Casa Refugio Citlaltépetl – a Mexican home for writers living in exile

In the vibrant district of Condesa in Mexico City, you find Casa Refugio Citlaltépetl – a house that combines the work of housing persecuted and threatened writers, translating and publishing writers in exile as well as arranging literary talks and international workshops. Philippe Ollé-Laprune, head of Casa Refugio Citlaltépetl, here discusses the work with writers living in exile in Mexico. 

March 10 2016 Text: Philippe Ollé-Laprune Translation from French: Nydia Pienda

Since 1999 a house located in the neighbourhood of La Condesa in Mexico City hosts refugee writers, thereby continuing a tradition solidly established in Mexico: giving asylum to artists and intellectuals threatened in their places of origin. In the past this city has received writers such as Victor Serge and Ana Seghers, Luis Cernuda and Benjamin Peret, all them persecuted in their own countries. This house is part of the network ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network) based in Stavanger in Norway, and its function is threefold: to receive two authors in residence for a period of two years, to give life to the house with activities related to literature, thought and exile; and to produce books and one journal, Lineas de fuga (Vantage Points).

The most singular feature of the functioning of the Casa is the residences of writers who, pushed into exile, are frequently eager to discover and participate in the Mexican culture. These authors are proposed by ICORN. Once the invitation has been accepted a plane ticket allowing them to travel to Mexico is given. The team of the Casa welcomes them at the airport and then the reciprocal discovery begins. The writers live in one of the fully furnished apartments put at their disposal for two years.

From the start we explain that after the first year one has to reflect upon the future; whether that means staying in Mexico or finding another host. If the writers are willing they begin a Spanish course and, in some cases, this learning experience allows them to participate in the local literary culture. The authors are quickly published in Spanish in the journal of the Casa and we organise a press conference that allows them to raise awareness of their work and situation. Moreover, once they are feeling confident, they may choose to deliver a public reading of their work and speak in the conference room of the Casa, as well as in other locations such as festivals or literary salons.

Of the twelve writers who have sojourned here since 1999, four have decided to stay in Mexico finding employment in the world of academia or Mexican culture. Koulsy Lamko, a Chadian author, stayed and founded another house of refuge in the historical centre of Mexico City. A good amount of these resident authors have published one or several books in Mexico thanks to a policy of co-editions led by the Casa. The first, Vladimir Arsenijevic, a Serbian novelist, published a novel with Alfaguara, a prestigious publishing house of Spanish origin. The most surprising case is perhaps that of the Kosovar poet Xhevdet Bajraj, who decided to settle in Mexico with his family. He is professor of contemporary poetry in the University of Mexico City and has published many books in Spanish. The first was translated from Albanese into Spanish by a translator living in Madrid. The second was translated by himself and his wife, and later reworked with a Mexican poet. And the last book was written in Spanish and retouched by a local author for questions of style. This linguistic evolution, the progressive sliding into Spanish, is the symbol of his adaptation to a culture that he has learned to know throughout the years, and which gave him a formidable welcome.

The Iranian poet Mohsen Emadi has also chosen to stay and live in Mexico; thanks to an incontestable polyglot talent, he has quickly become fluent in Spanish. With speed he has become an element of the local literary landscape, participating in public readings in a variety of places and festivals. He is also developing his work as a translator of poetry: through a web page especially conceived, he is spreading knowledge of texts written by poets of the world, translated into Farsi. In this way, Iranian readers have access to poems that are strictly censored by the politico-religious authorities of this country. Mohsen has transferred from Spanish into his native language poems of the Argentine Juan Gelman and of the Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco. He constitutes an example of one of the most successful integrations we have had. Shajriza Bogatyreva has also left a mark in the Mexican sprits. Native of Cherkassy, she writes her texts in Russian. She has mastered Spanish so successfully that from now on, living in Moscow, she translates texts from this language into Russian and finds readers who are attentive of her literary choices.

The Casa plays a role as literary host in a city that is rich in this domain. For sixteen years it has been a venue for conferences, public readings, seminars and creative writing workshops. A public of regulars and curious visitors gather here, especially on Thursday evenings when events are regularly proposed. These are thematic cycles that allow the writers to express their views on a variety of subjects: reflexions on the act of writing itself, contributions from their readings or the presentation of work yet unpublished are some of the mechanisms that nourish these moments offered to the public. These Thursdays also offer an opportunity to give a voice to foreign writers who are in transit through Mexico. The restaurant and the book shop in the Casa even offer a more convivial aspect to a place destined to welcoming people.

Throughout these years it has become habitual to dedicate part of the programing efforts to the organisation of a conference, either within the Casa or in venues of prestige such as the Palacio de Bellas Artes (the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City). Names as famous as Salam Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Edouard Glissant, Antonio Tabucchi, Svetlana Alexievich or Annie Le Brun are amongst those you can find in the programmes of these gatherings. With a reputation that surpasses the borders of Mexico, this place has become a literary and intellectual centre that has left an impression on many authors, particularly on Latin-American ones.

The tools at the Casa’s disposal are destined primarily to the public and are frequently elaborated with the help of the writers in residence. For example, the writers themselves have frequently been the deputy editors of the journal: Safaa Fathy organised a special issue on Egyptian poetry; Alaeedin Molah, on Syrian poetry; and Mohsen Emadi, on Palestine or Kurd poetry. Boris Diop dedicated a number to the theme “Writing in a language of minorities”. The most original work in this sense was drawn from Koulsy Lamko’s residence of several weeks in a village of the region of Campeche. This small conglomeration, Kesté, is inhabited by Guatemalan refugees who fled from their country devastated by the civil war in the 80s. The Mexican government received them, gave them some land and the possibility of settlement. Koulsy was able to co-habit and give life to thoughts on the theme of memory shared by the inhabitants. Number 15 of the journal gathers not only testimonies of the refugees but texts by the African writer. Moreover, the greater majority of the twelve writers welcomed at the Casa have published in Mexico.

The thematic of exile is recurrent and constitutes a pivotal point for different kinds of activities. Mexico is a country with a rich tradition in this respect and works in the Casa assist not only the appreciation of this legacy but also the in-depth study of the contributions and of the changes it provokes. An exhibition of twenty-five posters on the theme “Mexico City, Solidary City, Capital of Exile”, was produced in three languages with an accomplished catalogue. The most remarkable book in this domain is an elegant case containing two bilingual volumes of 500 pages each: “Paris Mexico, Capitals of Exile”. Texts of 48 authors allow the reader to discover histories of places or characters illustrating contributions though which the exiles enriched these two capital cities. Far from presenting the exile as tragic, this book intends to convey the constructive aspect of those flows of people across the twentieth century.

Through its activities the Casa Refugio has succeeded in merging the hosting of refugee writers and a cultural programme open to the public. After these years of functioning, a natural desire has settled in: to extend these forms of being present to other cities in Latin America.