The Havana International Book Fair 2019


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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.


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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

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2017: My Year in Books

There may only be one thing that everyone agrees on about 2017: it was a crazy year. Nothing was untouched by the whirlwind of the past twelve months. Politics, conflict, and natural disasters stole many of the headlines in the past twelve months, and it doesn’t seem like any of it is going to let up as 2018 begins.

This year was also pretty intense for me personally. I finished my undergraduate degree in history and political science and moved to Jasper, Alberta for the summer. I found out I had been accepted to a Master’s program in journalism part way through the summer, and in August I packed up my things and headed out to Canada’s east coast to start school in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Working full time or attending school full time can mean giving up hobbies and activities that you enjoy. The past year I have struggled to keep up with my reading goals. I initially planned to try to read 50 books in 2017, but decided I would settle for 30 when I realized how busy work and school were going to keep me. I will also admit that television shows like Shameless, Game of Thrones, and Big Little Lies really cut into my reading time this past year.

I finished 2017 having read 33 books (a list of which can be found here https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/7902089), a number I am pretty happy with considering everything that was going on. I read some incredible books in the past 12 months, and I am happy that I focused on reading non-fiction – something that I have gotten more into in the past couple of years. I read about religion, war, crime, and a wide range of other topics, and I found that each book actually contributed to what I was learning about in school.

So, as 2018 begins and I start my new reading challenge here are some of the highlights of 2017 in terms of books! Keep in mind that these are not books that were published in 2017, but rather books that I read in 2017.

 

My 2017 Favourites:

 

Non-Fiction: Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.

I am pretty late to the party on this one, and I’m sure plenty of people have already heard all about this book, or seen the movie that was made from it. Black Hawk Down is the story of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu when the U.S. military intervened in Somalia. The book has all of the potential to be overwhelming – there are so many characters and so much history and politics involved that at first it seems like the story may lose you. But Bowden is a master at his craft. He gives each person involved such vivid description that they are easy to keep clear and distinct in your mind. Bowden also beautifully and eloquently pierces through the fog of war and gives a clear, linear description of the battle. My personal favourite thing about Black Hawk Down was the true journalistic commitment to impartiality. Bowden explains why the U.S. was in Somalia and the motivations of the soldiers fighting there, but he also dives into the complex history that created the conditions present in 1993. Black Hawk Down doesn’t read like American propaganda, it reads like a combination of military history and horror. I was devastated when I finished this book because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find anything to follow it with.

 

Fiction: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.

Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite authors. Her previous books Room and Frog Music are some of my favourites. Room, which was adapted into a film starring Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson, managed to turn some very disturbing subject matter into a beautiful story about love and family and recovery. What I really admire about Emma Donoghue is that she doesn’t shy away from tough subjects. The Wonder follows the same tradition as Donoghue’s other books. It is the story of an English nurse who travels to a small village in Ireland to meet a young girl who claims to be performing a miracle: surviving for months without eating. The novel incorporates the incredible history of Florence Nightingale and her pioneering efforts to train nurses, and also studies the impact of religion and faith on a small community. There is a real sense of mystery to the book – you want to keep reading to find out what is going to happen – but the real draw for me was the relationship between the nurse and her patient and how determined the nurse, Lib Wright, was to be great to her job.

 

Hardest read: Shake Hands With The Devil by Romeo Dallaire.

In many of my political science courses in university we talked about the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. It was a subject that I admittedly didn’t know much about. I started to do a bit of research and realized how tragic and horrify the whole ordeal was. Canadian military General Romeo Dallaire was in Kigali throughout the genocide, and his experience has stayed with him ever since. Shake Hands With The Devil is Dallaire’s personal account of the genocide and the regrets he lives with now. This book wasn’t easy to read. I had to renew my loan from the library a few times to finish it. It was heartbreaking and detailed and complicated in a way that not many other books I’ve read are. As a lover of military history and international relations, this book is very important to me, and it has made me open my eyes to the realities of military intervention and human rights.  

 

Most enjoyable read: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing is a suspenseful, exciting novel. It is about two people who meet, seemingly by chance, and decide to help each other get away with murder. This is the perfect book for anyone who, like me, is waiting for Gillian Flynn to release a new novel. Peter Swanson created the kinds of characters that hopeful writers like myself hope to be able to create one day. They are complex and multi-dimension, at one moment terrifying and at another relatable. This book was fun to read. I couldn’t put it down.

 

Here are 10 other books that I read in 2017 that I would recommend:  

1.     Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer.

If you like: true crime, law, women’s rights, politics.

The hook: Jon Krakauer explores the issue of campus rape culture and how hard it is for women to seek justice after an assault.

2.     Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer

If you like: American history, war/military studies, adventure, sports.

The hook: An NFL player turns down a multi-million-dollar deal to enlist in the American military and fight in the War on Terror. After he dies the American government goes to great lengths to hide the circumstances of his death.

3.     The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

If you like: science, medicine, nature.

The hook: An exciting and horrifying true story about a devastating virus that wreaks havoc on the human body and how it almost caused a tragedy in Reston, Virginia.

4.     The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

If you like: science, medicine, nature.

The hook: The true story of the incredible scientists and doctors who eradicated one of the deadliest diseases in human history: smallpox.

5.     13 Hours in Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff

If you like: war/military studies, American history, adventure, action.

The hook: A recounting of the 2012 attack on an American CIA compound and diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The story is told from the perspective of the security contractors who defended the compound and outpost over a thirteen-hour period against hundreds of attackers.

6.     Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

If you like: sports, politics, religion, family stories.

The hook: A high school football team in Odessa, Texas spends a season training and working to become state champions. Bissinger explores the racial, political, and economic circumstances in Odessa and how they relate to football.

7.     The Lion, The Fox, and the Eagle by Carol Off

If you like: politics, war/military studies, journalism.

The hook: The stories of three powerful Canadians and the roles they played in the Rwandan genocide, as well as the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

8.     Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

If you like: thrillers, family stories, crime, mystery.

The hook: Two people have died in a river that runs through town. One is a teenager girl, another a single mother. The sister of the latest victim arrives in town to deal with the aftermath and becomes involved in solving the mystery of her sisters’ death.

9.     Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

If you like: family stories, adventure, strong female characters.

The hook: The author of The Glass Castle wrote this true-life novel about her grandmother’s wild, exciting life.

10.  Generation Kill by Evan Wright

If you like: journalism, action, adventure, war/military studies, American history.

The hook: A Rolling Stone journalist is sent to join up with a unit of American Marines who are some of the first soldiers to invade Iraq in 2003. Evan Wright witnesses modern war from the front lines of battle, and learns about the soldiers who are representing America in one of the most controversial wars in history.