The literary festival goes international with its name and author lineup

By Stephanie Nakhleh

After its inaugural year, the City Different’s largest literary gathering kicks off with a name change: it’s now the Santa Fe International Literary Festival. Organizers say adding “international” to the title reflects the diversity of the literary luminaries who join the festival this year, including Mexico-born novelist Luis Alberto Urrea, Colombian author Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Moroccan American author Laila Lalami, Zambian American writer Namwali Serpell, and festival opener Colum McCann, of Ireland, who won the National Book Award for his 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin.

The founders say the first festival brought together the local community. “Last year was fantastic,” says Clare Hertel, co-founder and executive director of the festival. “Everyone showed up 100 percent. The festivalgoers were excited; the authors were excited. A host of incredible volunteers stepped in — over 150 last year. The whole village of Santa Fe really made [it] happen.”

The inaugural festival’s success and Santa Fe’s mystique drew international authors for the 2023 event. “Santa Fe speaks to me,” says McCann, who adds that as a young man he went on a cycling tour of the U.S. that missed Santa Fe, and he always regretted it. “But I was 21! A lot of time to heal those regrets. Every opportunity I get, I now visit Santa Fe, and when I got asked to join the literary festival, it was an easy answer: yes!”

Lalami, author of The Moor’s Account, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and longlisted for the Booker Prize, was eager to go back to a place that inspired her novel: “Santa Fe is a city that I have continued returning to ever since I was researching and writing The Moor’s Account,” she says. “That was my first time in New Mexico; I’ve returned afterward whenever the opportunity arose. The other reason to come was the extraordinary lineup of authors that the organizers have been able to get — and this is only their second iteration.”

The timing was also right for Serpell, who is on leave from her teaching post at Harvard this semester and speaks about her widely praised novels The Old Drift and The Furrows.

The three-day festival, held May 19 to 21, unfolds at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. It features nearly 30 events, including keynote talks on the big stage, small-room intimate conversations, walking tours with authors, and free lunch hour community stage events. Food trucks and boxed lunches are available for people who want to grab a bite while they watch the readings there.

The event lineup kicks off Friday evening, May 19, with the “extraordinary” McCann, says Mark Bryant, a Santa Fe–based editor, publisher, journalist, and festival co-founder. Other featured writers include National Book Award winner John Irving, author of 15 novels, including A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules; Gillian Flynn, author of bestsellers Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, both of which have been adapted for the screen; Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander novels, which inspired a TV show; Rojas Contreras, whose debut novel, The Fruit of the Drunken Tree, was followed by her genredefying family history The Man Who Could Move Clouds, which was a 2022 National Book Award finalist; and Ed Yong, the Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer of I Contain Multitudes and An Immense World.

Many of the invitees’ works speak to the festival’s core themes of immigration, belonging, borders, and the power of storytelling to bridge divides. “The idea of connecting across borders is not that new in the context of storytelling,” says journalist, author, and native New Mexican Carmella Padilla, who joined the festival’s organizing team in 2023. “We’ve had thousands of years of migration into this area and around the world. Where people go, they may not be able to carry luggage or backpacks, but they can always carry their stories.”

From her perspective, “international” encompasses New Mexico as well. “We have always been an international crossroads of culture. So whether from Chimayó or Ireland, the power of story is a universal tradition that we embrace,” Padilla says.

Topics like politics, social and racial justice, and the environment are all on the table this year. “Publishers are championing more writing in translation from around the world, as well as work that speaks to displacement, about what it’s like to live where you’re not welcome, or where it’s not easy to live,” Bryant says. “It reminds people that we’re a nation — and a world — of immigrants and that we have far more in common with each other than we might care to realize. That may be cliché, but it’s true.”

McCann hopes that Apeirogon, a novel that came out of his own experiences in Palestine and Israel, will do exactly that: help people torn by conflict find common ground. “I was deeply moved and forever changed,” he says of his time meeting the two real-life fathers whose interwoven story of the loss of their daughters the novel represents. Although specific to that conflict, the novel’s

themes strike at universality. “I knew fairly early on that I wanted to write about them. I knew it was risky and it would take some time, but the only things worth doing are the things that present themselves with difficulty. What they were saying was full of radical empathy: we certainly don’t have to love each other, or even like one another, but we better learn to understand each other or we’re in trouble.”

Lalami, for her part, has returned to the topic of immigration in both her fiction and nonfiction work. The New York Times named her latest book, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, an editor’s choice; Time, NPR, BookPage, and The Los Angeles Times called it one of the best books of the year. The nonfiction book delves into what it means to be an American and recounts the author’s own journey from Moroccan immigrant to U.S. citizen.

