This coming week, if you wander into the Siglo XXI Convention Center from the parking lot, you’ll see the length of the corridor is decorated in a bright red and yellow motif, with traditional Chinese paper lanterns hanging overhead.
If you come through the side access, you’ll feel as though you’ve wandered into a Campeche landscape; reminiscent of colonial times.
The changes in décor are part of the attractions of FILEY – the International Readers Festival of Yucatan, to be held at the convention center from Saturday March 11th until Saturday March 18th. Each year, a state in Mexico and an international country are the honored guests at FILEY – for 2017, the featured state is Campeche and the country is the People’s Republic of China.
FILEY is sponsored by the University of Yucatan (UADY) and the organizational committee has spent more than a year planning the event. This week, the convention center looked like a beehive or ant hill with so many people working ‘round the clock, to set up the Chinese and Campeche pavilions, the mega book fair, and an art garden. This year the FILEY is offering more than 1,200 activities, and many will be held in the convention center’s salons and cinema.
130 book publishers, sellers and other culture-focused business have stands at the book fair, located in the Salon Chichen Itza. Most of the titles are in Spanish, but even if you cannot read the language, you will thoroughly enjoy the people watching and the energy of this once-a-year extravaganza.
A bilingual presentation, “Intercultural Writers in Yucatan – Escritoras Interculturales en Yucatán” is slated for Thursday March 16th at 8 pm. The invited writers are Marianne Kehoe, Linda Lindhlom and me! I won’t give away the surprise by giving you the details of our presentation. But we hope you’ll come out and support us.
In Mexico, it is customary to give recognition and pay homage to individuals and groups that contribute to our society’s quality of life. In fact, the government actually designates a special day of the year to celebrate the myriad of professional and private groups that impact our wellbeing.
In addition to the ones we are familiar with such as Mothers Day and Fathers Day – in Mexico – there is a Day of the Doctors, Teachers’ Day, Day of the Mailmen, Day of the Engineers and so on.
On Tuesday December 20th, I attended the annual Yucatecan Writers’ Day breakfast, held at the Siglo XXI Convention Center.
In fact, this is the fifth year that English language writers have been invited to the event, and we all feel honored to be included.
The Director of SEDACULTA, Roger Metri Duarte, gave a short welcome speech, then he and a panel of well-known writers gave out the SEDECULTA awards for Literature in four genres: Playwriting, Short Fiction, Poetry in the Maya language, and Poetry in the Spanish language. One of the recipients, Fernando Leal Galaviz read a short essay: Why Writers Write.
I enjoyed his analysis because after extolling all of the lofty ideals that writers purport to, he concluded with, “We write because we have something we want to say, and we hope our readers will value and identify with that.”
In the 1940s, Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith, an influential and widely-read columnist was asked if turning out a daily column was a lot of work. “Why no,” said Red, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” To add insult to injury, Ernest Hemmingway is often given credit for that witty quip.
Lately several people have asked me: Don’t you like writing anymore? You hardly ever blog, and you haven’t written a book for a while. You don’t even post much on facebook.
These comments and yesterday’s Dia del Escritor Yucateco breakfast have brought on some reflections.
The truth is that I love writing. I began with an avalanche of letters when I moved to Mexico in 1976 – it was the only way to stay in touch with my far-away family and friends. In 1980, someone showed one of my letters to an editor at The Mexico City News – and he hired me to be the Merida correspondent. I continued in that job until 1992. During the same 12 year period, I wrote travel pieces for magazines and guide books.
For the next two decades, most of my writing involved college course synopsizes, class plans, grant proposals, and the like. Then I published four books: Tomando Agua del Pozo in 2007; Magic Made in Mexico, 2010; a novel, The Woman Who Wanted the Moon in 2012; and a family memoir called CIRCLES in 2015. Since starting my blog, Writing From Merida, in 2009, I have made more than 1,000 entries. I’ve also contributed short stories to anthologies and magazines. Book tours, readings, conferences and workshops are other writing related activities I participate in and thoroughly enjoy.
But it takes a significant amount of time to research, compose and write even a short piece. I have a lot going on in my life, and unfortunately, time to do all I want to do is in short supply.
I spend lots of time with my husband, family, friends, and my granddaughter!
