There is no place I hate more than Mexico City, and there is no place I love more than Mexico City. But writing away from Mexico City lets me love her more,” said Mexico City resident and writer Álvaro Enrigue to an audience of hip, bookish Chicagoans at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport. It was Saturday night, and two-dozen writers, poets, and visual artists from Chicago and Mexico City had gathered to celebrate the end of the inaugural Lit & Luz Fest with live performances, an artist’s talk, red wine, and churros.
The four-day event, sponsored by local nonprofit MAKE magazine, hosted conversations about translation, literature in the two cities, and the documentation of life in the digital age. It was held at venues on all sides of the city, including Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the School of the Art Institute, and the Poetry Foundation.
Lit & Luz, several years in the making, was the brainchild of MAKE editors. After producing an issue of their magazine featuring first-time translations of contemporary Spanish and English work, they came across a flaw in the contemporary American literary conversation: major Latin-American writers aren’t being translated into English.
“We became aware of how little work is translated into either language, but in particular from Spanish to English, and how unfamiliar we were with contemporary writing specifically in Mexico City, and so we decided to investigate that,” said Sarah Dodson, Director of MAKE.
With the help of the Spanish Language Editor Brenda Lozano and a MacArthur Foundation International Connections Fund grant, MAKE was able to recruit a number of prominent Mexico City writers who are not widely read in the U.S. and were willing to contribute to the festival despite the relatively small circulation of MAKE magazine. Award-winning novelist Álvaro Enrigue, poet Luis Felipe Fabre, and novelist Valeria Luiselli were among eight Mexico City writers and artists that participated in the festival. In Chicago, the event leaders enlisted editors and former contributors to MAKE magazine, including Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh, who coincidentally has attracted a cult following in Mexico in recent years.
The Lit & Luz finale event ARCHIVE took as its subject matter the documentation of Mexico City and Chicago. The performances featured an array of different media, much of which was performed in two languages. The most poignant and relevant pieces took to heart the project of combining and blending the languages. One particularly striking poem was performed with alternating stanzas read in English and Spanish, while a woman held posters with text commenting ironically on the poem. At other times, the collaboration between the Chicago and Mexico City writers felt tenuous. Certain acts that were advertised as collaborative felt heavily centered on the English-speaking Chicago artists’ creative input. However, despite some minor kinks in the program, the audience responded enthusiastically throughout the evening.
For the final act, Enrigue, Welsh, and Columbia College Fiction Professor Don Degrazia sat down to discuss the difficulties and joys of writing about their cities.
“The moments when I am self-conscious as a writer come not when I question whether I’m representing Chicago accurately enough, but whether I’m being too self-indulgent as a Chicagoan,” said Degrazia. Each of the writers acknowledged that the majority of their fiction ends up being set in the city they’re from, not intentionally but “organically.”
The directors of the Lit & Luz Fest are already planning their second event for February of next year. Most of the writers and performers from Chicago have already signed up to travel to Mexico City, where they will adapt this October’s live magazine show for a Spanish-speaking audience. The hope is that the event will take place once a year in each city.
“We are hoping to continue the Lit & Luz Fest as an annual thing,” said Dodson. “We think it’s really good for Chicago and writing in general.”