the profession of faith of its faithful. . Quite a gesture on an island that has English as a co-official language -Puerto Rico is a free state associated with the United States-, but which feels, lives and dreams in Spanish.

The Spaniard Rosa Montero, who presented her latest novel at the congress, The danger of being sane (Seix Barral), underlined the common denominator of all the writers of the world who were above all readers. “For the first time in my life, I couldn’t read anything during the first 15 days of the pandemic, glued to television, to the news; we were all suspended, just waiting for the information. But reading saves us. Who hasn’t felt less alone in life because of a book? Reading is the great talisman of life,” Montero said Tuesday during the first congressional debate, an entertaining dialogue with his friend and colleague Mayra Montero that drew good laughs from the audience.

“Reading is an experience of absolute solitude; the reader thinks he is the only reader on the face of the earth, and at the same time it is a fight against loneliness. In that sense, it is a space of survival,” said Eduardo Lalo, one of Puerto Rican’s most notorious writers; a reflection that highlights the renewed meaning of reading: how it has helped millions of people around the world to cope with confinement. The black hole of the pandemic, which was about, due to the epidemics of the virus, to frustrate the meeting, flew over the contest like a bad dream, those of which literature is also made. “Everyone was ready to attend, there was a real desire to get together after the pandemic,” says Puerto Rican writer Helen Sampedro. “After two years locked up, I wouldn’t miss the feeling of being here for anything in the world,” says Dominican storyteller Pedro Antonio Valdez.

Rosa Montero signs books during the Caguas congress.
Thais Llorca (EFE)

The two Monteros, who coincidentally share a surname, are clear, like hundreds of thousands of other writers around the world, about what they would choose if they had to choose between writing and reading: “Stop reading, it’s dying instantly, it’s living in a world without oxygen,” said Rosa Montero. “Read, read everything I had at hand, without order or concert; without direction, with disorder, when I was a girl, it turned me into a writer,” said the Cuban-born author, based in Puerto Rico.

“It’s moving to see a people thirsty for culture,” William E. Miranda, mayor of Caguas, said in the greeting. “Confirming the importance of culture in our daily life, not only among writers, but also among students, teachers, booksellers.” The conference, in which this newspaper participated as a guest, is dedicated to Norberto González, who developed the network of bookstores on the island, although today readers are saddened by the disappearance of so many bookstores .

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“A writer is above all a super reader. I can stop writing but not reading,” Lalo explained. “As a reader, you realize what a text can do, there is no more transformative effect than reading.” The Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 2013 for his novel simone noted that “Literary fiction is not a form of fantasy, but a deepening into reality, a delving into reality. Fiction is super reality: we readers know what the character doesn’t know,” he explained, not without highlighting the looming problem of reading misunderstanding: readers who respond angrily because fiction does not correspond to what they expect, or to their beliefs, as the case may be, of a student in the course of literary creation whose father, an evangelical pastor, protests against the choice of a story with erotic content. close to the excesses of political correctness that seeks to rewrite children’s stories or dismisses authors for anachronisms. Asking literature to confirm or agree with us, said the Puerto Rican author, is impossible, “because literature, like all artistic works, works with the extremes of the human condition”.

Puerto Rican writer Eduardo Lalo, during the inauguration of the congress.
Puerto Rican writer Eduardo Lalo, during the inauguration of the congress.
Thais Llorca (EFE)

The Congress scenario is not accidental: a country punished by hurricanes, earthquakes and political and financial crisis like Puerto Rico – officially integrated into the United States administratively – which celebrates its identity around literature in Spanish. The sponsorship of the Cervantes Institute, which has no delegations in Spanish-speaking countries, is an indicator of the interest of the call. As several participants pointed out, the role of the Spanish language in the construction of the identity of Puerto Rico is decisive. “There’s no better reason to write than to edit the page for others, to finish telling the story other people are telling. That of a society crossed by violence, including that of the severe colonialism in which we live, which always supposes a usurpation of speech”, concluded Lalo.

In the scenario of the Centro de Bellas Artes de Caguas se mezclan estos días voces y acentos diversos para reflejar aspects de la realidad latinoamericana, su memoria más reciente o las cuentas pendientes de la historia: la participación de los cubanos en la guerra de Angola, en the novel hero’s son by Karla Suárez; gender violence as the seed of all violence, including the violence of the FARC, but also that of the jungle, told by the Colombian novelist Pilar Quintana, who received the Alfaguara Prize in 2021 for her novel the abyss. Race is also a factor of silence in Caribbean literature, written by Afro-descendants like the Puerto Rican Mayra Santos-Febres (“in the race box of the documents [de EE UU] there is no one who represents me, who represents us Afro-Caribbeans or Afro-descendants”); or, finally, literary initiation, in a house without books, stimulated by the consumption of pious plays and porn, by the storyteller Valdez. Without forgetting children’s and youth literature – the public includes many schoolchildren, very curious – and the role and task of creative schools in the forging of an author.

Puerto Rico, as the protagonist of its own story, has not yet been able to explain itself. Its authors, and those of the environment, try these days in the friendly orchard of Caguas.

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