When I heard that the first-ever Santa Fe Literary Festival would be taking place this May, I was like, “Wait, didn’t we have one before?”
It seemed so natural that a town crawling with literary talent should have a festival to celebrate that. Nonetheless, this month marks Santa Fe’s inaugural literary festival, the brainchild of Santa Fe-based publicist Clare Hertel, food writer Julia Platt Leonard of Santa Fe and the UK, and editor and publisher Mark Bryant of Santa Fe.
The three imagined creating a platform where diverse readers and writers could come together to celebrate the power of story and engage with issues of politics, race, immigration, the environment and more through the lens of literature.
“Santa Fe is a town of great bookstores and passionate readers,” Bryant says, “and we felt like there was an opportunity here to do something special.”
One global pandemic later, their vision is coming to fruition. And boy, is it star-studded. Colson Whitehead. Joy Harjo. Margaret Atwood. George RR Martin. Sandra Cisneros. N. Scott Momaday. John Grisham, for some reason. The festival kicks off on May 20 at the Santa Fe Convention Center with Whitehead as keynote speaker and runs through May 23. There will be lectures and conversations, lunches with chefs and cookbook authors, walking tours and a smattering of literary day trips.
Among the lineup are a few authors I’m particularly psyched about:
Valeria Luiselli is a novelist and essayist who was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa and India. Her latest novel, Lost Children Archive (Knopf, 2019), follows a family traveling from New York to Arizona, their stories interweaving with those of “lost children” crossing the southern border from Mexico. At the Santa Fe Literary Festival, Luiselli’s work will interrogate the histories of borders, too, and she’ll present excerpts from a work in progress: a 24-hour “sonic essay” dubbed Echoes From the Borderlands. The piece traces the line that divides the US and Mexico, a journey that takes approximately 24 hours straight. Luiselli describes the piece as a “sound drive along the border,” an exploration of “the different layers of the histories of violence against land and bodies,” as told through archival recordings, field recordings and narrative.
“We record people talking about their lands,” she tells SFR, “talking about fear, water, future, imagination and borderlands.”
The piece incorporates three realms of sound: geophony, the sounds of the earth; biophony, the sounds of nature; and anthropophony, the sounds of human life and human-made things. These three intertwine into a chorus that is sometimes musical, sometimes narrative and illustrative of “these histories of violence and plundering of the land.” It also centers the voices of women:
“It’s a very choral piece,” Luiselli says, “a kind of female chorus that pushes the story onwards.”
Through this lens, she focuses on migration and environmental issues, the history of surveillance and the prison industrial complex, plus “histories of resilience and resistance in those same spaces.”
Though audio journalism isn’t what many people typically think of as literature, Luiselli explains how sound offers a unique way to engage with ideas, telling SFR that “Sound forces people to step outside the automatic mode in which we consume images, for example—so automatically, so thoughtlessly. You can’t scroll through sound the way you scroll through images. It forces you to inhabit time differently, with more patience and presence.”
If listening is a different way to inhabit time, then tasting is, too. Freddie Bitsoie is a Diné chef, Native foods educator and author of the gorgeous cookbook, New Native Kitchen (Abrams, 2021), where you’ll find a recipe for Wampanoag cherrystone clam soup once made with sea water that’ll make you curse this landlocked state. Thankfully, Bitsoie substitutes clam stock.
“Each kind of dish has its own particular story,” Bitsoie says.
He’ll host two literary lunches at the festival, and the menus are drool-worthy with roasted sumac lamb leg with onion sauce, grilled butternut squash and sweet corn-squash blossom sautée with sage butter sauce, and a summer peach and cherry crisp and chocolate piñon nutcake and prickly pear coulis, to name a few. Bitsoie’s cookbook collects and riffs on recipes from Indigenous cultures across the continent, but it isn’t just a record, it’s an innovation.
“I decided to view Native food in the future and think about where it’s going, where it’s headed,” Bitsoie says.
The cookbook, then, is a reflection of the way Indigenous cultures have been uprooted and displaced, preserving and reinventing culture through food. He sees a parallel between this history and the way he grew up, moving all over the Four Corners region.
