With a history of 57 editions, the Casa de las Américas Literary Prizes arrive as one of the region’s most prestigious competitions, both the continent and Cuba’s oldest such cultural event.
Held January 18-28, in Havana and Cienfuegos, the prizes have attracted hundreds of writers, with a total of 450 works competing in several categories, including story, theater, artistic-literary essay, Brazilian literature, Caribbean literature in French or Creole, and studies of indigenous cultures of the Americas.
As they do every year, eminent Latin American writers and intellectuals have descended on the Casa de la Américas as jury members, to read the submissions for the purpose of choosing the winners for the 57th edition.
Jorge Fornet, director of the Casa’s Literary Research Center talked with Granma International about the Prizes, and their history within Latin American literature.
“Throughout its many editions, the Prize has attracted hundreds of Latin American and Caribbean writers, which is what sustains it, that writers continue to be interested in competing here. And there is always a recurring question: Why, almost 60 years later, do people who write trust the Casa Prize?
“The reason must be, on one hand, the prestige accumulated over so many years, a prize won by great figures, from Roque Dalton, to Ricardo Piglia, from Alfredo Bryce to Eduardo Galeano. They are distinctions which, of course, writers desire. Another is the capacity the Prize has to avoid pressures of all kinds. Many competitions must attend to the market too much, for example. The Casa has this disadvantage and this advantage: It is not involved in the market as other prizes are, but it doesn’t have the pressure to respond to a predetermined demand. That is also why we have the luxury of being ambitious, and including genres which are in no way commercial, but which appear, to the Casa de las Américas, to fall within the institution’s own project, and the country’s, which very much surpasses borders, even those of language, of traditional or more commercial genres,” explained Fornet.
On this occasion, the jury was composed of important figures within Latin American literature, as has been the case in previous editions. Thus, participating are Santiago Gamboa (Colombia), Eduardo Lalo (Puerto Rico), Ana Quiroga (Argentina), Ramiro Sanchiz (Uruguay) and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (Cuba), in the Story category; André Carreira (Brazil), Mariana Percovich (Uruguay), Luis A. Ramos (Peru-U.S.), Alejandro Román Bahena (Mexico) and Fátima Patterson (Cuba), Theater; Sandra Lorenzano (Argentina-Mexico), Julio Ramos (Puerto Rico) and Mayerín Bello (Cuba), artistic-literary essay; Idelber Avelar (Brazil), Viviana Gelado (Argentina) and Consuelo Rodríguez Muñoz (Mexico), Brazilian literature; Aura Marina Boadas (Venezuela), Gary Victor (Haiti) and Josefina Castro Alegret (Cuba), Caribbean literature in French or Creole; and finally, Natalio Hernández (Mexico), Javier Lajo (Peru) and Claudia Zapata (Chile), studies of indigenous cultures of the Americas.
“We always try to have established, more well-known figures, as well as others who are young or not so young, who may not be as well known amongst us. On the one hand, so Cuban audiences can get to know them, and also so they can get to know each other.
“I always remember something that Julio Cortázar used to say, that he discovered he was Latin American when he came in 1963. Cortázar didn’t know he was Latin American, he knew he was an Argentine writer living in Paris, and only when he arrived here, discovering his colleagues and entering into conversation with them, his life took on another dimension, a continental dimension, and this is also part of the Casa’s purpose, trying to establish these networks of intellectuals,” Fornet said.
In addition to selecting the prizewinning works, the Casa organizes a parallel program of activities, including panels and conferences – on this occasion, a special event with former President of Uruguay, José Mujica – expositions and launchings of last year’s winning titles.
“Part of the Prize is, of course, the reading and recognition of the works, but there is also a parallel program, which is the writers’ opportunity to encounter Cuba’s reality, and that of Cuban readers, above all during the panels we have every year, in which the opportunity is provided to listen to them, to propose topics which could be controversial, issues under debate, and to see how they approach these questions. That is, to be able to hear people from other environments, what their experiences are, and thus enrich ourselves.
“Neither the Prize or the Casa are going to change thanks to any super-human inspiration. But rather, it is precisely contact with these intellectuals, and seeing what is happening, that obliges us to rethink ourselves. On the one hand, the Prize, and the Casa, intend to be faithful to our initial purpose, that of 1959, that of investigation, promotion, and dissemination of the culture of our region, and at the same time, renew ourselves every year,” Fornet added.
Once the 2016 Casa de las Américas Literary Prizes have been awarded, the manuscripts will go to the publishers, to be ready for next year’s event, when they will be presented. In the meantime, the institution will continue to encourage the region’s literary and intellectual work, to continue discovering ourselves in the immensity of Latin America.