Latin America and the Caribbean are experiencing a new literary moment. This wave, unlike its predecessor, is led by women writers.
Two of them, Liliana Colanzi from Bolivia and Melba Escobar from Colombia, participated in this year’s National Book Festival at the Library of Congress in Washington, in an event co-organized by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
“There have always been powerful women writers, but they have not had the same visibility as their male peers… I think this is a moment of change,” says Colanzi, author of the award-winning story collection Our Dead World. “There are sensitivities that are opening other paths in the literature that are totally unexpected, vital and renewing, and that are associated with female voices.”
The first Latin American literary wave spread through the world in the sixties and seventies, as readers from all latitudes consumed works in translation from Colombia, Argentina, Chile and beyond. When the tide subsided, it left behind numerous classics, two of which went on to win the Nobel Prize.
The “magic realism” of Gabriel García Márquez, the novels of José Donoso and the short stories of Julio Cortázar were enshrined in the world canon.
For Escobar, whose novel The House of Beauty has been translated into twelve languages, this phenomenon is steeped in a broader context.
“There is an effort to vindicate the position of women globally, which empowers us to use a voice that we have had for a long time, but that had not been used as we are using it now. There are many amazingly talented women in Latin American literature,” she says.
That newly enabled voice has explored topics such as gender violence and the crisis in our relationship with nature. Many clichés and traditional views of Latin America are challenged in the process.
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A New Edition
The regional publishing industry has provided a platform for Colanzi, Escobar and their contemporaries. In 2017, Latin America and the Caribbean issued more than 195,000 titles in Spanish and Portuguese, according to data from the Regional Center for the Promotion of Books .
While that figure represented an increase in output from the previous year, the general recent trend has been stagnation or decline.
Broader economic factors are responsible, and public-sector publications have experienced a similar downturn. The three largest regional markets – Brazil, Argentina and Mexico –have seen their production fall by 87%, 64% and 39%, respectively, since 2013.
In the face of these challenges, and amid the void left by traditional industry players, entrepreneurship and innovation have particularly critical. In 2017, Bolivia experienced 16% growth in output by private publishers – and Colanzi herself is part of the reason. That year, she founded Dum Dum Editors.
“Living in a country where there is no cultural infrastructure, I often wondered how it would be possible to make this passion a way of life,” says Colanzi.
“It is, on the one hand, the desire to make risky decisions, and on the other hand to maintain a publishing business. For me, Dum Dum Editors was a way of intervening in the Bolivian literary landscape with proposals that I found totally dazzling – and necessary,” she says.
“I do not want, for lack of this state support, to stop taking risks… I have been very lucky so far that all my bets have found an audience.”
The future may be digital books
Colanzi’s creative venture is not the only one helping to renew the industry.
“The interesting thing about the Bolivian publishing market is that it has been left to independent publishers. And so, very interesting proposals have emerged in recent years. There is a small, but powerful, ecosystem,” she says.
Technocreative Ventures: Creativity and Technology, Allies or Enemies? , an IDB publication that covers creative industries in the region, notes that the market for Spanish-language books in digital and audio formats grew by 110% in 2017.
Ludibuk, an application for tablets, has a presence in Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile. In Ecuador, The Wawaoffers e-books that feature augmented reality. In Uruguay, the Read to Me lamp the makers of that detects text being read aloud and projects it on the wall using animations and sound.
For these independent ventures, determination is a key ingredient for success. According to Launching an Orange Future , an IDB study on creative enterprises in the region, almost 20% fail due to lack of conviction from the entrepreneur or business partners.
As Colanzi puts it, “You will not always achieve everything you are looking for, but the road will gradually open up. You have to become obsessed with what you are undertaking.”