Finding a Guatemalan village -- in Germany’s book mecca

Frankfurt is a thriving financial center on the Main River that some Germans have taken to calling “Bankfurt,” but the locals take greater pride in their literary culture.

Among other things, the father of German letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was born there. It is also home to the world’s largest book fair.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a “Literaturhaus” smack in the middle of the city. The neoclassical 19th century building, once home to the city library, was the site of a literary festival to which I was invited to last week.

“The Literaturhaus is used only for readings,” one of my German hosts explained. Downstairs, there’s a cafe, with the tables between bookshelves, of course. I spied German translations of books by Jonathan Franzen and former Times reporter J.R. Moehringer, among others. It was a translation of my own book, “The Barbarian Nurseries,” into German that brought me here.

“In den Häusern der Barbaren” had landed me, somewhat improbably, in a Latin American book fair organized by the group Litprom, which promotes what used to be called “Third World” literature. (Now they say it celebrates “the literature of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.”)


Litprom had organized this year’s festival to celebrate Mittelamerika, inviting seven Central American and Mexican writers, assorted German critics and editors -- and one Angeleno.

Attendees included the poet, revolutionary and onetime vice president of Nicaragua Sergio Ramirez and Paco Ignacio Taibo II, the Mexican noir writer who has a huge following in Europe and bears a strong resemblance to Pancho Villa (the subject of one of his books). Of all the invitees, I was the only one who writes in English.

“I would like to thank the organizers of this festival for recognizing the newest language of Latin America -- English,” I said during the opening panel discussion. I spoke of Los Angeles as a city with a plurality of people of Latin American descent, a growing number of whom speak English as their mother tongue. Ironically enough, I made these comments in Spanish (so that the other authors could understand me), with simultaneous translation into German for the audience.

At other panels, Costa Rican novelist Fernando Contreras Castro spoke about his country’s seeming attempt to turn its back on its own history. “Alone among all the capitals of Central America, San Jose has all but obliterated any remnants of its colonial past,” he said.

Valeria Luiselli, a native of Mexico, writes in Spanish but lives in New York and was raised in India and other places, and spoke eloquently about her multilingual and globalized life. “Paco Taibo said I’m the Mexican writer who’s lived the fewest days in Mexico,” she quipped.

Alan Mills spoke about the improbability of his name, given his Guatemalan nationality. Growing up, he said, he was teased mercilessly for having dark skin and two English names. His grandfather Thomas Mills, he explained, was a Jamaican immigrant who settled in Guatemala in the first half of the 20th century.

Exile and diaspora are common themes among writers from Mittelamerika, it seems, whether we grew up in Guatemala City or Los Angeles.

Later, Mills and I sat at a table having dinner in the Literaturhaus restaurant. He lives in Berlin now, but all of his family is back in Guatemala, he said. When he asked me what part of Guatemala my family is from, I told him my father is from Zacapa, the banana-growing region in the eastern part of the country.

“My father is from Zacapa too,” Mills said in Spanish. He added that his grandfather -- Thomas to his family, and Tomás to his neighbors -- had worked for the United Fruit Company.

“My grandfather worked for the United Fruit Company too,” I said in Spanish.

“My grandfather died in the earthquake in 1976,” Mills said.

“My grandfather died in that earthquake too!” I said.

For a moment, we both sat there and took in the coincidences of our past and our present. We were two writers from Mittelamerika, one who lives in Berlin and the other who lives in Los Angeles, both with roots in the same banana-growing region of Guatemala. And now we had met down the street from Goethe’s house, in an old building lined with books in German.


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