By Andy Fitch
This conversation focuses on Nightboat author Daniel Borzutzky’s work with novelist Brenda Lozano on organizing the 2017 Lit & Luz Festival of Language, Literature, and Art. Held each fall in the U.S. and each winter in Mexico, Lit & Luz offers a unique series of readings, conversations, performances, and multimedia presentations featuring renowned authors and visual artists from Chicago and Mexico City. From October 17th to 21st, more than a dozen Lit & Luz events will take place in Chicago galleries, college auditoriums, classrooms, bookstores, and museums. The festival will conclude with its “Live Magazine Extravaganza Show” finale at Co-Prosperity Sphere, featuring debut multimedia collaborations between the Mexico City-based and Chicago-based participants. This year’s festival theme of “Belonging” celebrates the richly diverse sustained interconnections of custom, community, and culture between Chicago and Mexico City. At the same time, “Belonging” poses questions about what it means to be excluded from a community, a city, and a nation.
Daniel Borzutzky is MAKE Magazine’s Intercambio Poetry Editor. Borzutzky’s most recent translation is Valdivia by Galo Ghigliotto. His most recent poetry collection, The Performance of Becoming Human, won the 2016 National Book Award. His new collection, Lake Michigan, is forthcoming in 2018.
Brenda Lozano is MAKE Magazine’s Intercambio Prose Editor, as well as editor for Ugly Duckling Presse. Lozano’s debut novel Todo nada (Tusquets, 2009) is being made into a film. Her second novel is Cuardeno ideal. In 2015, Lozano was recognized by Conaculta and the British Council as one of the most important writers under 40 in Mexico. At the 2017 Hay Festival, she was selected to be part of Bogotá39, a group representing the most promising writers in Latin America. She currently lives in Mexico City. Cómo piensan las piedras is her first book of short stories.
Chicago-based poet and translator Jose-Luis Moctezuma translated Lozano’s responses from Spanish to English. Moctezuma edits interviews for MAKE.
ANDY FITCH: Could you discuss the lived history of Lit & Luz first coming together and then establishing itself as an ambitious, ever-inventive annual festival? Could you bring in your own personal perspectives: with Daniel, for instance, already a prolific translator of Spanish-language authors, and a MAKE Magazine editor with an Intercambio focus; and with Brenda an early contributor to Intercambio and now co-director (with Sarah Dodson) of Lit & Luz? What untapped potential in your own literary practice did you find yourself reaching towards as Lit & Luz — the idea of it, the invitation to participate in it, the continuing organizational work on it — came into view? And what corresponding capacities do you hope to tap in your participants, in your audiences, in broader literary/artistic/activist communities who might see Lit & Luz as an exemplary form of public engagement?
DANIEL BORZUTZKY: I think it was around 2013 when Sarah brought together a variety of people involved with MAKE Magazine. Sarah is one of the hardest-working people I know, but also very casual about things, and so she casually mentioned this idea and what it might entail. She had applied for funding from the MacArthur Foundation. And despite those conversations seeming casual, Sarah had a very clear vision of what she wanted to create. Having said that, the festival is always different. It’s not particularly prescripted — but, from the start, there has been a really clear understanding of what would become a lasting partnership between Chicago and Mexico.
The first go-round was in October 2014, when a handful of authors came from Mexico to the U.S. I was involved the first year in collaboration with Valerie Mejer. And in terms of expanding my own literary practice, one of the really great things was that our project existed in several different media. Valerie and I both wrote pieces, and translated each other’s, and we published these as a chapbook. Paul Cunningham made a video for our performance. Valerie made a series of paintings, and the performance had a scripted aspect as well. I rarely otherwise would work in so many different forms.
That has been true for a lot of the writers. Joel Craig, Luis Felipe Fabre, and Kirsten Leenaars put together a performance as much as a poetic text. Some pieces combine poetry and video, or poetry and music. Pieces and performances exist in multiple languages, too. I can think of a few cases when there wasn’t even much common language between the writers from Mexico City and Chicago, and they managed to make some pretty awesome collaborations despite that.
The question about audiences and communities is also very important. The festival has been smart about bringing Lit & Luz to venues all over the city, from the South Side to the North Shore, and from formal institutional venues (the Poetry Foundation, Northwestern, the University of Chicago) to local galleries and community centers. We held an event in the space used by contratiempo, a Spanish-language publication based in the Pilsen neighborhood. From the outset, we knew we wanted to collaborate with Spanish-language presses and publications already in Chicago. We have partnered with 7Vientos, which does work in translation, including one of Mario Bellatin’s books. Part of the heart of Lit & Luz’s mission has been to reach a diverse range of audiences — not just different geographically, not just different culturally, not just different socially, but different linguistic audiences as well, which is pretty rare.
