Winds of change

Poetry and literary festivals are indicative of the changes in Colombia.

SOMETHING curious is happening in Colombia. After years of being associated with cocaine, kidnappings and guerrilla warfare, it appears that the government is determined to replace its narco-trafficking image with something a little more lyrical. Last year, the International Poetry Festival of Medellin, which attracts thousands of people, won the Right Livelihood Award (otherwise known as the Alternative Nobel). This year Bogota was nominated as the World's Book Capital. And only a few weeks ago, the Hay Literary Festival, famous for putting authors in tents in the Welsh countryside, jumpstarted their year in sunny Cartagena.

Cartagena, a Spanish colonial city on the Caribbean coast 400 miles north of the capital Bogota, is a perfect place for a literary festival. It's small, beautiful, warm, and it houses one of Colombia's most famous literary sons: Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez, or Gabo as he is known affectionately in these parts, owns a sea-facing house within the ramparts and is said to have set much of the action of his masterpiece Love in the Time of Cholera in the many hidden corners and secret rooms of this city.

Gabo returns

When Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, attempted to get Gabo to come to Wales, he was given a friendly piece of advice: Rather than take Gabo to your festival, it might be easier for you to bring your festival to Gabo. Which is exactly what Florence proceeded to do. Last year was the first edition of the Hay Festival Cartagena, and while Colombians basked in the return of the prodigal son (Gabo now spends most of his time in Mexico City), they were also introduced to the works of Vikram Seth, Hanif Kureishi, Owen Sheers, and a slew of Spanish-speaking writers.

In the second avatar of the festival, Florence swapped one white-haired Nobel Laureate with another. So while Gabo was sadly MIA (resting up in preparations for his 80th birthday party), Nigerian playwright, poet and novelist, Wole Soyinka jumped right into the ring; he visited schools, danced with barrio kids, and mesmerised audiences with his low, gravely, wise voice. Locals (and non-locals) fell in love with him instantly, and to prove their affection they followed him whenever they caught sight of his trademark halo of hair, screaming "Wole Wole" and "Bravo Bravo."

Because we'd read poetry together in the fantastically baroque Theatro Heredia, Welsh poet Menna Elfyn and I shared in some of Wole's glory by accompanying him while he took his nightly walks down Cartagena's cobbled streets: the effect was something akin to the paparazzi meets the Pied Piper. Other highlights included spotting David Mitchell in the corridors of an old convent, inspecting instruments of torture with Christopher Hitchens in the Palace of Inquisition, listening to Colombian poet Juan Manuel Roca, and being escorted to the First Lady's summer house for a cocktail party with a heavily-armed entourage.

The entire experience was surreal; just like a Marquez novel, but minus the melancholy. Strangers came up to you in the street and invited you to their homes to drink mojitos in their courtyards; peddlers constantly tried to sell you sunglasses or beads or sweets or emeralds; waiters let you walk out of their restaurants with wine-glasses in hand, fully believing that you'd bring them back.

The thing about Cartagena is that while it may not be a true representation of the "real" Colombia, it's the sort of place tourists can go to without worrying about all the usual security fears. With levels of violence dropping, and with a swanky new tourism strap-line in place, "Colombia es pasion," the government can well hope to attract a larger piece of the 20 million tourists who flock to Mexico, Latin America's most popular destination, every year.

A context for change

Festivals like Hay and the Medellin Poetry Festival are important because they provide a context around which change can be effected in people's minds. They also suggest that perhaps language does have the ability to restore a society that has been ravaged by half a century of civil war. Literature in Latin America has always worked on poetic and political levels, managing to permeate through every layer of society. I remember reading how soldiers would carry a volume of Neruda in their rucksacks instead of an extra pair of socks, how Che Guevera could recite many of Neruda's verses by heart. How far poetry has travelled from the centre today!

The future of where contemporary Latin American literature is heading is one we should all be interested in. After Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes, then what? There's a need to discover new storytellers and new ways of telling stories within their boundaries, and an equal need to have their voices be heard outside, and in turn to listen to other voices too. This give-and-take works both ways. For the Hay Festival (celebrating 20 years this summer), there is a definite move to widen their Anglocentric view by branching out in Segovia (Spain), Mantova (Italy) and Cartagena; with future plans for North America and Kenya.

For my part, I'd be happy to return to Cartagena just so I can wander about the streets in search of the scent of bitter almonds. Because the many days that I spent walking past the ochre houses with their groaning balconies of bougainvillea, trying to imagine all the stories that were contained inside them, felt like one long magical night.

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