Translator Jethro Soutar reports from the 2015 Guadalajara International Book Fair, which this year took place from 28 November to 6 December and is the biggest annual literary event in the Spanish-speaking world.

Part of PEN Atlas’s Mexico focus #MXUK2015.

The Guadalajara Book Fair in Mexico, known as FIL (Feria Internacional del Libro) is like no other book fair in the world. For a start, it’s enormous, second only to Frankfurt in terms of exhibitor numbers. But that’s not what’s most striking: the first thing you notice is the number of kids. According to the organisers, 792,000 visitors attended the festival this year, around 80% of whom were children and young people. Some come on school trips, though not reluctantly; many come off their own backs. They come to meet authors, hear stories, buy books; they come to run around and flirt; they come because it’s fun – because books are cool!

It makes for a rowdy affair. As he took to the lectern at an event entitled ‘Inspired By Shakespeare’, Sir Andrew Motion said it was the noisiest backdrop he’d experienced in 35 years of poetry readings.

Motion was joined on stage by John Burnside, Inua Ellams and Helen Mort, all part of the UK’s Guest of Honour delegation. The UK’s appearance marked the culmination of a year of cultural and trade exchange between Mexico and the UK.

Salman Rushdie opened the festival, giving the keynote speech and receiving the Carlos Fuentes Medal of Honour. Rushdie lauded magic realism and lamented the state of modern fiction, in which ‘hunger games’ are played, Da Vinci is a code and Elena Ferrante writes about herself. He called for less realism, advising young writers to do the opposite of writing about what they know. This went down well with FIL’s audience, predominantly Latin Americans, magic realists par excellence.

Rushdie also spoke of storytelling’s capacity to civilise, even to overpower tyrants and their assassins. Mexico, of course, has a rich history of reportage; very real stories being told in the face of extreme danger. On the final night of the festival, Sergio González Rodríguez was awarded the Fernando Benítez National Prize for Cultural Journalism. González Rodríguez, who appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival earlier this year, has written extensively about femicide in Ciudad Juárez, and has repeatedly been threatened, beaten and kidnapped for his troubles. It was a sombre reminder that, for all the fun of the fair, Mexico has a number of urgent problems. Crime writers Val McDermid, Claire McGowan and Louise Welsh had been intrigued to learn from a taxi driver that Guadalajara is safe because it’s where the narco capos house their families.

Earlier in the day, in a talk entitled ‘The Devil’s in the Detail: Forensic Evidence’, McDermid and McGowan had talked about miscarriages of justice that can arise from an over-reliance on science. Alas, such miscarriages could be considered a luxury in Mexico. Welsh was part of the ‘Capturing the Contemporary’ panel, alongside Laura Bates, Owen Jones and Sunjeev Sahota. They chatted engagingly about discrimination based on class, race, gender and sexuality. A Mexican audience member asked what could be done about women who subscribe to macho attitudes, and although Bates replied wisely and eloquently – that we shouldn’t blame women for having such attitudes, but should look to the societies that encourage them to do so – one couldn’t help but think of the gulf that exists between Mexico and the UK in this regard.

Yet there was common ground to celebrate too. UK events were well-attended across the board, and those of Irvine Welsh were blockbuster affairs: hordes rushed to the stage at the end, waving books to sign, camera-phones to pose for. Yes, it had to do with Trainspotting, the movie, but also with what he writes about, the human dramas behind drugs and crime. Of course there’s much more to Mexico than drugs and crime, and events such as Naomi Alderman ’s ‘How to write a Blog’ tutorial likewise drew rooms full of young folk.

The authors chosen to represent the UK were diverse, the range of genres and topics broad. There was an academic programme to complement the literary one, free concerts outside FIL every night, film screenings at the university and art at Musa (Museo de los Artes).

The Musa building is home to two magnificent murals by José Clemente Orozco and played temporary host to exhibitions by David Hockney, George Blacklock and Gary Oldman. The bright colours and swirling shapes of Blacklock’s beautiful series of ‘Slipping Glimpsers’ seemed to echo Mayan body and temple painting; Hockney’s ‘Death in Harlem’, from his ‘Rake’s Progress’, brought Frida Kahlo to mind. Wilful interpretations perhaps: I was actively looking for connections, deliberately seeking parallels between the UK and Mexico. No bad thing. Surely that’s a hallmark of a successful cross-cultural event.


Jethro Soutar is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. His translation of By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (published by And Other Stories) was shortlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It also received a PEN Award, as did his translations of Hotel Brasil by Frei Betto (published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2014) and The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Silá (to be published by Dedalus in 2016). Jethro also co-founded Ragpicker Press and co-edited its debut title, The Football Crónicas, a collection of translated short-form writing from Latin America.

Part of PEN Atlas’s Mexico focus #MXUK2015.

Mexico is currently the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Find out more about English PEN’s campaigning focus on Mexico here.

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