BRENDA LOZANO: To add to what Daniel said: there are around 36 million Hispanic people of Mexican origin living in the United States. With Lit & Luz we seek to emphasize these intersections and to promote collaborative exchanges. I’m currently living in Mexico City, but I’ve lived in the United States at different times of my life and it’s been my home as well. When Trump was elected, a sense of belonging emerged as a critical question for many of us — one to which literature appeals time and time again. Perhaps all stories are stories of belonging: belonging to a family, to a group of friends in grade school, to a neighborhood community, to forms of thought, to sexual identity, to ways of speaking, whether in English or Spanish or a mix of both. Trump has stretched shared experiences of belonging to the point of rupture, and we now want to put those shared experiences back on the table.
And although there have been numerous Mexican works translated from Spanish to English, there is still much to do in that respect. There’s a rich contemporary scene in Spanish-language literature, with great books being written by young authors, even if the major publishers are still dominated by establishment authors. I detest, for example, Octavio Paz as a cultural figure in Mexico. He was a Corleone-like figure, one who happened to be a diplomat and friend to politicians. For many young authors it is inconceivable that a man like that could be at the center of the literary scene. Fortunately, the current idea of what it means to be a writer is far removed from the popular notions that were pervasive during the Latin American Boom. There are many great young authors from diverse backgrounds in the current Mexican literary scene. In fiction, I think of people like Yuri Herrera, Valeria Luiselli, Emiliano Monge, Laia Jufresa, Eduardo Rabasa, Fernanda Melchor, Aura Xilonen, Verónica Gerber, Antonio Ortuño, and Gabriela Jauregui. In poetry, Luis Felipe Fabre and Sara Uribe come to mind. One central idea of Lit & Luz, in fact, is to highlight the strength and diversity of the current literary scene, which fortunately is much more open than before, and includes far more women writing brilliant books.
In my own writing practice, planning this festival alongside Sarah (who, as Daniel mentioned, is a brilliant and hardworking person whom I respect and appreciate so much) has had the enormous benefit of encouraging conversation — as much about politics as about art, about what happens in our respective countries and how that filters into one’s own work.
Yeah, and I asked about Lit & Luz as an exemplary engagement in part because I long have admired how intricately curated each aspect of the festival seems — from its elegant title all the way to its concluding Live Magazine Show Extravaganza. So could we continue to articulate the specific points of interest and experiential impact that have made it distinct for participants, audiences, organizers? What curatorial advice might you offer to authors and artists wanting to establish their own distinctive public forums, wanting to establish mutually enhancing interpersonal connections beyond their own parochial confines, wanting to disarm and dissolve (rather than obliviously to reinforce) cultural divides within their own immediate communities?
BORZUTZKY: Brenda can speak better to the work that happens with organizing events in Mexico, but I know that the MAKE staff has been very thoughtful about arranging partnerships. When the Mexico City writers come to Chicago, each has about three or four public events throughout the area. And in the months prior to coming, they have been partnered up with artists and authors from Chicago, and worked on collaborations (virtually, or via Skype or something). Then when everybody meets in person, they have a couple days to develop collaborative performances out of their texts. The partnerships have been very deliberate, but the results are not micromanaged.
And in terms of the Chicago-based writers brought in, we’ve always included a very broad range of people — really not looking to any one particular kind of writer or genre or writing scene, but trying to bring in participants from groups who wouldn’t normally talk to each other. We have worked hard to figure out a constructive way to collaborate with partners already invested in various kinds of multilingual work, like publications, Spanish departments, Latin American Studies departments, Spanish-language authors who live in Chicago, Spanish-language media (writers have been on Univision Chicago). It’s been really important to figure out who already was involved in these activities, and how we could support their preexisting projects.
So I can’t stress enough the amount of detail and organizing that goes into all of this. But then, of course, as with any collaborative undertaking, a sense of flexibility also has to emerge.
LOZANO: Both iterations of the festival, in Chicago and in Mexico City, function much the same way: we select a theme around which the festival is based, and that becomes our point of departure. We then invite authors and artists who excel in their respective medium to partner up and develop collaborative projects.
In a sense, the idea of the collaborations is to take contributors out of their comfort zone. Leaving behind one’s sense of the familiar can be very productive. Writers tend to be solitary workers, and whatever artists’ routine may be, collaborative work takes them off their well-worn path. Moreover, having a dialogue with another person in a different language or a different medium generates new questions. In respect to the artistic process, that seems like an essentially positive thing.
