Last week I did something I've never done before, which was to attend an international book fair outside the US. I went to the IX Feria Internacional del Libro 2006, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. This government-sponsored literary and arts festival, which was much larger and more vibrant than I'd expected (it's the largest in the Caribbean, and one of the larger ones in Latin America), ran from April 24 through May 7, and took place mostly throughout the grounds and museums of Santo Domingo's designated arts and cultural area, the Plaza de la Cultura Juan Pablo Duarte, in the leafy Gazcue neighborhood. The fair's theme was "Leer Ilumina" (Reading Illuminates), and from my spot observations, the nearly two-week event drew thousands of authors, booksellers, and literary enthusiasts from across the city, nation, and world. Most of the attendees and literary figures I came across were from Hispanophone countries; the strong attendance of Dominicans themselves, especially young adults and children, was particularly encouraging. As far as I could discern, the presence of Anglophone publishers and writers was minimal, however, outside of a few joint English-Spanish Dominican-American and Puerto Rican books, and I didn't see any official US representation (which perhaps was a good thing given that there were several exhibits both at the fair and in the city (at the Parque Independencia) commemorating the country's liberation four decades ago from the US invasion and occupation that began in 1965). There were booths and pavillions from France, Italy, Japan, Haiti, Germany, and other nations.
Every year, the fair designates a País Invitado (Invited Country), or Country of Honor, and this year's honoree was Argentina, which has one of the most distinguished literary traditions in 20th century Spanish-language and world literature. Argentina mounted a pavilion which I didn't find especially impressive (in it there was an English-language (?) travelogue film, with Spanish subtitles, that was packing people in but which I found sort of cheesy and dull). Much more interesting I thought was the tiny historical exhibit the Dominican National Library featured on Argentina's major authors that I spent a good while viewing. Other highlights of the festival included an exhibit of paintings by poets, including some beautiful small canvases by one of the DR's most famous authors, Marcio Veloz Maggiolo (above, right, from Gutierrez's Escritores Dominicanos); a pavillion dedicated to the fair's dedicatee, the prolific Maggiolo himself, which included many more examples of his plastic gifts, many copies of his books, and photos of him with writers I adore, like Jose Saramago and João Guimarães Rosa; several historical rooms in different museums devoted to aspects of Dominican and Latin American history; the modestly stocked but engaging Museum of Contemporary Art; and the almost endless array of Spanish-language publishers and booksellers, which were divided up into various categories. Another exciting aspect of attending was that the minimal English-language presence meant that I had to function almost completely in Spanish (or occasionally French). I managed okay, though there were moments when my lack of Spanish vocabulary and longstanding mild deafness, which was first identified in first grade (when I opened the letter from the auditory testers to my parents, saw that they'd noted I had a possible hearing problem, and promptly threw it down the grate at the curb) combined to such an extent that I caught about half of what was being said. Throughout I felt like a guest at a very special party whose secrets were being steadily revealed to me, so long as I paid attention and made more than a cursory effort.
Whenever I travel outside the US, I always look for books by authors I know and have never heard of, and this trip I came across several revelations. One was the Dominican author Pedro Peix (1952-), whose highly lauded, inventively experimental stories and prose pieces were collected and published by the fair's organizers, via their publishing unit Ferilibro (Dirección del Feria International del Libro) in a huge and attractive volume, El amor es el placer de la maldad: Relatos 1976-2006 (Love Is Evil's Pleasure: Stories 1976-2006), which Jimmy Hungría compiled. I recalled Peix's name (but hadn't read his story) from Marguerite Fernández Olmos's and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert's Caribbean short-story anthology, Remaking a Lost Harmony. Another Dominican author whose work I'd seen before but wasn't too familiar with was poet Mateo Morrison (1947-), who is a native of San Pedro de Macorís, the town from which a number of the country's most famous baseball players (Sammy Sosa, Alfonso Soriano, Robinson Cañó, George Bell, Joaquín Andújar, etc.) come from, and which has had a history of immigration from the English-speaking Caribbean as well as of African-Americans during the Boyer regime in the 1820s.
Other authors whose books I picked up include La Vasta Lejanía (The Vast Distance) by Cuban poet Agustín Labrada (1964-)--and there were so many fascinating books of Cuban poetry I had trouble picking. The cultural and arts organ Cielonaranja's press offered up some of the most visually appealing books, bound in what looked like heavy brown card stock, with linotype-style printed title cards and inside pages, and I ended up getting a reprints of works by Antonio Lockward Artiles (1943-) and late fiction avatar Aída Cartagena Portalatín (1918-1994). My visit to their booth involved a dreadlocks demonstration to a group of young schoolgirls! I had also long been curious about the Congo-derived drumming traditions which are based in the town of Villa Mella, which is north of Santo Domingo city proper, and I found a book, ¡Kalunga Eh! Los Congos de Villa Mella, by Dominican anthropologist Carlos Hernández Soto. One press that had lots of books I was interested in was Isla Negra, based in Puerto Rico. Juan Dicent (?-) read from his collection of contemporary pop-flavored stories, Summertime (Shampoo, 2005), at the fair's Café Bohemia on Tuesday, and I figured I'd get the book and read the whole thing. Two volumes I bought were by the acclaimed Dominican short-story writer and scholar, José Alcántara Almánzar (1946-), and a fairly young Dominican author who lives part-time in the US, Reynolds Emmanuel Andújar (1977-, pictured at left, courtesy Cielonaranja). I was especially looking for Puerto Rican author Ángel Lozada's second novel, No quiero quedarme sola y vacía (I Don't Want to Be Left Alone and Empty, 2006), published by Isla Negra, which my friend Anthony Montgomery hipped me to before I headed down and which was to make its debut (se estrenaría) at the fair, but I had to leave before Ángel was scheduled to read and the different guys repping the press that I spoke with couldn't even find it in the catalogue! (I wasn't able to find his first novel in any of the New York Spanish-language bookstores, so I ordered it online.)
Other highlights of the trip included having a great time with Anthony and getting an inside view (literally) of Santo Domingo's Colonial Zone houses and apartments (as if we had stepped straight into a Pedro Peix story setting); having brunch with David Lee of the Sports Bar; finally meeting Alan Washington of Tropical Desires; walking the streets of the city, especially down Calle Cesar Nicolas Penson, past the heavily fortified American Embassy; talking and dining with Bernard T. of Philly; witnessing the mad campaigning for the upcoming elections (though I could do without the eardrum-blasting speakers; catching the tail-end of the still-unfinished Hard Rock Café's fashion show on the Conde; spotting Scotch of Casa New Yorker at the airport and later getting a chance to laugh with him and Byron; and hanging out with the many other Americans (Vincent, Joshua, and many others) and Dominicans (José, el maestro de la moda, y los otros).
I'll post photos in my next entry.