“In the book Conditional Citizens, I write about the fact that one of the first things that immigrants do, and we’ve seen this across generations of immigrants, is to try to embrace their American side, and that means speaking the language of the dominant group,” she says. This theme has special resonance in New Mexico, where children whose heritage language was Spanish were, until a few decades ago, forbidden from speaking that language in public schools.

“What’s ironic about that is that the dominant group, the people whose native language is English, who for the most part are white, consider it a benefit to speak certain foreign languages — let’s say French, let’s say German — that you learn in school, and then you can converse and impress everyone,” she says. “That’s not the case if you speak Spanish, Arabic, Quechua, Hausa, or any of these other South American or African or Asian languages.”

Festivalgoers can look forward to headliners addressing these and other topical issues, Bryant says. “Laila is a remarkable writer and thinker, as anyone who’s been fortunate to read her work knows, and we’re thrilled to host her at the festival,” he says. “Her writing on the immigrant experience is beautiful and devastating. Her work on race, belonging, displacement, class, politics, and national identity makes her one of our most urgent storytellers.”

Like Lalami, Serpell finds herself returning to the theme of borders and borderlands in her work. “Transgression presupposes borders — we have to cross something. So, in a sense, I rely on borders, both literal and figurative, to create the effects that prove them to be arbitrary and constraining,” she says. “It’s a kind of paradox of human beings that we love both to contain and to break free — there is an incredible energy latent in that tension. I don’t spend much thought on advocating for or against them, politically speaking. Rather I like to zoom in on the borderline itself, which gets more slippery and complex and febrile as you near it, whether it’s the edges of a body or a feeling or a nation.”

For all the heady discussions that happen over the weekend, there’s an educational component to the festival as well. “We want to be more than a world-class literary festival; we want it to make a positive impact on our community as a whole. We’re especially proud of the Young Writers and Readers program, which expanded this year. There will be small groups of students meeting with SFILF authors, including Jennifer Egan, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and Laila Lalami,” Hertel says.

She continues, “Colum McCann is bringing his internationally acclaimed Narrative 4 project for a workshop with the Santa Fe Community College creative writing students. We also collaborate with Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry and students from our local high schools. To support literacy programs and build excitement about reading, the Santa Fe Public Library is doing a series of story hours in English and Spanish to celebrate Rudolfo Anaya, the author honored by the festival this year in an annual tribute event. There are also collaborations with other literacy-focused nonprofits. We strongly believe that reading can change lives.”

Young poets and writers also appear on the community stage, a free and open-toeveryone component of the festival. “The community stage is for young local voices who are going to be our internationally known authors of the future,” Padilla says.

Bryant says he hopes the festival will serve as a refuge in this global moment of crisis. “At a time when the world feels so consumed by conflict, books are banned, and tolerance is in short supply, a festival featuring the likes of Colum, Laila, and Namwali can be an important light against the dark, where words and facts and values matter, and where our shared humanity is recognized and honored,” he says. “By adding ‘international’ to the festival’s name, we mean to not only underline that the world of writing is more interconnected than ever before but that by coming together from near and far, over books and ideas, especially in a cultural crossroads like Santa Fe, we celebrate the experience of being human.”

Bringing storytellers together and celebrating the art of the story are more urgent now than ever, McCann says. “Storytelling is where nuance and mystery and sometimes even doubt lie . . . . The relationship between fiction and ‘truth’ has always been complicated, but even more so nowadays,” he says. “Where do we draw the line? Facts are mercenary things. They can be manipulated and shipped off to do whatever work you need them to do. But the deeper truth relies on the human heart — and the human heart is a messy and constantly evolving place. Given the fact that truth is messy, we sometimes have to invent new forms, which is what I tried to do in this book and what I hope to chat about when we’re in Santa Fe. As I said, these are the questions of our broken times.”

■ COLUM McCANN is on the big stage on Friday, May 19, at 6:30 p.m.

■ LAILA LALAMI speaks on Saturday, May 20, at 3:30 p.m.

■ NAMWALI SERPELL presents on Sunday, May 21, at 3:30 p.m.

The three-day festival, held May 19 to 21, unfolds at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. It features nearly 30 events, including keynote talks on the big stage, small-room intimate conversations, walking tours with authors, and free lunch hour community stage events. Food trucks and boxed lunches are available for people who want to grab a bite while they watch the readings there.






Santa Fe New Mexican