On the way to the Miami Book Fair on Saturday, I was making the usual small talk with the Lyft driver when he suddenly began complaining about Donald Trump.
You can’t believe anything Trump says, he offered in his rough English. He’s already going back on promises to working people. He’s not going to create jobs. He’s not going to build a wall, and he’s not going to make Mexico pay for it.
So, I asked, you voted for Hillary Clinton? A Cuban immigrant with 10 years in Miami and U.S. citizenship, he smiled sheepishly. Trump, he said.
That’s pretty much the way it went all week at the 33rd edition of what’s formally called Miami Book Fair International, one of the first, largest, and oldest literary events of its kind in the U.S.
Politics, politics, politics, outrage. It was certainly the most political Miami Book Fair I’ve been to in never-mind-how-many years of covering the event.
And that wasn’t just because of the several authors who would have been politically oriented in any case — Trevor Noah, James Carville, Maureen Dowd, Jeffrey Toobin, and the grand revolutionary pooh-bah himself, Bernie Sanders, who, on Saturday night gave a stirring and hopeful stump speech, but a stump speech nonetheless.
It’s as if Sanders never stopped campaigning, only now he’s campaigning for something even more important than the White House: The survival of liberalism in America.
South Florida being an overwhelmingly blue zone, the outrage and pain at the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States was, as far as I could see, unanimous. Any Trump supporters attended the fair did not make themselves known at the speeches, lectures, or panel discussions I attended.
Politics intruded into almost every event, no matter how ostensibly literary the authors. On Sunday afternoon, a discussion among novelists Ha Jin (The Boat Rocker), Robert Olen Butler (Perfume River), and Juan Vásquez (Reputation) was one of the most intense and productive of the fair.
A sense of aesthetic, linguistic, and political sympathy emerged among the three writers. Whether they talked about language or the recent election, they built upon one another’s comments, creating a greater impression than any would have likely managed alone.
For example, Vásquez, who is Colombian, said Trump’s victory is simply the most recent in “a huge international syndrome” that began with Brexit, and continued with voter rejection of a peace deal to end a 52-year war between the government and insurgents in Columbia.
“These three things have something in common,” Vásquez said. “Falsehood, disinformation, played a very large part. Never before in historical democracy have lies had so much weight. The paradigm of citizenship is changing. We must all become fact-checking citizens.”
Butler noted that all the lies in the Trump campaign were exposed “somewhere” in the press, yet people still voted for the untested bill.
“I’m not sure but what the people who voted for Trump took the lies in a way that was almost metaphorical,” Butler said. “Those of us who did not want Trump did not take him seriously, but we took him literally. Those who voted for him didn’t take him literally, but they took him seriously.”
The three writers, all multilingual, explored their relationships to language — an apt discussion in perhaps the most culturally diverse and polyglot American city outside of New York and Los Angeles. Jin is a Chinese immigrant who writes in English. Butler is a native-born American fluent in Vietnamese. Vásquez writes in Spanish, but his English is so good that he collaborates in the translations of his work.
“Writing in a different language for me is a matter of survival,” said Jin, who was studying at Brandeis University in 1989 when the Tiananmen Square uprising and the brutal suppression that followed left him marooned in the United States. Jin said he can write in his native tongue, and has recently written two books of poetry in Chinese.
“But the center for me is English,” Jin said. “There is also independence in writing in English. If I were getting published in mainland China, I would be censored.”
Butler, who writes in his first language, English, said learning Vietnamese when he was a 26-year-old intelligence officer during the Vietnam War transformed his perception of the world.
“When you look at a thing you’ve always known as a cypress tree and now you see it as an entirely different word, it processes through your soul,” he said. “You see the world differently. The next language you learn is not a matter of learning equivalent words. You rename the world.”
Vásquez got a laugh when he said the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was often accused of writing in English with Spanish words.
