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Dispatches from the 2019 FIL in Guadalajara, Mexico

By Victor Meadowcroft

Victor Meadowcroft reports from the 2019 international book fair in Guadalajara, where he attended panel discussions and launches, browsed the booths of innumerable international publishers, and interviewed writers María Fernanda Ampuero and Ariana Harwicz, and publishers Diego Rabasa (Sexto Piso) and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press).

On December 2–4, writers, publishers, booksellers, and translators from around the world converged on the Expo Guadalajara convention center in Mexico’s second largest city for the thirty-third edition of the Feria Internacional del Libro de Guadalajara—or “la FIL,” as it is commonly known. Founded in 1987 as an initiative of the University of Guadalajara, the FIL has become the world’s biggest Spanish-language book fair, and is second only to Frankfurt on the global stage. Since 1993, each new edition of the FIL has invited a different country or region to participate as Guest of Honor, and this year it was India’s turn to send over a party of more than one hundred authors and publishers (as well as dancers and musicians) to promote Indian literature and culture within the Spanish-speaking world.


Image: Mexican storyteller Priscila Trejo performs a version of the Ramayana written for children.

Based in an imposing-looking building covering an area of thirty-four thousand square meters, the main exhibition space is divided into two enormous rooms: one for publishers based or represented in Mexico, ranging from titans like Penguin Random House and Grupo Planeta to proud Mexican independents like Almadía, Dharma Books, and Sexto Piso; and a second room for international exhibitors, where the national stands of countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Portugal, and Uruguay are located, along with those belonging to smaller international publishing houses, such as the exciting Colombian independent Angosta Editores.


Image: Sexto Piso stand

Every year, the book fair also runs a fellowship program called the FIL Rights Exchange, which brings over a selection of editors from countries where Spanish is not the official language and provides an introduction to the Ibero-American market. This year, the program included editors from Finland, Australia, China, Egypt, and Albania, among others, with Carolina Orloff—of the prize-winning Edinburgh-based Charco Press—chosen as the UK representative.


Image: Colombia stand (also serving the book fair’s best coffee)

In addition to being an opportunity for over two thousand publishing houses to promote their catalogs, the FIL also boasts an extensive events program, with more than 630 themed discussions and book launches taking place over the nine days of the festival. The first event I was able to attend this year was the launch of the brand-new Vindictas series, a collection of reissues of great forgotten twentieth-century novels by Mexican women writers.

Image: Ave Barrera, moderator Socorro Venegas, Karina Gidi, and Jorge Volpi

The Vindictas (“Avenged”) project began after a young writer named Ave Barrera discovered El lugar donde crece la hierba (The Place Where the Grass Grows), a powerful novel by Luisa Josefina Hernández, and took to social media to express her shock and outrage that the book was no longer in print. The series is an initiative of UNAM (The National Autonomous University of Mexico), an institution with an excellent reputation for research and innovation. Jorge Volpi, the cultural coordinator at UNAM, and Socorro Venegas, the head of publishing, have both been enthusiastic supporters of Barrera’s project. In fact, Volpi described Vindictas as the vanguard of UNAM’s more general approach of not only reexamining the Mexican canon in all arts and disciplines, but of reshaping that canon. The session finished with a very moving recorded message from Marcela del Rio, the author of La cripta del espejo (The Crypt of the Mirror), another of the Vindictas titles, as well as readings by actress Karina Gidi of extracts from each of the five books published for the series’ launch.

Ecuadorean author María Fernanda Ampuero, who also attended the launch of Vindictas, later told me about a similar process of “exhumation” of books by women taking place in Ecuador, as well as many other countries across Latin America. Though a passionate supporter of these initiatives, Ampuero warned against the risk of the media and publishers treating female authors like “rare birds” or ghettoizing women’s writing. This was a sentiment I heard echoed by others at the festival, with a number of panelists drawing attention to a display at the stand of one of the major publishers entitled “Las Mujeres” (the women), which gathered many classics and new releases by women in a single place, but meant that a prominent display entitled “Literature” featured hardly any works by women writers at all. 

From one event challenging the established canon, I proceeded to another celebrating a very specific list of books: Editorial Anagrama, founded by Jorge Herralde in 1969, is one of the most highly-regarded independent publishers in the Spanish-speaking world, and in honor of its fiftieth anniversary, the Barcelona-based press has selected fifty defining titles from its catalog, rereleasing them under the series title “Compactos 50.”

Image: Guadalupe Nettel, Alejandro Zambra, Juan Villoro, and moderator Silvia Sesé

At an event commemorating this anniversary, Anagrama authors Guadalupe Nettel, Alejandro Zambra, and Juan Villoro were asked by Silvia Sesé, the press’s editorial director, to speak about their earliest memories of the publishing house. Nettel talked about attending writing workshops with Villoro as an aspiring author and of having her first manuscript rejected by every publisher except Anagrama. In turn, Villoro explained how he had begun his relationship with Anagrama as a translator, before Herralde eventually asked for permission to publish one of his novels. Zambra, meanwhile, confessed that the high prices of books in Chile had meant that he got to know most of Anagrama’s catalog by reading illegal photocopies. He added that when it came time to send off his first manuscript, Anagrama was the publisher he pinned his hopes on. Sesé closed a lively discussion by announcing that Anagrama would soon be bringing out Zambra’s latest novel, which everyone, of course, was welcome to photocopy.

Image: Julián Herbert, Javier Cercas, Leila Guerriero, María Fernanda Ampuero, and moderator Jorge Volpi

At the next event, a panel of authors and journalists was asked to discuss the boundary between fact and fiction, and the extent to which the two could ever really be separated. Javier Cercas described how, while writing The Anatomy of a Moment, about an attempted coup d’etat in Spain in 1981, he had decided there was already so much fiction surrounding accounts of the event that to add any further fictional elements would be a disservice to his novel. Leila Guerriero, an acclaimed Argentine journalist, explained that she often borrowed poetic and narrative devices from fiction in order to captivate her readers, something she felt was as crucial to successful factual accounts as it was to fiction. Julián Herbert raised questions about the voices that get to tell stories, suggesting that many of the people directly affected by violence in Mexico have not been equipped with the tools to write about their experiences, meaning the task usually falls to those whose experience is only ever secondhand. Finally, María Fernanda Ampuero described her recent move from nonfiction into fiction as an act of hope, stating that, unlike her real-world reporting, fiction allowed the possibility for at least some of her characters to survive.

The final event of my time in Guadalajara was the launch of Mátate, amor, the first of Ariana Harwicz’s novels to be published by Dharma Books, a newly established Mexican independent publishing house. Following Sara Uribe’s powerful and lyrical introduction to the novel’s themes, Harwicz talked about how she began writing the book—published in English as Die, My Love by Charco Press in 2017—shortly after giving birth to a child, as a way of coping with and channeling her difficult postnatal experience.

I left Guadalajara on December 5, when the ranks of professionals were replaced by hordes of excited children arriving for their annual school trip to the book fair. The FIL would remain open to the public until December 8, when next year’s Guest of Honor, Sharjah (UAE) and Arabic culture, was announced. Now all that was left for me to do was to work out how best to fit my many exciting book purchases into my luggage and begin plotting my return for FIL 2020.

Read an interview with writer Ariana Harwicz

Read an interview with writer María Fernanda Ampuero

Read an interview with publisher Carolina Orloff (Charco Press)

Read an interview with publisher Diego Rabasa (Sexto Piso)

Published Jan 22, 2020   Copyright 2020 Victor Meadowcroft

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