Every year in January hundreds of Latin American writers answer Cuba’s Casa de las Américas’ summons with the hope of being awarded in the perhaps most important Spanish language literary contest.
It’s not about the cash prize, which is almost insignificant, but rather about the transparency, prestige and meaning of a contest that in more than half a century of existence has convened the most distinguished figures of the Hispanic world to form part of juries and has discovered a great deal of talent for the canon of the continent’s literature.
Of course, Cubans also participate in this fiesta and on a great many occasions have been recognized with the award.
This 2017 two of the island’s authors achieved that legitimate aspiration: poet Reynaldo García Blanco and essayist and researcher Emilio Jorge Rodríguez, both already relatively acclaimed in their country for the excellence of their respective works.
Esto es un disco de vinilo donde hay canciones rusas para escuchar en inglés y viceversa (This is a Vinyl Record With Russian Songs to Hear in English and Vice Versa) is the suggestive title of the book of poems with which García Blanco won Casa 2017’ topmost award.
The jury recognised in the book “an expressive clarity of exposition and the presence of poems with a polished style of writing, not lacking in a delicate humour and a serene irony.”
The poet said to the local press that for him it is a challenge to receive this award that has distinguished fundamental poets in their formation.
Meanwhile, Emilio Jorge Rodríguez won with the title Una suave, tierna línea de montañas azules (A Gentle, Tender Line of Blue Mountains), a work about the communicating ties between Haitians and Cubans and which the author dedicated to his Haitian writer friends.
An Ecuadorean in novel, an Argentinean in testimony, a Colombian in historic-social essay were some of the other award winners in this edition; while in Brazilian literature, novelist Maria Valeria Rezende was recognised. About her the jury highlighted “a poetic narrative and a great metaphorical wealth.”
In addition to the read manuscripts, since 2000 the Casa grants three honorary awards that recognise important books published by the continent’s authors.
This year the José María Arguedas novel award was won by Ecuadorean Raúl Vallejo for Mística del tabernario (Coarse Mysticism); the José Lezama Lima poetry award went to Pablo Montoya, from Colombia, for Tríptico de la infamia (Triptych of the Disgrace); while the EzequielMartínez Estrada essay award was won by Peruvian Aníbal Quijano for his Cuadernos y Horizontes. De la dependencia histórico cultural a la colonialidad/descolonialidad del poder (Notebooks and Horizons. From Cultural Historical Dependence to Colonizing/Decolonizing of Power).
The Casa de las Américas Literary Award was convened for the first time in April 1959, just three months after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, with aim of encouraging and defending Latin American letters.
In its beginnings it was called Literary and Spanish American Contest and Latin American in 1960 when it included among the contesting genres Testimony. Already by 1965 it acquired its current name: Casa de las Américas Literary Award.
What started off as a contest only for novel, poetry, short story, theatre and essay was expanded in 1975 for children’s and young people’s literature, and English-speaking Caribbean literature. In 1979 French-speaking literature was added and in 1980 Brazilian literature as an independent category. In 1994 indigenous literature was included.
Throughout all these years, influential personalities from Latin America and the Caribbean have been linked to this contest, as jury members or as award winners, giving it a particular convergence between acclaimed and new writers.
Important writers have come to light and have initiated successful careers by winning in this contest. Included among them are Ecuadorean Jorge Enrique Adoum, Cuban José SolerPuig, Salvadoran Roque Dalton, Peruvian Alfredo Bryce Echenique and Chilean Antonio Skármeta.
It should also be recalled that famous authors such as Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Ángel Asturias, José Lezama Lima, Carlos Fuentes and Nicolás Guillén were among the jury members of the first edition.
Without the influence of literary agents or powerful publishing houses, this contest only recognises quality and it is outside of all type or mercantilism and pressures by any of the contestants.
The deliberations occur in the beautiful Cuban province of Cienfuegos where all the jury members are taken to read peacefully and in the best conditions the works presented in each genre.
Casa de las Américas also takes advantage of the occasion for these jury members to offer the Cuban public readings, lectures and debates. The winning books of the previous edition are also presented, in Cienfuegos as well as in Havana.
For any Latin American writer winning a Casa award is a sort of open sesame that leads them to call the attention of Spanish-speaking readers as well as prestigious publishers. (2017)
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