PEN International at Hay Festival Xalapa 2012: Under the Volcano


At the start of the month, October 3-7, PEN International was at the Hay Festival Xalapa, Mexico, to mount our first events in an exciting new partnership with the Hay Festival. From now on PEN International Free the Word! events will feature within most Hay programmes around the world.

All festival participants were lodged in the Hotel Xalapa just outside the centre of town. A constant stream of taxis and minibuses ferried participants to and fro between the hotel and several venues that hosted close to 70 events over the five days. None of this would have gone smoothly without the seamless administrative skills of the Hay team and their legion of helpful – and unflappable – student volunteers. Thank you to all the organisers.

Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz State, lies on high ground under the snow-capped Pico de Orizaba volcano and is known as ‘the Athens of Veracruz’ for its long association with the arts and with the distinguished Universidad Veracruzana, which has one of its campuses there.

On the first night we attended a talk by JMG Le Clézio (hotfoot from our PEN Congress in South Korea), Jean Meyer, and Martín Solares in the cavernous Teatro del Estado, which was full to the brim. It was wonderful to see so many young people in the audience, and to hear these two French hispanophiles reflect on their shared experiences of Mexico, the legacy of the Cristero War, and the work of Juan Rulfo.

The next evening our first Free the Word! event took place, with Peter Godwin – President of the PEN American Center – in conversation with veteran journalist Ed Vulliamy and distinguished travel writer Michael Jacobs. The three of them discussed writing across a range of genres: reportage, fiction and autobiography – the complicated position of writing about and from zones of conflict, including Mexico. See coverage of the event and in The Telegraph.

One of the three standout events of the festival was the young Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli in conversation with Enrique Vila-Matas, who had been invited to discuss his latest book Aire de Dylan but in typically meandering vilamatiana digressions, the Catalan master’s talk took in thoughts on Witold Gombrowicz, Kafka, drunkenness, and the essays of JM Coetzee. Vila-Matas also expressed his deep admiration for the work of Sergio Pitol, Xalapa-resident and author of El arte de la fuga, who was in the audience; from the moment he first appeared at the festival’s opening in the Palacio de Gobierno, Pitol garnered more public adulation than any other writer.

The second was Peter Godwin in conversation with the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka in the Casa del Lago tent. As with another of his Free the Word! events, Godwin opened by dedicating the talk to the 12 journalists murdered in Veracruz State (currently the most dangerous in the country) over the past 18 months and highlighting the fact that in 90 per cent of such cases no culprit is ever found; there was spontaneous applause after he had read a roll call of the dead. Soyinka talked about his childhood, the current state of Nigeria, and the increasing threat from the Islamic militants Boko Haram. When Soyinka stated ‘If you deny people freedom of expression, bottled-up grievances will well-up and manifest themselves in fatal monologues as opposed to dialogue…understand this: when freedom of expression is denied then the cloak of immunity is being spread around a powerful minority…it is not a mystical thing, it is the natural possession of humanity, that which differentiates humans from animals,’ the prescience was not lost on the Mexican audience. You can read an account of the event in El País.

The third event was Ed Vulliamy in conversation with the Colombian writer Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, in which Vulliamy – and expert on Mexico and the author of Amexica: War Along the Borderline – detailed the disturbing route that laundered drug money takes from its source right up to the highest levels of other, supposedly respectable, societies. Read an account by Michael Jacobs, in which he quite rightly reminds us why Lydia Cacho was unable to attend the festival, and a subsequent report on the violence in Mexico by Vulliamy in the Observer.

Other highlights included a photographic exhibition in the town’s Pinoteca by Daniel Mordzinski on the Bogotá39; a poetry gala including Tishani Doshi, Luigi Amara, and Tedi López Mills (interviewed by us HERE); Jon Lee Anderson talking about Iran with Lila Azam Zanganeh; and our very own successful film event in collaboration with Future Shorts.

PEN has consistently called for an end to the war on Mexico’s journalists, writers and bloggers. Despite its Constitutional and international human rights obligations, Mexico continues to violate journalists’ and writers’ basic human rights. In January 2012 PEN International published a full-page ad in El Universal signed by 170 of the world’s leading writers declaring solidarity with Mexican writers and journalists. This was part of the PEN Protesta! delegation to Mexico which was comprised of public events and high-level lobbying of the Mexican authorities. The next stage of the campaign includes the launch of the Write Against Impunity anthology, the first texts of which will appear on our website on November 2, the Mexican Day of the Dead.

On October 4, the morning the festival opened, 65-year-old Roberto Rizzo Murrieta and his daughter María Antonieta Rizzo Hernández, 41, were stabbed to death in their home right in the centre of Xalapa. It is reported that Roberto – the brother of Ernesto Rizzo Murrieta who founded the newspaper Mundo de Xalapa – and his daughter both worked for the family business. Their deaths have been attributed to a botched robbery and were not reported in the three main local papers Milenio, La Jornada Veracruz and Diario de Xalapa. That same night, as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble played in the Teatro del Estado, a member of the audience handed them a banner protesting the murder of journalists which a band member waved above his head. Similar demonstrations were enacted at the Susana Baca concert (see photos) and that of Café Tacvba on the final night. Aside from its usual championing of literature of the highest quality, the Hay Festival is also to be congratulated for providing a platform for debate in Xalapa, and for helping turn international attention towards Mexico in general.

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Although many of the more controversial events or statements by festival participants went unreported in the local press, certain media such as Proceso (for which Regina Martínez worked) did provide balanced accounts. We were also delighted to find out that many of Hay’s student volunteers were also members of the #YoSoy132 movement, founded by students at the Universidad Iberoamericana in May 2006 but now with a nationwide following and their own independent bulletin Los4Barrios. #YoSoy132, using social media channels and an every-increasing and more unified grassroots network, stage peaceful protests and denounce disinformation put out by state-owned media outlets. With such little public faith in the aspirations of President Elect Enrique Peña Nieto, the future of a free press in Mexico may well rest in the hands of brave young people such as these.

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James Tennant interviews the Mexican poet Tedi López Mills HERE.

To see all PEN’s Xalapa photos, click here



The Three Centres of PEN Internacional in México:



San Miguel PEN http://www.sanmiguelpen.com/



PEN Club de México http://www.penmexico.org.mx/



PEN Centro Guadalajara http://www.pen-international.org/centres/centro-de-guadalajara/?lang=es