On the second full day of the inaugural Santa Fe Literary Festival there was an offering of a packed line-up of author talks, historic walking tours and energetic lessons about New Mexico’s vibrant cuisine.
Not to mention the important distinction between tequila and mezcal being demonstrated during an exclusive tasting.
Although the day’s schedule would later be dominated by vibrant debate and discussion, it began serenely with a guided meditation session from the renowned Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax. That was followed by an appearance from Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower and The Plague Year, his moment account of the impact of Covid-19. “I think of Covid-19 as being like an X-ray on our society,” he told his attentive audience. “It allows us to see in all the broken places… If Covid-19 has shown us anything, it is that we need to be more coherent as a society.”
Wright was followed on the festival’s main stage by local resident George RR Martin, the award-winning creator of game of Thrones. He discussed his recent work restoring the nearby Santa Fe Sky Railway and reminisced about how his acclaimed fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire was first sold to HBO by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. “Their pitch was: ‘The Sopranos in Middle Earth’,” recalled Martin. “You have to be able to say it in a sentence!”
Martin was one of many huge names from the literary world who appeared at this year’s event. Editor and publisher Mark Bryant, the festival’s chief curator, told The Independent how he went about securing the incredible line-up. “The first call I made was to Margaret Atwood and she said: ‘Oh, it is going to be glorious’,” he remembered. “The next day I reached out to Lawrence Wright. Santa Fe was a real draw. The diversity here and the fact there are the three cultures, that matters to most authors. We really wanted to go after the pillars of modern literature.”
As to what comes next, Bryant said he has plenty of ambitions for how the festival can grow after this year’s success. “I have ideas of how I would like it to be going forward,” he said, “And I certainly want to ensure we continue exploring and expanding the theme of diversity.”
That wide and inclusive sense of diversity was on display later in the afternoon, as author Lynn Cline lead a walking tour of the historic sites of the Santa Fe writers’ colony which flourished from 1917 to 1950 while Lost Children Archive author Valeria Luiselli presented an exclusive first extract from her forthcoming sonic essay Echoes From The Borderlands. The 12 minute clip, created from field recordings made in and around the town of Bisbee, Arizona, will become part of a planned 24-hour soundscape documenting the reality of life on the border.
Another busy crowd gathered for N Scott Momaday, who became the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature with his 1968 novel House Made of Dawn. He discussed the impact the local environment has had on him and his work. “New Mexico is a place where the imagination can flourish,” I have explained. “Imagination is that which enables us to see beyond reality. If you see a mountain, that is real, but you imagine the valley on the other side. So much of creative writing comes from that distinction, that separation of ideas and attitudes… I would not like to be confined to reality.”
As well as nourishing ideas, there was also a plethora of distinctive New Mexico food and drink to keep the audience sated. Award-winning Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie gave attendees a taste of his innovative take on Indigenous cuisine, while moustachioed Chef Fernando Olea, dressed in cowboy hat and snakeskin boots, welcomed visitors into his celebrated bar and restaurant Sazón for a slightly tipsy stagger through his unbeatable selection of tequilas and mezcal.
The festival was brought to a close by Sandra Cisneros and Joy Harjo, writers who have been friends since their first meeting 50 years ago. They swapped memories of being silenced and overlooked by both classmates and teachers while they were students together at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Cisneros has since gone on to become the bestselling author of books like The House on Mango Streetwhile Harjo will soon complete her third stint as US Poet Laureate.
“I don’t know how many people get to be Poet Laureate three times,” Cisneros remarked with awe. “I want you to know how proud it made us. You did that for all of us. It was poetic justice after what happened at Iowa.” Their touching friendship and tales of resilience provided a poignant note to a festival that has served up a feast of ideas, and left those who attended merrily drunk on the power of stories.
The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, is providing coverage across each day of the festival with exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.