“I’ve pretty much lived in every major town on I-40 west of Albuquerque,” Bitsoie tells SFR. “Experiencing that and knowing how different food is in each area of Arizona and New Mexico, it repeats that same story where I moved and had to create something that I don’t have access to anymore.”
His cookbook has sometimes been criticized as not “traditional enough,” but Bitsoie bites back, saying there’s really no such thing as a “classic Native American dish.”
“As someone who studied anthropology,” he continues, “food was something that people ate and appreciated. There’s really no record of it.”
His work is laying the groundwork for a new way of viewing Native foods through books, television and the concept of Indigenous celebrity chefs, Bitsoie says.
Craig Johnson is the New York Times bestselling author of the Walt Longmire mystery series, adapted into the hit TV show which—though set in Johnson’s home state and the only state windier than this one, Wyoming—was filmed right here in New Mexico.
“Coming to Santa Fe is like old-home week,” Johnson says, “since the television show Longmire was filmed there.”
The event he’s most excited about at the Santa Fe Literary Festival is a panel with Anne Hillerman and James McGrath Morris about Tony Hillerman’s life.
“Tony was a friend and mentor,” Johnson says, “besides which, I can’t think of a single individual who is more emblematic of Southwestern literature than he. The opportunity to be a part of the very first Santa Fe Literary Festival and to be able to sing his praises was too much to pass up—that, and some green chile.”
Johnson’s latest Longmire novel, Daughter of the Morning Star, tells the story of Jaya “Longshot” Long, a high school basketball star who begins receiving death threats because she’s Indigenous. Johnson got the idea for the book when he was doing a library event on the Crow Reservation in Montana, and saw a missing persons poster on a bulletin board. He hopes the book will help draw attention to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
“It’s a scourge, plain and simple, and the numbers are staggering,” Johnson says. “As a friend of mine, Leroy White Man, once said, ‘The saying is that a people are never defeated until our women’s hearts are on the ground,’ but what if there are no women at all?”
Kirstin Valdez Quade’s work is steeped in her family’s history in New Mexico.
“It very much grows out of my family history and New Mexico’s history in general. It feels very place-based,” she says.
Her latest novel, The Five Wounds, traces the convergence of five generations of a family in a small New Mexico town.
“That kind of intergenerational braided experience is my experience of being in a family,” she explains.
Her work is also heavily influenced by Catholicism. As a child, Valdez Quade was fascinated by stories about the lives of the saints.
“I love the gorier stories,” she says, “and some of them are just darkly funny.”
She’s been working on a collection of stories based on this childhood obsession. The first she published on this theme was inspired by the life of a holy woman known as Christina the Astonishing.
“She first attracted me because she was clearly such a difficult person,” Valdez Quade says, describing how a 12th century hagiographer documented her life: “Her sisters could do nothing and they tied her up like a dog. When I read that I thought, ‘Oh my God, imagine being this person’s sister.’ And so that was the beginning of that story, and really the project.”
At the upcoming festival, Valdez Quade takes part in a virtual author talk with N. Scott Momaday on his latest book and the writing life.
“That’s a real honor for me,” she notes.
Tickets for the event are on sale now through sfliteraryfestival.org. There’s no denying prices are steep, though the first-year festival is funded primarily through ticket sales, organizers say. There are some discounts available for New Mexico students and residents, with promo codes listed on the website. There will also be a free showcase for local youth poets and writers held outside in the courtyard of the Santa Fe Community Convention Center from 12:30 to 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22, and organizers hope to schedule free book and poetry events on Monday, May 23.
They also just launched a project called Story Ladder, a pilot writing program partnering with local schools and nonprofit organizations to host events for young writers during the festival weekend, including free community poetry slams and opportunities for young wordsmiths to meet with festival authors.
“Between two years and counting of the pandemic and so much else, it’s come to feel like we’re living in this era of serial crises,” Bryant says. “We hope the festival is a way for people to come together and celebrate our shared humanity, but also explore where we’re headed.”
Santa Fe Literary Festival: Various times and locations Friday, May 20-Monday, May 23 $15-$1,700. sfliteraryfestival.org