FRIVOLOUS? I DON’T THINK SO | KIRSTY LANG

FRIVOLOUS? I DON’T THINK SO | KIRSTY LANG

It’s 30 years since Hay Festival started with a handful of authors meeting in a Welsh Valley. Now it’s an international brand with offshoots in twenty different countries including Colombia, Peru and Mexico. But running book festivals in one of the most dangerous regions of the world isn’t easy. Hay Festival Mexico has had to relocate three times in 7 years.

It’s now held in the picturesque colonial town of Queretaro, one of the wealthiest and safest places in Mexico. Sipping Margaritas with a group of writers in the elegant courtyard of my boutique hotel, it’s easy to forget that Mexico is the second deadliest conflict zone in the world after Syria. Almost 200,000 people have been killed in the past decade of the drugs war.

During the four days, I spent wandering through Queretaro’s narrow cobbled streets, I never felt in any personal danger. I’m told it’s because the drug cartel bosses have family homes in the town and they don’t want their wives and children caught up in the crossfire. But the subject of violence comes up at almost every event. The festival is a very cosmopolitan event. Latin American novelists, journalists and artists share platforms with colleagues from across the globe. Queretaro is a university town so there are lots of young people in the audiences.

One of the best attended events is a talk by the Pussy Riot activist Nadya Tolokno who spent two years in a Russian prison camp for blasphemy after staging a ‘punk prayer protest’ in a Moscow cathedral Dressed in a simple white shirt dress and bright red footwear, the Russian artist exudes both charisma and vulnerability. Still only 27, this young woman has packed a lot into her short life. She’s a mother, a feminist, a human rights activist, a pop singer and a perpetual thorn in Putin’s flesh. If the Kremlin thought that several beatings and two years in a prison cell would break her spirit, they were wrong. Tolokno appears to have no fear.

The audience respond to her courage with thunderous applause. But then as she is about to leave the stage, a middle aged Mexican woman rushes to the front waving an old newspaper cutting and an envelope full of documents. Visibly distressed she shouts “Nadya, help me, please help me find my mother and my sister”.

The Pussy Riot activist turns back and kneels down on the stage to listen. For a moment the scene reminds me of a religious painting, the young Russian all in white looking down at her Mexican supplicant who has her hands pressed together as if in prayer and tears running down her face. She introduces herself as Patricia Trego Ortiz and explains that her mother and sister were kidnapped in Leon two years ago by one of the drugs cartels. This is a common practice in Mexico, the gangs kidnap family members to settle scores and intimidate their enemies.

Sometimes they’re sold into prostitution or the criminals demand the deeds to the family house or car in exchange. But many of them never come home. It’s estimated that seven women are murdered every day in Mexico and yet only a quarter of the cases are investigated and only two per cent result in sentencing. Patricia Ortiz says the authorities refuse to investigate the disappearance of her family. Every time she goes to the police station she is dismissed as crazy. She knows that Pussy Riot campaigns for human rights so can Nadia help her put pressure on the Mexican authorities to investigate her case?

The same woman turns up at another talk given by the Mexican writer Lydia Cacho. Once again, she hands over her documents and pleads for help. She has come to the right person. Cacho is an incredibly brave investigative journalist who has endured two rapes, several beatings and endless death threats for writing about the trafficking of women and children by powerful men.

Over coffee on the last day of the festival, Cacho tells me that she gets approaches like this all the time. “The justice system has collapsed leaving it up to journalists to investigate. Women like Patricia Ortiz just want to be heard” she explains.

So why has the justice system collapsed? “It’s partly corruption but they’re also overwhelmed. One police station can get up to 40 cases a day. They’re badly paid, they work in shitty conditions and get no counselling or psychological support after witnessing the most terrible things. This entire country is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder”.

It might seem frivolous holding a book festival in a country like Mexico. But I don’t think so. Not if it gives a platform to inspiring women like Nadya Tolokno and Lydia Cacho and gives people such as Patricia Ortiz a chance to be heard.

Kirsty Lang appeared at Hay Festival Querétaro 2017 on Saturday 9 September.