After filling 9,000 seats and selling thousands of books at last year’s inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival, organizers returned ready, co-founder Clare Hertel says, “to underline that the world of writing and reading is more interconnected than ever.”
Hertel, local writer Carmella Padilla and curator Mark Bryant have rebranded the weekend (now with the qualifier “International”) and organized a dense program.
Highlights of the impressive lineup include internationally-recognized writers such as Jennifer Egan, John Irving, Diana Gabaldon and Gillian Flynn, as well as local luminaries such as Hakim Bellamy, Deborah Taffa, Michael McGarrity and Denise Chavez.
“It’s nice to focus not just on the big names from afar, but local people that have done so much for the literary community here in New Mexico and should be better known,” Hertel tells SFR.
The festival kicks off on Friday with Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, the SFILF honorary chair, who will speak briefly before the evening’s sold-out conversation between Dublin-born novelist Colum McCann and Taffa, director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. McCann’s most recent novel Apeirogon tells the true story of two fathers who come together through the loss of their daughters in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We chose a lot of writers who are gonna talk about difficult things,” Bryant says. “These are really rough times, and we want authors who don’t shy away from that.”
For example, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s novel Chain Gang All Stars takes place in a dystopian US where people incarcerated in the private prison system have the option to fight for their freedom in gladiatorial contests. Adjei-Brenyah will appear in conversation with former Albuquerque poet laureate and community organizer Bellamy, and hopes to address “the current reality of the prison industrial complex, abolition and what that even means, and what it means to be a compassionate society,” he tells SFR.
“I think the best I can do is write towards a smarter, better version of myself,” Adjei-Brenyah says when asked about his imagined audience for the book, “but I’m really interested in a lot of different people: People who are not yet convinced of the possibility of abolition. People who find community in the book. People finding new ideas.”
Colombian-born author Ingrid Rojas Contreras will discuss The Man Who Could Move Clouds, a lyrical memoir that tells of her own family legacy of magic and curanderismo intertwined with the legacy of colonialism in Colombia and the violence between them. She sees the book as “a way to reclaim those stories,” and notes that as she’s been traveling with Clouds, she’s noticed such tales are familiar among the Latino people she meets, “even though we don’t always talk about them in public.” Rojas Contreras says her favorite part of a reading is the moment right afterward, when someone in the audience comes up to her and says, “I have a story just like that.”
Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel The Candy House—a companion to her Pulitzer winning 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad—also explores the possibility of connection through story, but in a radically different way. It hinges on an imagined (for now!) technology that allows people to upload their consciousnesses to a platform accessible to anyone. Sound creepy? Egan agrees, but her characters’ willingness to sacrifice privacy for a chance at true connection is the essence of both the novel and a theme of humanity’s zeitgeist.
“To me, the urge for people to join the collective consciousness is the inherently human curiosity about what the world looks like to another human,” Egan tells SFR. “It’s the thing we’ll never know, like not being able to communicate with the dead.”
For Egan, fiction presents an opportunity for that type of connection (minus the surveillance-state part).
“To my mind, fiction is the narrative art form that best delivers that experience of being inside another consciousness,” she says.
While image-based media like videos, television and movies are inherently exterior, she says, language is inherently interior.
“So reading fiction and talking about fiction is exactly the exploration of that experience,” Egan adds. “The real machine here is the novel. That’s the machine that can do this, and so that’s what we’re gonna be there to talk about.” (Hear more from her in this week’s 3 Questions.)
Lit Fest organizers also hope to explore connection through storytelling in their educational and community programming.
“I think it’s gonna be a real step up from last year,” Hertel says, citing free events such as a youth writers panel, poetry readings and writing workshops organized by musician, DJ and leader of artist-forward nonprofit Vital Spaces, Raashan Ahmad, who this year directs the festival’s Young Writers and Readers program.
McCann will also bring his project—Narrative 4, a story-sharing program meant to combat loneliness and motivate kids to make positive changes in their communities—to students from the Santa Fe Community College Creative Writing program, the MASTERS Program and several Santa Fe high schools.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“The response last year was way more positive than we expected,” Bryant says, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not always thinking about things we could do differently and better: ticket prices, diversity, a robust collection of authors. Over time I think we’ll develop a better understanding of the kinds of authors that are most important to bring to Santa Fe.”
Santa Fe International Literary Festival: Various times, costs and locations Friday, May 19-Sunday, May 21, Santa Fe Community Convention Center, 201 W Marcy St., sfinternationallitfest.org