Fflur Dafydd at Hay Festival Xalapa, Mexico
The last time I visited Mexico was in 1990. My mother was on a research trip and we all trundled along with her, visiting Puebla, Mexico City and Zihuatinejo. I had vivid memories of both the poverty and colour of Mexico City, a city where all walks of life blended curiously together. I still recall the faint echoes of waves breaking on Zihuatinejo beach, where we ended our trip once the research had come to an end. The one memory both my brother and I share is of my parents going off to drink tequila out on the deck of our hut, forcing us to stay inside and write in our diaries – a chore we despised. My brother texted me just as I was leaving Cardiff airport: “drink tequila; forget the diary.”
23 years on, myself now a mother-of-two, I find myself in a country I never expected to return to, sitting in the back of a dark car, speeding through Mexico City in the dark, talking to a Guatemalan author, Eduardo Halfon, who (of course) knows a whole host of Welsh writers. Richard Gwyn? Tristan Hughes? Angharad Price? Patrick McGuinness? It’s the conversation I should be having in Cardiff or London, but because the Welsh seem to have this amazing capacity to infiltrate the whole world, I’m having it here, right in the heart of Mexico (“real Mexico” as people keep calling Xalapa, as if there is some “unreal Mexico” waiting to take me in), and soon we’re branching out to compare Welsh folklore and crónica, a form of writing unique to Latin America, which makes my jetlagged head want to explode with creative possibilities.
The next few days are a whirlwind, attempting to discover the “real Mexico” through its various, fascinating art forms. A Mexican girl tells me that in Mexican culture it’s never very easy to get to the heart of things, that there is always an elaborate ploy to take you on a detour, never to reveal too much at once. Soon enough I see what she’s saying: at the Anthropology Museum I discover Olmec culture, sculpture after sculpture, in a labyrinthine building seemingly without end, and go straight from there to a deliver a lecture on writing at the Galería de Contemporáneo to a fabulous, engaged audience of aspiring writers. Next stop, Philipp Blom’s accessible talk on the importance of the Enlightenment, and then onto a screening of a documentary film about the unorthodox methods of The Mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, El Alcalde. In only a few hours I feel like I’ve travelled from the root of indigenous Mexican culture to the very heart of contemporary, urban, politically complex Mexico.
My final day at Xalapa is just as stimulating – it is wonderful to be interviewed on stage by Jonathan Levi, founder of Granta Magazine, at the University of Veracruz, and then to hear writers Helen Oyeyemi and Ben Markovits, tipped by Granta as two of the Best Young British Novelists 2013, talk about their writing with Valerie Miles. Then I encounter the fascinating imaginary worlds of Lebanese-American novelist Rabih Almeddine in another great conversation with Jontahan Levi, and we end our long and stimulating day by dining together, along with celebrated essayist Eliot Weinberg. Drunk on ideas, we stagger back to our rooms – and suddenly it’s 1990 again, and I let the side down by declining the offer of tequila and going straight back to my room to write in my diary….sorry brawd.*
* brawd is Welsh for brother. Fflur Dafydd is the 2013-14 International Hay Fellow.