Cristina Fuentes. The role of hay festivals promoting literature

In recent years literature festivals have been popping up all over the world from Dubai to Jaipur, and have become important channels for promoting the work of authors to new and existing readers. In a time where the world is increasingly moving online, the physical or tangible experience of a festival is becoming more and more important - a place and a network where like-minded people can meet, writers meeting other writers, and fans meeting other fans. For authors, used to working on their own, literature festivals offer opportunities to meet their readers and potential readers, to hear their thoughts and ideas.

I started working for the Hay Festival of Literature in 2004, an international festival in Hay-on-Wye, a small town in Wales that is world famous for its density of bookshops. The Hay Festival was started 23 years ago by Norman Florence and his son Peter, the current director. The festival, which lasts for 10 days, welcomes more than 500 international writers and public figures; it consists of around 400 events including conversations, debates, interviews, concerts and exhibitions. It plays host to 150,000 visitors from the all over the United Kingdom, Europe and America.

In July 2004, I took up Peter Florence’s challenge to look into starting a new international Hay festival in Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, an idea that had been suggested by Carlos Fuentes.

I went to meet Carlos Fuentes in Cartagena in November 2004 where he had arranged a meeting with Gabriel García Márquez, Jaime Abello (Director of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Journalism Foundation), Sergio Ramirez (Nicaraguan writer) and Juan Manuel Santos (the recently elected President). They were all very enthusiastic about the idea of a literature festival in Cartagena and this meeting became the seed of what we now know as Hay Festival Cartagena de Indias – an international literature festival in its 5th year.

The first Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias took place in January 2006, a bit more than a year after our initial meeting with Fuentes and Marquez. Over the last 5 years we have brought an amazing roster of English speaking writers and journalist like Anne Enright, Isabel Fonseca, Hanif Kureishi, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, David Mitchell, Kiran Desai, Ronnan Bennet, Monica Ali, and mixed them with the best of the Hispanic literature, such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Javier Cercas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fernando Savater, Enrique Vilamatas, Jorge Volpi, Laura Restrepo, Juan Villoro, Almudena Grandes, Fernando Vallejo and many many more.

The mix of a savvy media campaign and a high profile programming made it very appealing and it very quickly became one of the main events in Colombia. Many of the foreign authors were in their first trip to Colombia, all delighted with the amazing audience and interest they received.

Only seven months after the Cartagena festival, we launched another new festival in Segovia – The Hay Festival Segovia. The strong interest in Spain resulted in a Hay Festival in Alhambra in 2008. This festival brought an Arabic dimension to Hay, with writers such as Elias Koury, Adonis, Tariq Ramadan, Mourid Bargouti and Asia Djebar.

In 2009 the Hay Festival received the Queen’s Award for its work in promoting literature outside the United Kingdom.

This summer, in 2010, we organised for the first time Hay Festival Zacatecas in Mexico – the fourth Hispanic festival in the Hay family.

It is always a pleasure to work in Latin America. The energy and enthusiasm we have found there makes the job very enjoyable.

As a result of our Hispanic festivals and initiatives, the programme for the Hay Festival in Wales, has seen a much larger presence of Spanish speaking writers in recent years. Among these are Jorge Franco, Fernando Savater, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Hector Abad Faciolince, Javier Cercas, Almundena Grandes, Santiago Rocangliolo, David Trueba, Ignacio Martinez de Pisón, Juan Manuel de Prada, Juan Cruz, Antonio Colina, Guadalupe Nettel, Carlos Fuentes, Carlos Ruiz Zafón and others.

This exchange is a vital one for a global festival and enriches the programming. England has always been very cosmopolitan in everything but languages. It is one of the countries in Europe that translates least from other languages. People are used to consuming everything in English - films, music - so until recently they have viewed translated fiction with suspicion. This is slowly changing thanks to the success of foreign authors as Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and initiatives such as New Spanish Books.

Tapping into new talent has always been Hay’s priority. In 2007 when Bogotá was UNESCO World Capital of the Book we were asked by the mayor to organise a Hay Festival in Bogota. However, as Cartagena was already the Colombian home for the Hay Festival, we thought another festival would cannibalise what we had worked hard to build up in Cartagena, so instead we proposed the project Bogotá39, an initiative to select the best 39 writers under the age of 39 from Latin America or from a Latin American origin.

The judging panel was composed of three well-known Colombian writers: Hector Abad Faciolince, Piedad Bonnett and Oscar Collazos. One of the main criteria for selection was that the selected authors had at least one published work. Publishers, literary agents and critics from all over Latin America were asked to nominate authors, as well as the general public who were invited to nominate their candidates over the Internet (on a web page specially designed by the Hay Festival:

57 events took place in 32 different spots in the city of Bogotá: universities, schools, libraries, bars, bookshops, museums, parks and the Planetarium. During these 4 days more than 10,000 people attended the talks. An anthology was published by Ediciones B that was available in Colombia and during the Guadalajara Book Fair that same year, as Colombia was invited as the Guest of Honour. At the time, El Pais wrote: “Bogotá 39 gathered some of the most outstanding Latin American narrators under the age of 39, confirming a new breed of authors: the children of cultural hybridity with a cosmopolitan legacy and a global vocation. They make up a landscape of polyphonic voices without complexes where the short story and the novel coexist in a breath of fresh air. It is funny, says Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, ‘how in the sixties it was a Catalan, Carlos Barral, who brought about the discovery of a generation of Latin American writers and today, in the 21st Century, it is thanks to a Welsh village we get to know each other’. [El País, Babelia, 8th September 2007]

Since Bogotá39, Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Santiago Roncagliolo both were published in the UK. Several of the authors have also won prestigious prizes such as Junot Díaz, who won the Pulitzer prize in 2008 for the book "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’, Ivan Thays was a finalist in Premio Herralde for his novel ‘Un lugar llamado Oreja de Perro’. Andres Neuman won the Alfaguara Prize in 2009 for the book ‘El viajero del siglo’ (Traveller of the Century), Eduardo Halfon won the José María de Pereda short novel Prize for ‘La Pirueta’ in 2010, and Daniel Alarcon was selected as one of the best young American writers by the New Yorker in 2010… these among many other highlights within the 39 writers, proving the list was a great selection.

Many of the Bogotá39 writers have since been invited to our festivals in Spain and the UK, providing them with additional platforms to reach new audiences. I would love to see many more of them published in the UK. Some of them like Wendy Guerra or Guadalupe Nettel are big stars in France, but are still not translated into English. In this current edition of New Spanish Books two of the Bogota39 writers have been selected, Eduardo Halfón and Pablo Casacuberta…. I am keeping my fingers crossed for them.

Apart from the exposure Bogotá39 gave to the authors, one of its successes was the creation of an informal network among these writers. They kept in touch, they invited each other to their countries’ book fairs, they recommended each other to publishers, press etc. The four days spent in Bogotá cemented many long-lasting friendships and in particular for me it meant to have the best available advisors throughout Latin America.

For many authors that have been translated, literature festivals generate significant media attention and publicity, which can have a big impact on sales. Many books and publishers have small or limited marketing budgets, especially for what is considered to be ‘difficult literature’ in the UK, such as their translations - so their presence at festivals can be very important for the author and the awareness of his or her work.

As an international literature festival we work closely with embassies and book promotional bodies, such as Norla (Norway), Irish Literature or Dutch Foundation for Literature. With regards to foreign literature, our aim for the future is to continue to raise awareness of the local or regional literature where our festivals have a presence, as well as providing international platforms for promoting new writers.