Spanish is Emma’s current challenge, but she is coming along well. She already speaks English and Norwegian. Imagine, not yet 4 years old, and she’s working on her third language. We draw and paint together. She points to the “E” in her storybooks and says, “That’s my letter.”One of the phrases she can say in Spanish is – Vamos a pintar – Let’s paint. Language development experts say you learn what you need to, and I am filled with happiness to know that she needs to express herself with a paintbrush – she’s a chip off the old block.
Besides Emma’s art projects, I have my own painting, and yes, I am writing a new book – more about that project when it is further along.
I travel and I feel grateful to have seen as much of the world as I have. I hope our life will continue just as it is – for many more happy years.
Although I feel Jorge and I have worked hard for what we have – keeping it may be a challenge. Our poor planet is suffering and this affects us all. I fear that the political path some nations have chosen will contribute to even more inequality and unfair distribution of wealth. We are on a slippery slope.
God willing, saner minds will prevail, and we’ll scramble back onto solid ground. Meanwhile I’ll keep writing – I hope you’ll keep reading.
Jorge is no longer the avid newspaper reader he used to be, and I am even less so. Internet sites are now our news source. The Diario de Yucatán wasMerida’s major paper for decades. Now it is just a shadow of its former self, but on Sundays, it features a column we still look forward to reading – La Semana Hace 50 Años – The Week, 50 Years Ago.
Time marches on, and Jorge gets a kick out of the pictures and stories about his contemporaries. The column also reports the fifty-year-old life events of prominent politicians, entertainers and socialites. Today, we read that it has been fifty years since Alma Reed – La Peregrina – passed away. Like Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Pita Amor — Alma was a woman ahead of her time — and her story is fascinating.
Born in 1889 to an Irish-Catholic San Francisco family, Alma was outspoken and daring. She lived her life with little regard for convention. She more or less fell into a career in journalism, but it suited her because she had opportunities to travel. While writing for the San Francisco Call, she advocated changes to the state’s death penalty laws. In 1921 she reported the story of a 17-year-old Mexican boy who had been unfairly convicted of murder. Her articles convinced the judge to commute the boy’s sentence. In gratitude, the president of Mexico, Alvaro Obregon, invited her to be his guest in Mexico City.
Later she traveled to Yucatán, where she exposed the plunder of Maya artifacts by the Peabody Museum for Harvard University – her articles forced the venerable institution to return some of the objects to Mexico.
But Alma Reed is best-remembered for her love affair with the Governor of Yucatan, Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Felipe was married and the father of several children, but Alma bewitched him. He gave her expensive gifts and spent every minute he could with her. He commissioned the most popular song writing team in Mexico – Ricardo Palmerín y Luis Rosado Vega – to compose a ballad for her. Over time that song, Peregrina, has become one of the most emblematic of the state.
Felipe’s obsession with Alma must have presented him with a heart-wrenching dilemma. His devotion to the Yucatecan people and to his family was sincere. But in order to be with Alma, he would have to leave his wife and children. In fact he was on his way to a rendezvous with her when his political enemies ambushed and killed him.
Alma could not return to Yucatan for some time, so she lived in New York. There she met José Clemente Orozco, a talented Mexican painter. She fell in love with his work, and sponsored a one-man show for him in September 1928. Her studio became a gathering place for Mexican artists.
Eventually Alma returned to live in Mexico City. She worked at the largest English language daily – The News. In her later years, a diving and adventure enthusiast named Pablo Bush Romero looked out for her. And after she died in Mexico City, he kept her ashes in his office until such time as a suitable burial site could be found. She had told him that she wanted to be interred next to her beloved Felipe, but prominent social, familial, and political Yucatecans would not allow this. They felt that Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a martyr to his cause, could not be laid to rest next to his mistress.
After much negotiation with the Cemetery administration and other authorities, Pablo arranged to have a simple cenotaph built – just across from the mausoleum built for Governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto and the political collaborators who died at his side. You could say a compromise was reached – the two lovers would lie for eternity within sight, but not touch of one another.
