Imagine yourself in front of a 16th century fortress facing the Malecon in Old Havana, Cuba. The fortress occupies a vast expanse of land with a wall that extends the length of the fortress, surrounded by a deep moat, once legend to have been filled with crocodiles. The fortress is comprised of underground tunnels, old dungeons and hundreds of ancient cannons. It is rumored to have been built to resist pirates, buccaneers and corsairs. Every evening, since the 18th century, there is a symbolic firing of the cannons at 9pm. Once a signal that the walls of the fortress were closing and population was to take refuge, it is now a reminder to Habaneros to check that their watches are in sync. This is an often-frequented spot for visitors to Havana. This week however there is a very different sort of crowd milling about the fortress.
I now bring you to another frequented tourist spot in Havana, el Capitolio. Similar in design to the Capital building in Washington DC, Capitolio was once the seat of Cuban government, but since the 1959 Revolution it is now the Cuban Academy of Science. Facing el Capitolio are a number of modern movie theaters, film being a very important pastime in Cuba. The sidewalk facing el Capitolio is usually filled with hundreds of people waiting on line to see the latest film. Not this week. For the past eleven days it has been witness to a constant flow of hundreds and thousands of people filling buses that never stop arriving and departing. This is the launching site for Habaneros on their way to the 18th Annual International Book Fair, taking place in the 16th century fortress – the Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña.
Excited to attend my first Cuban book fair, I piled onto a bus with hundreds of others: men, women, children and tons of young adults and adolescents. There is a feeling of going somewhere exciting, on a trip or to a concert. Once we go under the tunnel we drive along the water, as if on our way to the beaches of Playas del Este. There is that sort of vacation and celebration feel on the bus as well. The adults hold plastic picnic bags and the children their toys.
Now imagine thousands and thousands of people streaming up a hill towards the drawbridge of the fortress. The dirt road is lined with ice cream trucks and food stalls, and the moat is filled with free pony rides for children … there is a buzz in the air. People are happy, no one is pushing, but there is a sense of anticipation. It is a combination of the excitement and numbers of a massive rock concert with all the calm and cheer of a folk festival.
But this is not a concert, nor is it a festival. This is a book fair. Over 300 publishing houses from over 43 countries have set up stalls and events in the fortress. The book fair happens in Havana for 11 days. It then travels to 30 other cities across Cuba. Last year over 5 million people attended the book fair and purchased over 6 million books. They expect many more this year. To put this in context, Cuba only has a population of 11 and a half million people. That means almost half of the entire population goes to the book fair. Imagine participation on that scale anywhere else in the world. Imagine what that would look like in the United States. That would mean no less than 152 million people coming out to attend, of all things, a book fair.
There were book stalls that held the least expensive books; those that were marked down even lower than the usual remarkably low prices. Many were selling for one peso in Moneda Nacional (the national currency). With 24 pesos in national money to a Convertible Cuban Peso, that translates to roughly $.05 in US dollars. Many of these books were children’s books, some were propaganda, and there was an entire table of the collected works of Lenin in Spanish on the bargain table. For myself, I bought a copy of a book by Boaventura de Sousa Santos called "Reinventar la democracia – Reinventar el Estado", "Reinvent democracy – Reinvent the State", and another called Emancipatory Paradigms in Latin America. Cuban publishing houses publish both books. Together they cost less than forty cents US, a price that makes these books accessible to anyone. Along with politics and history, a wide range of topics could be found. A Cuban friend who accompanied me to the book fair bought mainly novels, one of which was written by Senel Paz, a famous Cuban author, globally known for having written the screen play for the acclaimed "Strawberry and Chocolate". This novel includes history, politics and romance, like the film, but in the novel it is a romance between two young men.
And then the children! Half the book fair had to be less than four feet tall. Really. There were countless children, families and children’s events. There were readings for kids, spaces organized where they could just open books and look at them, touch them and have adults read to them. There were also play spaces, now reminding me of folk festivals I went to as a child. I can remember feeling like we, the kids, were the center of the festivals, the center of the universe. The book fair in Havana has that feel as well.
Each evening the book fair ended with a concert at sunset, sometimes going until well after midnight. While I enjoyed the first performance of Chilean folks singers, the book fair this year is co-sponsored by Chile, the line up of musicians for the rest of the night was for a much younger crowd. And they were arriving … as we left the thousands coming up towards the drawbridge were all teenagers and 20-somethings. This modern concert for young people also impressed me. Once I got over my initial disappointment that the old nueva trova folks were not singing, people like Silvio Rodriguez of Cuba and Isabel Parra from Chile, and instead it was the "cool" salsa-meets-reggae and some modern something mix, I realized this was a fabulous thing. This is what was helping to bring in some of the really young people, youth who are sometimes referred to as "la generacion perdida" (the lost generation).
I cannot begin to express what I felt and feel. On the bus ride back to Havana I alternated with playing with the adorable toddler in the seat in front of me, and just gazing out the window, my eyes filled with tears, so moved. I love books. I prioritize books over most all other material things. Most people reading this probably have a love for books as well. But here, it is a nation, a people, who love, appreciate, prioritize and celebrate books.
I cannot paint a colorful enough picture of what the days of the book fair felt and looked like. One can see images of the famous fortress across the water from Havana. The stone walls, hundreds of cannons, dozens of acres … Now add to the image tens of thousands of people, day after day, all sorts of people, and book stalls and book readings throughout the interior of the fortress. And imagine the grass acreage filled with tents with still more books, exhibits, beverages and food, most of it for sale in the national currency, at rates all could afford. People of all colors and ages. Children and old people. All there for books. Books! To look at what books were there. To buy a book. To listen to people reading from their books. To sit on the grass or on the wall and discuss the books they were holding or wanted to buy. It was all about ideas and imagination. It was a space filled only with the inspiration, passion, adventures and mysteries the written word. Day after day, with people numbering in the hundreds of thousands and then millions. That is the International Book Fair in Cuba.
I was moved deeply by the true love of ideas these past days. The importance placed on reading and imagination. And the clear respect regular people have for the written word. One can be critical and at the same time learn a great deal. There is something for us to learn here. Let us imagine together. Let us dream of how we could create a space of passionate desire for ideas and literature in our country. How might this take place, and who might support us in this endeavor?
Marina Sitrin is a writer, lawyer, dreamer and translator. She has edited "Horizonalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina", and the forthcoming "Insurgent Democracies – Latin America’s New Powers."
Marina is currently living in Havana, Cuba. She can be reached by email at: [email protected]