I write this on a plane from Mexico City to Los Angeles. I’ve spent the last four days in a town called Xalapa in Veracruz state as a guest of the Hay Literary Festival. Veracruz is where Cortés landed in 1519 bringing 300 years of Spanish rule with him, and where the separation between the church and the State was sanctioned by Benito Juárez in 1859. It’s also the cradle of Mexico’s first civilisation — the Olmecs — that date back to 1500 BC, and home to the jalapeño chilli pepper.
On my first day in Xalapa, I visited the famous Museum of Anthropology after reading an article by the late novelist Carlos Fuentes. I wanted to see the colossal 10-feet-high Olmec heads he had written about; discover what Tlaloc, the rain god, looked like; and Xipe Tótec, the lord of the flayed skin and god of agriculture. “In Mexico,” Fuentes wrote, “it is easy to move simultaneously in time and space.” And it’s true: once I walked out of the Museum, I began to see connections between the past and the present in the streets. The man making me tacos could have been a model for one of those Olmec heads, and the laughing masks I saw in the Museum were replicated everywhere.
Literary festivals can feel like a bit of a time warp too, bringing together writers from various parts of the globe and cramming several events into the space of a few days. I spent an afternoon listening to Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka talk about the “recurrent cycle of human stupidity,” and of his disgust for militant groups like Boko Haram that specifically target teachers and students. I heard British psychoanalyst Susie Orbach talk about the fragility of masculinity and argue whether gender equality could be achieved. I watched Mexican filmmaker and writer, Mario Bellatin’s movie, Bola Negra, about the particular problem of feminicidio in the northern state of Ciudad Juarez.
Off stage, there were talks in the bars and restaurants by writers who wanted to form collectives to protect the rights of books. American journalist John Lee Anderson held forth one night on Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende and his most recent trip to Sri Lanka where he documented the atrocities committed by the Rajapakse regime, and was taken to Prabhakaran’s escape house in the jungle; he said it “smelled like bats.”
One question that emerged during the Festival was whether writers feel objectified by taking part in festivals like the Hay — being trotted out on stage to opine on things and then being carted off to book-signing tables. It is a valid question. In some ways, it is easy to understand a young writer saying ‘Yes.’ But what about Wole Soyinka, now 78? Why does he continue to travel around the world doing what he does?
I can’t say, but am only glad that he does, particularly in a country like Mexico where journalists are an endangered species: Mexico ranks 8th in the world according to the Committee to Protect Journalists when it comes to unpunished murders. For the hundreds of students who listened to Soyinka talk about the importance of free speech, and define the dignity of a human being as the right of choice, the right of voice — it is an inspiration.