Perhaps Alma’s true story and nature would have been all but forgotten if not for Dr. Michael K. Schuessler, a writer living in Mexico City. One day while helping to clear out the abandoned apartment of a deceased friend, he found Alma Reed’s incomplete memoir. In the manuscript the American journalist asserts that she and the governor were engaged to marry. According to her, his assassination occurred on the eve of his departure for the USA, where he would begin a new life with her.
The governor’s supporters and family deny her claims, but the correspondence, edited by Dr. Schuessler, is convincing. You can purchase the book, Peregrina – Love and Death in Mexicofrom this site.
My friend Linda sometimes visits Alma’s grave. She downloaded Peregrina onto her iphone, and while at the cemetery, she plays the song for Alma. – Linda dusts off the inscription, and leaves some fresh flowers. “I enjoy visiting her,” says my friend, “everyone needs a little special attention from time to time.”
I am sure that Yucatan’s Peregrina smiles when she sees Linda coming her way.
Yesterday, I wrote about the novel I had just finished reading – The Shadow of the Wind. Today I want to tell you about a different one, also set in Europe, that is another of my favorite books. The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga has everything I look for in a novel – a sumptuous setting – a riveting plot with unexpected twists and turns every few pages – a complex protagonist – art, intrigue, self-discovery – and unforgettable secondary characters.
The tale begins in 1966 when torrential rains cause the Arno River to overflow into the streets, churches, libraries and museums of Florence, Italy. Margot Harrington, a 29 year old Chicago book restorer flies there to help salvage the centuries-old tomes that have been damaged in the flood.
She settles into a more or less permanent job at a convent, repairing damaged books in the library – a collection of 2,500 volumes donated by one of the Médici noblewomen who entered the contemplative order in the XVII Century. Margot develops close relationships with the nuns and comes to greatly respect and admire them.
One day while she is out buying supplies, the novices find a rare volume. The prayer book cover gives no clue that inside, are sixteen erotic sonnets by Pietro Aretino, each accompanied by an engraving by Giulio Romano. The book is a sort-of Italian Kama Sutra, known as, The Sixteen Pleasures.
Quite sure the book is the only one of its kind – Margot agrees to restore it and take it to auction – all the while keeping it out of the greedy bishop’s hands. He has heard about the unique find and wants it for himself.
Margot has the adventure of her life as she evades professional thieves, savvy Customs agents, and the Holy See. Of course she also attracts the attention of an attentive Italian lover. Lots of intricate plot interweaving in this book.
Jorge and Joanna in Florence
I don’t remember how I originally found the book, but I remember that I read it with great relish. When Jorge and I traveled to Florence a few years later, I got ahold of another copy and re-read it on a grassy bank of the Arno River.
THAT was one of the best book experiences I’ve ever had.
If your literary taste is anything like mine, The Sixteen Pleasures is a book you will savor for years to come.
The Numero Uno position on my list of the top ten novels – EVER – has been filled by a new title. Last night I finished reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It is set in Barcelona, Spain, and although I have never been there, after reading the author’s descriptions, I feel as though I have:
“Plaza de San Felipe Neri is like a small breathing space in the maze of streets that criss-cross the Gothic quarter…”
The novel opens at the end of the World War II. Daniel Sempere is young and struggling to overcome his mother’s death. One night, to distract the boy, his father takes him to a mysterious place called, The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There Daniel finds a novel, The Shadow of the Wind – it is so intriguing that while reading, he is able to forget his pain. But when he tries to find more books by the same writer, Julian Carax, he discovers that someone is systematically destroying all copies of the author’s novels – in fact it appears that Daniel’s copy might be the only one left. He tries to track down Julian Carax and the identity of the destructive villain.
Soon enough, Daniel finds himself opening the door to Barcelona’s dark past. The Shadow of the Wind is full of beautiful prose :
Dawn was breaking, and a purple blade of light cut through the clouds, spraying its hue over the fronts of mansions and the stately homes that bordered Avenida del Tibidabo…
Daniel Sempere’s quest continues for a decade. A cast of memorable accomplices such as his tender-hearted father, a tramp he rescues, a blind girl he falls in love with, and a woman who worked for the author’s publisher all contribute pieces that help solve the puzzle.
You’ll read no hints about the ending in this post. But I will say that I enjoyed reading every word of this spectacularly crafted novel.