“I have a Latin love for English,” Vásquez said. “The books that made me a writer are ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and ‘Ulysses.’ I care a lot about understanding how English works and it has penetrated my work. In prose writing, the more contaminated you are, the better. The more languages that filter in, the better.”
Not all of the writers at the fair were so directly political in relation to the recent election. Some were political in a more traditional way. A panel featuring Derek Palacio (The Mortifications), Patricia Engel (The Veins of the Ocean), and Jennine Capó Crucet (Make Your Home Among Strangers), contained almost no overt political discussion.
Yet, writing in English as immigrants or the children of immigrants, the panelists were tinged with political import whether they intend to be or not.
“When you’re Latino growing up in Miami, you think everyone is like us,” Crucet said. “You go off to college in upstate New York and you start getting told what you are.”
Engel, whose family is Colombian, did not grow up in Miami, but she’s lived here for the past 13 years.
“It still inspires me,” Engel said. “Miami is a pan-Latino experience in so many ways.”
She added that the two principal characters in her novel, a Cuban exile and a woman from Cartagena, “are both Latino but from very different parts of the Caribbean,” enabling the novel to explore “colonial pain” from different perspectives.
The weekend Street Fair that caps the Miami Book Fair was its usual potpourri of literary excess, with more than 300 authors of every conceivable genre and category.
They ranged from this year’s freshly crowned National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) to psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer (Ordinary Well: The Case for Anti-Depressants) to celebrated science writer James Gleick (Time Travel) to Pulitzer Prize-wining graphic novelist Art Spiegelman to former U.S. Poets Laureate Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky.
And as usual some authors disappointed. Take humorist Patricia Marx (Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Facilities). Any issue of the New Yorker, where Marx is a staff writer, that features one of her nonfiction shopping stories is especially welcome at my reading chair.
At the fair, however, her timing was off, her pacing was wrong-footed, and jokes that would zing in her deadpan written prose fell flat as a mousepad. I wasn’t the first one to tiptoe quietly out of the auditorium before her hour was up.
In other words, this year’s event was another resounding success. The streets at the Miami Dade College’s downtown Miami campus, closed off for the Street Fair, swarmed with dense crowds all day Saturday and Sunday, as people looked for bargains, curiosities, and street food.
This year’s fair, of course, was bedeviled with its single most annoying quality. Such a bounty of writers meant fairgoers often have to choose between equally appealing events that happen to take place at the same time.
Prime example: Colson Whitehead spoke at 4 on Sunday in the Chapman Room, the fair’s largest space. At 4:30, Aleksander Hemon (The Making of Zombie Wars) and Irvine Welsh (A Decent Ride) went on in the Auditorium, the fair’s second biggest room.
For me, at least, this amounted, for me to an intolerable cruelty.
I chose Whitehead, swayed by that National Book Award, and by guilt over having not yet read any of his books, despite the best of intentions.
Whitehead’s remarks were literary and necessarily political, as he discussed his novel, and its themes of slavery, white supremacy, and the courage required to try to escape. But he referred to last week’s election in only the most oblique terms.
In the end, the Jin-Butler-Vásquez panel best explored the uses and abuses of literature in the service of politics. An audience member asked what writers can do to push back against Trump and his policies.
“You must separate novelists from intellectuals,” said Vásquez. “Intellectuals have opinions, novelists do not. Novelists with opinions lose respect as artists. You don’t write novels out of conviction. You write novels out of uncertainty and doubt.”
“I totally agree with that,” Butler said. “But I would add that as a result of not trying to convince, novels can be the most powerful force of all. Jonathan Swift said, ‘You cannot reason a person out of a position he didn’t reason himself into.’ A novel is not an arguing point, but a reshaping of the sensual world that gets past the reasoning mind down to where the opinions are really shaped.”
Jin, quoting the great 20th-century British novelist Graham Greene, said, “Sooner or later you have to choose sides if you want to remain human. That’s beyond literature. On the other hand, it has to be a good piece of literature in the first place.”