It’s official: I’ve attended my first ever book festival. The verdict? It was everything I hoped it would be.
Two weeks ago I flew to Havana, Cuba to check out the Havana International Book Fair (Feria internacional del libro de la Habana) - the country’s single biggest cultural event. Books and reading are incredibly important in Cuban culture, and the country has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. You can read more about the historical factors that have influenced Cuban literacy in my previous post HERE. The result is a country with a deeply instilled appreciation for authors, poets, publishers, and storytelling.
I should state at this point that this trip was not sponsored or paid for by anyone other than me. I bought my own plane tickets and paid for my own accommodation and food (to read about the cost of the trip click here). I went of my own accord and because I very much wanted the chance to see Havana and explore its beautiful architecture and vibrant life. The book fair was my main motivation for going, but I also got the chance to do other sightseeing and traveling.
Havana International Book Fair Background
The Havana book fair was started in 1982 as a government-sanctioned event to promote books and literacy. It continued bi-annually for many years until 2000, when the fair became an annual event. Each year the fair starts in February in Havana’s 18th-century historic fortress Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana and stays for several days before traveling across the country, ending in the city of Santiago de Cuba in March. Publishers, writers, and tourists from all over the world attend the event. You can check out the fair’s Facebook page HERE.
Each year the fair has a guest country of honour. Last year the honoured guest was Canada, and this year it was Algeria. Algeria attended the fair with a group of 30 delegates including authors, editors and publishers, and a catalog of hundreds of books. The country also took the chance to display artwork, film and music depicting Algerian history and culture. Algeria’s culture minister Azzedine Mihoubi, who was present at the fair, called the event a bridge bringing Cuba and Algeria together. The fair offered presentations on Algerian literature and the protection of Algerian authors.
The 2019 Havana International Book Fair also celebrated Cuban writer Eduardo Heras León, winner of the 2014 National Prize For Literature. He founded the Centro de Formación Literaria Onelio Jorge Cardoso , an institution that teaches writing and literary techniques to young Cubans. Other featured guests and writers included jouranlist Walter Martínez, Lasana M. Sekou, Arnold August, and many more.
The fair has of course changed over the years, and one of the visible differences is how much attention is given to digital publishing and media. Whole sections of the fortress were dedicated to digital publishing, and it was incredibly interested to see how the digital world is permeating a country known for its lack of internet access. Some of the events open for attendance included “Digital Storytelling and Transmedia Reading” and “Cuban literary content on the web” and presentations from publishers on their digital products.
A Day At The Fair
I attended the fair on Friday, February 8th, 2018. Since the fortress where it’s held is across a body of water from where my boyfriend and I were staying in Old Havana, the first problem we faced was figuring out how to get there. We had been hoping to take a ferry and then walk the rest of the way, but due to an unforeseen pothole vs. ankle injury my boyfriend had sustained the night before, we ended up taking a cab. It was about 15 CUC (Cuban tourist currency equivalent to the American dollar) to get to the fair and back again. Before we had even driven through the entrance of the fortress we could already tell the venue was packed. Our driver let us out at the base of the fortress, and we could immediately see the venue was packed. We wandered through the long, winding road that takes you up to the fortress and saw dozens of food tents and carnival rides for kids. Hundreds of people were milling around this area eating and chatting. There was definitely a buzz of excitement.
Once we’d passed the entrance area we bought tickets - we paid 5 CUC, although we realized once we arrived that the booths at the fair don’t normally take the tourist currency. Luckily a very nice woman allowed us to pay with our tourist money, and I’m convinced it was because I probably looked like I was going to cry if I couldn’t go inside the festival.
The fortress is a bit maze-like, with beautiful cobblestone paths lined by tall stone walls. In each of the stone walls were dozens of little doorways that led to the little chambers where publishers had set up their displays. At the top of each doorway was a list of the publishers inside that specific chamber, as well as the country they were representing. There were publishers from Peru, Russia, Germany, Mexico, Australia, Spain, and so many other places, and each had a well-sized display of books and catalogs. There were university publishers, YA publishers, children’s publishers and everything else in between.
Once we wound our way through the paths, we came out into an open courtyard space where there were more food tents and signing stations set up. Long lines of people waiting in the blistering heat to meet authors and purchase copies of books from the tents, all with the beautiful backdrop of Old Havana visible across the harbour.
The most interesting thing about the book fair for me was seeing so many books in foreign languages. There were many English-accessible books to buy and look at, but the majority of the items available for purchase were in Spanish. Being at the fair offered me the incredibly unique chance to see what kinds of books I’ve missed out on because I’m limited to reading in only one language. There were so many books about Cuban history that I could never find in Canada, and so many foreign publisher’s I’d never heard of back home. Even though language can be a road block when it comes to reading about foreign cultures and histories, I found it comforting to see just how special books and literature are in other places in the world.
What To Know If You Plan On Attending The Fair
At this point I’d like to share a few key things I wish I’d known before attending. Things went very smoothly during my stay in Havana and on the day of the festival, but there are a couple things I think travelers should be aware of:
Preparing in advance. I had a few problems identifying things I wanted to see, hear and do while at the fair because, once I arrived in Cuba, I had very limited access to the internet. I also found it quite difficult to find a schedule and itinerary online before I arrived in Cuba, so in a lot of ways I felt like I was going in blind. If I were to go again - and for anyone considering going in future years - take full advantage of the fair’s Facebook page (linked above), the government website and Cuban news outlets’ pieces leading up to the fair to identify key dates and times and activities you’d like to do.
CUC vs. CUP currency. Most tourists in Cuba use CUC currency, but since the fair is a cultural event that attracts many Cubans, CUP is the only currency they’ll accept. I got VERY lucky in finding someone who took pity on me and allowed me to pay with CUC. If you’re traveling to Cuba and plan on attending this event, make sure you have at least a little bit of CUP. This was the only time having CUC was a problem for me as a traveler.
Transportation. Plan to take a taxi to get to and from the fair. Since it’s across a body of water, there is no way to walk there, and taking the ferry can take as much as an hour and requires a lot of walking (which is, of course, an option for some people). You can barter with taxi drivers about the cost, but I would set aside at least 20 CUC to be safe. Also, plan on walking a lot at the fair. The fortress is big and there’s a lot of uneven ground (i.e. cobblestones and gravel) and you’ll need to wear comfortable shoes.
Language. If you’re an English speaker, don’t plan on going to this fair and understanding everything that’s going on. The Q&A’s and readings, as well as many of the presentations, are in Spanish. Does this mean they’re completely inaccessible to you? Not at all. My favourite part of the experience was that it was so different from what I’d find in North America, and it was still very possible to interact with people and feel engaged with the event.
Weather. As a proud Canadian, my default setting during the months between October and April is COLD. It was unbelievably nice to be in such a warm climate for a few days while I stayed in Cuba, but if you’re planning to attend the fair be warned: it’s a very open setting and there isn’t a lot of shade. Make sure you have a hat, sunglasses, and a lot of sunscreen!