We’re very happy that Amalia Pica, an Argentine artist who currently lives in Mexico City, will be participating in this year’s festival. Her work has captivated me since I first encountered a piece in the Guggenheim in New York. Cristina Rivera Garza, a great Mexican writer who created the first PhD in Creative Writing in Spanish program in the U.S. (at the University of Houston), will be our writer-in-residence. Aura Xilonen, whose novel Campeón Gabacho has been translated to multiple languages, will also be participating. Eduardo Rabasa, recently elected to Bogotá39 as one of the most promising Latin American writers, is an editor of Sexto Piso, a major independent press at the cutting edge of Spanish-language literature. There’s Carla Faesler, whose wonderful writing reaches across genres and disciplines. And there’s also Juan Gaitan, director of the Museo Tamayo in Mexico City, one of the most important art spaces in Latin America. He has really elevated the concept of the museum to new heights. The idea here is that each version of the festival brings together a “dream team” of artists and writers from both Chicago and Mexico City.
Well in terms of combining collaborative flexibility with curatorial precision, and based on your own immersive engagements both amid this particular festival and amid the teeming diversities of literary and artistic practice across the hemisphere, could you discuss why this specific ongoing Chicago-Mexico City exchange still feels right for Lit & Luz? Would Chicago-Guadalajara, Chicago-Santiago, or a Lit & Luz festival including Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Miami, Denver, or New York, ever make sense? To what extent do the intricate workings of Lit & Luz seem specifically attuned to the two cities involved, and what other forms of multilingual public engagement in the U.S. and Mexico and beyond (perhaps sometimes in the cities mentioned above) seem particularly generative to you right now or as past precedent?
BORZUTZKY: So could it happen with other combinations of cities: certainly, right? On the Chicago end, the festival has created these partnerships with people in Mexico City equally invested in its success. Doing that work of building connections and maintaining them is the most important thing. There really is now a lasting interchange between writers in Chicago and Mexico City. A group of us know each other well, and see each other a couple times a year, and at this point consider each other basically old friends. So if you can find and engage willing participants on both sides of whatever borders we’re talking about, I think that’s great.
And Chicago of course is a Latin American city. It has around 600,000 Mexico-born residents. It’s had Mexican migrants now for at least three or four generations. So there’s already this interchange happening between Chicago and Mexico, which happens in a very lived and daily way for much of the city. Chicago and Mexico are already intertwined through so many real, personal, communal relationships. That makes it all work pretty naturally for us.
Then in terms of related multilingual public engagements, I personally would acknowledge the journal Mandorla, which had, throughout its 20 years of publication, editors in Mexico and the U.S.: with Gabriel Bernal Granados in Mexico City, Roberto Tejada in Mexico and the U.S., and Kristin Dykstra in the U.S. That journal was multilingual in a really deep sense, as part of its ethics. It would publish in English, in Spanish, in Portuguese, with Canadian authors writing in French, with translation, without translation. You can see its interconnected project as a writing of the Americas in a truly hemispheric sense.
I also want to acknowledge Antena, the collective Jen Hofer and John Pluecker started. John was involved in Lit & Luz last year, and we’ve published Jen’s translations in MAKE. But that Antena project collectively, and then both of them individually, have been exemplary in their dedication to multilingualism, and to working on what they call language justice.
I’m less familiar with, but certainly know of, collaborations between writers from California and writers from Tijuana. If we go back even further, El Corno Emplumado, published out of Mexico City, was this landmark journal that would bring writers from the U.S. into Latin America. And others have eloquently written about connections between U.S. and Latin American writers dating back at least to the modernist period.
But even within that context and history, I can’t recall, in Chicago, much room for multiple multilingual performances happening in a single space on one evening — at least not to this degree. The Guild Complex in Chicago does have a longstanding reading series called Palabra Pura, which has been really engaged with related questions. So certainly other people are thinking about and doing something similar, but it’s pretty rare to have this degree of collaborative multilingualism happening.
LOZANO: It wasn’t long ago that I noticed, while on the subway in New York, that the N-line symbol had been graffitied in various stations in such a way that changed the “N” into an “Ñ.” I loved seeing that graffiti, although it soon was erased and cleaned up. The transit authorities evidently did not appreciate the apparition of these tildes in the subway stations, which seemed to indicate an alternate phantasmal line going somewhere else. Can you imagine how that order went: “Hey Josh, can you spare a day to erase all those damned “Ñs” from each train station?”
I’m a fan of NPR, and in one of its podcasts they read a lot of news about Latin American issues, stories, cultural events, and so forth. There’s also the McNally Jackson bookstore, which has a large section dedicated to Spanish-language texts, and there’s the Chicago Latino Film Festival, too.
