"Riddell’s great strength is his positive view of human existence."
- Capital Times

Ron Riddell

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It Takes Two To Tango PDF Print E-mail

The first New Zealand writer to participate in a major literary festival in Latin America was the late Alan Brunton in 2000, when he attended the Tenth International Poetry Festival of Medellin in Colombia. "I felt like a rock star when I walked out on the stage of Cerro Nutibara for the opening ceremony reading of the Medellin Festival in 2000", he told me over a coffee in Wellington in late 2001, (only months prior to his death in 2002). There were approximately ten thousand people in the audience that day in June 2000. Later, over the ten-day period of the festival a total of some 140,000 people attended the other festival events. Since that time a number of other New Zealand poets have attended the Medellin Festival including Te Kupu, Katarina Kawana, Michael Harlow, C.K. Stead, James Norcliffe, while David Howard and Sue Wootton have attended the Granada Festival in Nicaragua and Doc Drumheller has attended the Havana Festival in Cuba (and subsequently published a selection of poems by young Cuban poets in his New Zealand literary magazine, Catalyst). There is a profound appreciation of poetry and literature generally in Latin America. This is reflected in many ways – for example, in the numerous literary festivals and book fairs held throughout the subcontinent. In Colombia alone there are more than a dozen such festivals every year, many of them open to international participants. Then there are the one-off conferences such as the P.E.N. International World Congress in Bogotá, the Colombian Capital, which New Zealand P.E.N. delegate Nelson Wattie attended in 2008. There is a large Spanish-speaking population in Latin America (as of 2010, estimated at more than 590 million). If New Zealand is to register more as a literary culture in this part of the world, it must have a greater presence by way of translated works. I have had eight bi-lingual (English/Spanish) collections of verse published in the Hispanic world; from Spain to Central and South America.

Ron Riddell with Ernesto Cardenale

Ron Riddell with Ernesto Cardenale, Nicaraguan
poet, priest and former arts minister in the Sandinista
government, International Poetry Festival of Costa
Rica, May 2006.


However there is a need for more articles, anthologies and larger works, such as novels and collections of essays or short stories in translation by a wider range of New Zealand writers. To be truly effective dialogue should work both ways. To this end, it would be advantageous to have Latin America writers travelling to New Zealand to participate in literary festivals here. Already a considerable number of them have had their work translated into English. However, there needs to be the will for this to happen – firstly among New Zealand writers and secondly in the wider community. If New Zealand has the courage to open its doors culturally to the wider world, it will have the opportunity to develop more depth and vision in its literature and further communicate such development to other cultures, especially those in other language environments such as Latin America’s. In Latin America there is considerable interest in New Zealand literature and culture. Not much is known about us and little of our literature is translated into Spanish. There is an untapped potential in this regard. However, New Zealand literature has to overcome its fear, whether it be of language or threatening social contexts. The voice of a writer is a refined cultural idiom and has much to offer in terms of developing cultural
contact. New Zealand does not have to have to present “big names” in Latin America - it is not about big names, but about being out there. Somewhat sadly, the reality is there is still only one New Zealand writer widely known in Latin America – as is also the case in many other parts of the world – and that is Katherine Mansfield. Yet we live in another time; in another century. With New Zealand as the guest country at Frankfurt this year, it is also pertinent to note that Latin America hosts many of the world’s largest and most diverse book fairs. Guadalajara, Mexico is second in size after Frankfurt in terms of publisher participation but has twice the number of visitors (660,000). Monterrey, also in Mexico has 320,000 visitors and more that 200 events; Buenos Aires Book Fair has by far largest number of visitors of any book fair in the world (1,250,000 and 1550 events) while Bogotá, Colombia has 403,000 visitors and 2100 attending authors. These are giant cultural trade fairs and present huge opportunities.

However, to create bridges of connection there must be more works in translation; more professional translators and funding/publisher participation. Some years ago, when applying (unsuccessfully) for travel funding to send a New Zealand poet to Medellin, I was told by a Creative New Zealand official that “CNZ is not interested in developing contacts with Latin America; only in maintaining vested interest contacts in the English-speaking world, France and Germany” – in other words only first world countries and a limited range at that. I detected not just a slight whiff of prejudice towards third world Latin American countries. If we are to overcome such ignorance and prejudice we must make an effort. If we want to be blinkered, we can stay blinkered. If we want to open our eyes to the world, we can. As writers from a small, isolated country we have to have the guts and gumption to just do it.

Our literature is our voice – of  people, of our histories, of our land. It is up to us, as writers to bear our message to other shores, to foreign cultures with foreign language environments. It’s a risk worth taking. In the Latin American context, a number of us have taken it – and have been richly rewarded – not so much in material terms but humanly, culturally and in the expansion of our literary careers into other spheres – for example, the peace culture development work that my wife and I have been involved with in Colombia.

Latin America is humble, open. Here in New Zealand – and the west generally – we often stand in judgement because of the civil war, drugs-trade, the poverty, corruption and injustice that is all too prevalent there. However, surely literature - and its sharing -should stand above the blight of civil war, corruption and injustice? (Are Western countries like New Zealand totally free of corruption, drugs, conflict and injustice?) At the very least it can serve as an act of solidarity. In the words of Argentinian writer Ernesto Sabato, “La creación artística es concebida como un acto de conocimiento y de riesgo, que pasa por caminos iniciales de auto-conocimiento, comprensión creciente del mundo y de uno mismo.” (Artistic creation is conceived as an act of knowledge and of risk that arises initially through intuition; fostering understanding of the world and of oneself).