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Central America Comes Together

From May 23-28, the Centroamérica Cuenta festival offers a chance to discuss and reflect on art, literature, and Central American reality in the company of seventy storytellers from Latin America and Europe.

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Daniel Mordzinski

This year’s theme for Centroamérica Cuenta will be memory. For six days, from May 23-28, seventy storytellers from seventeen countries in Latin America and Europe will meet in Managua to discuss the “Memory that Unites Us,” a challenging topic that forces us to ask ourselves if we, as Central Americans, have a collective memory, and if we remember or prefer to forget.

“As countries we are very forgetful,” states Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez in response to the inevitable question suggested by the event’s theme. “We prefer to forget what annoys us or gets in the way,” he adds from the other end of the telephone line. But he soon allows himself to be carried away by hope, saying that it is precisely for this reason that literature exists: “To remind us what we are and how we have lived. History has to do with the past, and literature cannot live without the past.”

Centroamérica Cuenta is the brainchild of Ramírez, who was a militant in the Sandinista Revolution until the dream dissolved when the Sandinistas fell from power. He narrates the entire process in his book Adiós, muchachos, published in 1999. Nine years earlier he had abandoned politics, following the defeat of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) at the hands of Violeta Chamorro, and devoted himself to the career he had put on hold: literature.

In 2012, Ramírez devised this meeting of storytellers aimed at discussing and reflecting on art, literature, and Central American reality through lectures, symposia, discussions, and workshops with authors and special guests from America and Europe.

Now in its fourth year, the festival welcomes Latin American writers Humberto Ak’abal, David Unger, and Ana María Rodas, the author of poems both rough and soft, depending on how they fall from her soul, all from Guatemala; Colombian Jorge Franco, winner of the 2014 Alfaguara Prize for his novel El mundo de afuera; and Mexicans Jorge Volpi, Emiliano Monge, and scholar/teacher Gonzalo Celorio, whose latest novel, El metal y la escoria, is autobiographical. To the delight of his fans, Salvadoran poet Manlio Argueta is also among the guests, as well as his compatriots Carmen González Huguet and Miguel Huezo Mixco. Gioconda Belli and José Adiak Montoya will be representing Nicaragua.

The workshops also look very promising, with suggestive names such as: “Photography and Memory: How to See What No Longer Exists,” presented by Argentine photographer Daniel Mordzinski; Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo will talk about his favorite subject: fear; and renowned Colombian journalist Alberto Salcedo Ramos will present a workshop on feature journalism, under the auspices of the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for a New Latin American Journalism (FNPI).

Ramírez, enthusiastic about the fourth year of the event and the more than a dozen European guests to be in attendance, shares some of his ideas regarding literature, identity, and journalism.

What do Central American writers write about these days?

Topics are wide ranging, given the fact that Central American countries are very diverse. We have a common identity, but inside this diversity, our realities are different. Certain issues, such as drug trafficking, migration to the United States, and government corruption are common to all Central American countries.

I’m not saying these are obligatory subjects, because literature isn’t limited to public affairs; it also speaks of human beings and how these issues affect human lives, and to that extent the topics are woven into literature.

How subversive is current Central American literature?

Literature is always subversive, because it raises issues outside the mainstream. Subversion is in the hands of young people, and I think this kind of literature exists in Central America.

Is Central American literature better known now than in 2013, when the festival began?

We’ve made progress in these four years, but I think two obstacles remain: one inside and the other on the outside. First is the problem of inter-literary communication in Central America: Why is it so hard to purchase Panamanian books in Guatemala or Honduras?

We experimented in the 70’s with the General University Library that included books by Rogelio Sinan, Gloria Guardia, or José de Jesús Martínez, for example. The books were available in Guatemala and Honduras, but we still lack the production apparatus.

The other problem has to do with getting Central American literature in bookstore windows outside Central America. Many Central American writers still can’t penetrate markets in Argentina, México, or Spain, so this fight is ongoing. In this regard, Centroamérica Cuenta hopes to expedite the process by bringing the players together, so they can meet face-to-face and get to know others from outside the region.

Have you achieved results?

Since Centroamérica Cuenta began, anthologies of Central American stories have been published in France and Germany. A new anthology is about to come out in France.

And Centroamérica Cuenta is also about journalism. What is your opinion on the way the profession is practiced in Latin America? 

I see literature and journalism as linked, two branches of the same tree. The narrative motifs and themes are basically the same. We hope to cultivate narrative journalism and this has to be done with literary tools.

This year, Alberto Salcedo Ramos will be hosting one of the workshops; there will be another on comics, and another on photography with Daniel Mordzinski.