I believe that our festival seeks to find the relationality between languages, between artistic communities, and between distinct mediums of expression. In that sense, we could imagine other festivals that connect Bogotá and San Francisco, for example. But for now, our festival focuses on the specific relationship shared by Chicago and Mexico City, and that is our small graffiti on the subway line that extends between the languages and is as long as the Spanish language itself.
Could we also address in more detail the interlingual, collaborative, performative, site-specific components of Live Magazine night? How might that night’s events crystallize what you want the festival as a whole to accomplish — again for participants, audiences, organizers alike?
BORZUTZKY: So again, Live Magazine night is the result of really careful planning and organizing. On that night the whole group comes together, and in a two-act event we’ll have about eight sets of collaborative performers. In terms of audience, Lit & Luz has so many Spanish-language contributors involved that there are many Spanish and bilingual speakers in attendance. The performances are almost always bilingual in some form or other. They include some of the most well-known writers working in Mexico. So going back to the first year: Álvaro Enrigue and Valeria Luiselli were there. Mario Bellatin and Luis Felipe Fabre have been ongoing participants, as have Valerie, Brenda, Guadalupe Nettel. These are all super-established writers in Mexico, and they already have an audience in the U.S. At the event in Mexico City last year, the pop star Julieta Venegas performed alongside poets from the U.S. generally published by independent presses. That sort of dynamic combination just expands the audience in this really useful way.
As a Spanish speaker, working in translation often introduces me to new writers’ work in the original language. I think Lit & Luz does something similar for both Spanish-language audiences and English-language audiences in Chicago. It gives them access to five or seven Mexican authors on one single night. Nobody would argue that Lit & Luz offers a complete cultural picture, but part of the idea is to give the audience a cultural immersion or a deep engagement with a lot of writers from another country. That’s central.
To close then, could you introduce this year’s festival? Brenda already began to offer individual bios, and hinted at this year’s “Belonging” theme. What do you most eagerly await to discover about how these specific participants will address that topic?
BORZUTZKY: I mean certainly since we began, including prior to 2016, we’ve been in a highly politicized environment regarding immigration. So it’s important to emphasize in this moment (as literal and political and symbolic walls get constructed between the U.S. and Mexico) that there’s a real political heart to making these collaborations happen, and a real desire to break down borders — or to collaborate across borders in meaningful ways. I think we often use this rhetoric of “crossing borders” and “breaking down borders” in kind of superficial ways. But to me, having people work together across borders really is crucial — to demonstrate not just the possibility of that, but the dedication to doing that at a time when migration and multilingualism are actively being criminalized. As Brenda said earlier, the idea of belonging is a very contemporary one, speaking to this moment, as we publicly and privately conduct these discussions about what it means for people from other countries to belong in the United States, and what it means to not belong, and what it means to allow all residents to interact and to absorb each other’s cultures. Questions of belonging are just as much questions about not belonging, and who gets to control these discussions, and what it means to fight against this rhetoric of not belonging.
And of course right now everybody at Lit & Luz is thinking about Mexico City, in the aftermath of the earthquakes. Many of our participants (including Brenda and Carla Faesler) come from some of the neighborhoods hardest hit. I know that they have just experienced a pretty devastating event, and so seeing them at this year’s collaboration will be particularly special. We’ll feel particularly lucky to host them. And I can’t anticipate what it will be like when we return to Mexico in February, but I have no doubt that this sense of solidarity established between Chicago and Mexico City will still feel pretty prescient.
LOZANO: What Daniel said is really heart warming. I should mention that we’re organizing a fundraiser for those affected by the two earthquakes which struck Mexico, respectively, on the 7th and 19th of September. I’ll say a little about my own encounter with those disasters. I did not experience the first quake, but the quake which hit Mexico on the 19th was the worst I have ever experienced. I was in a meeting in the Condesa neighborhood when it happened, and I remember running down six floors of a building with my adrenaline kicking in because the ceiling fell through, and when I got out I saw an entire building collapse. All communications were down, and I couldn’t stop trembling, and there were already people helping out those in the collapsed building. Instead of running away, these people stayed around to help those in the collapsed building, even with their own lives at risk. Those were long, long days, as we tirelessly helped people out, and we saw so much of everything. But I must say that during those first few nights after the quake, I cried a lot just thinking of the beautiful acts of solidarity and selflessness with which these people came together to help each other out. Witnessing how these strangers bonded without the slightest preparation, almost instantaneously, to move rubble and rescue people, is something I won’t ever forget. And it’s odd, but I think that artistic collaboration might have something to do with how these human bonds are formed, linking up and moving things from shoulder to shoulder. I believe that, now more than ever, what we can build and create in collaboration is what’s most powerful. There hasn’t been a more necessary time to develop those human bonds shared by Mexico and the United States than now.
Photo of Lozano by Ana Hop.