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Cartagena, Colombia: the Caribbean headquarters of the best ideas

An interview with Cristina Fuentes, Hay Festival Director in the Americas

Fifteen years since Hay Festival arrived in Colombia. How was that first festival, and what happened during these years for the event to become the great occasion it is today?

We arrived in a very special moment in Colombian history. But we did not know it then. 2006 was the end of a very hard period for Colombia, it was starting to feel safe to be here. For example, a year later, Proexport started to sell the country as a touristic destination. They did not dare before. During those first years, I felt like a missionary. People came over to thank me for being here, for trusting in the country. There were people with curiosity in Colombia, a thinking class interested and informed that felt isolated. 

Colombia started to be considered a safe destiny in 2007, as you mentioned before. How did you make the decision to bring the festival one year before?

The festival in Wales used to counsel many festivals because we had a particular model, a know-how. In 2004, we played an important role in the creation of the Paraty Festival, in Brazil. The event was a great success. Then, the Hay thought: instead of sharing our know-how, why don’t we do our own events?

We were interested in Latin America because of the language and culture. It was Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer, who asked us to do the event in Cartagena. He thought it was one of the most beautiful cities in the Caribbean, and also that Colombia needed that kind of conversations. Cartagena was already safe, it was a city of summits and meetings. 

That year, the festival started being a very literary event. In that moment, Colombia was leaving such a problematic situation and needed a cultural scape. Step by step we developed the literary festival to the event of ideas it is today. It does not only celebrate literature, it also addresses environment, gender, and other kinds of activisms. It has been a gradual work.

How did the Hay Festival evolved to become what it is today?

When we arrived in Colombia, the model that worked in the literary world was book fairs focused on book presentations. One of the things that fill us with pride is our role as catalyzers, to bring the possibility of another model to present ideas. From then on, many other festivals like ours were created in the country and the region: the Gabo Festival in Medellin, the Carnaval de las Artes in Barranquilla. 

The other thing we did differently here was deciding that the event had to reach a massive public. So, we did associations with TV stations and broadcasting companies. That got the attention of our public. 

How is the Hay Festival in Cartagena?

It is a very intense four-day event. But it does not only take place in Historic Sector of Cartagena, as people think. Only 60% of the Festival take place there, the other 40% happen in other towns of Bolivar (the department where Cartagena is located). Towns like Magangue, Santa Rosa del Sur, Regidor. What is impressive about that other part of the program is the public, hungry for information, hungry to be inspired. 

We have also had events in Rioacha (Guajira) for ten years, Medellin for eight, Jerico for two. We have initiatives in Cali, Bogota, Montes de Maria. 

How did it go from being an event in Cartagena to one in Colombia?

It was a matter of maximizing the presence of writers in the country, and also to reach new audiences. For example, in Medellin, 75% of our audience is less than 30 years-old. Having such a young public is very important of our Colombian agenda. In Riohacha, there are lots of Colombian writers, but no literary events had ever been done there. 

If someone wants to come to Colombia to participate in the Hay Festival. How should they organized the trip?

We present our calendar in Bogota and Cartagena every year in November. From then on, people can buy their tickets. The entire Festival in Colombia takes ten days. It starts one Saturday in Jerico, and that next Thursday starts in Cartagena.

How many events organize the Hay Festival every year worldwide?

Arequipa in Peru, Querétaro in México, Cartagena in Colombia, Segovia in Spain, Abu Dhabi in the Emirates. We’ve had festivals in Kerala, and Beirut. We are constantly creating cultural projects. This year, we have a big one in Rijeka, Croatia, which is 2020 cultural capital of Europe. 

Do you think the Hay Festival has seed some intellectual curiosity in the Colombia audience?

I have no doubt about it. During the first festivals, people came to see who we’d brought. The questions were out of curiosity. The kind of questions people had when they had recently found the author. Now, when the line-up comes out, the audience go and buy the books. They’ve learned that it is more productive to listen to the authors if they’ve read their work.

You’ve also worked as a display for Latin American authors…

That has been our motor to create initiatives like Bogota39. A list of authors from the region that are less than 39 years-old. We did the first list in 2007, the second one in 2017. From the first group, only 20% were known. But during the Bogota39, 70% knew each other. The network already existed, and invited each other to literary events.