13 August 10 – Feast Day of Cassian of Imola, Ill-Fated Writing Teacher

A quick little moral tale before we get to our main story

Saint Cassian was a 4th century schoolteacher, who “taught [his students] the basic elements of literature, that is, how to read and write.” Unfortunately, Cassian’s activities drew the ire of the local judge who, alliteratively, was a “partisan of the passions of the apostate emperor.”

For any still-summer-vacationing teachers, the ominous news is that the angry judge “could find no means more appropriate to take vengeance on Saint Cassian than to abandon him to his own students.” (shudder!)

Cassian was stripped and bound, and some two hundred of his students  did their worst – or, depending on your interpretation, their best, for one telling of his martyrdom records that the students “carved their initials carefully on his flesh.” (emphasis added)

A good story seems to lurk here, morbid though it may well be: Cassian taught 200 boys to read and write: After carving their initials into their master’s flesh, what did they go on to write?

And Now, Our Main Story:

Each December some half a million people converge on Guadalajara’s convention center to celebrate that perennially endangered species known as the printed word. La  Feria Internacional del Libro, or FIL as it is more handily and affectionately known, brings together publishers, authors, and book lovers from all over the (chiefly Spanish-speaking) world  for a week of exhibitions, conferences, readings, and convivially crowded hobnobbing.

For some two decades now, la FIL has recognized one country or another as its Invitado de Honor, affording them the chance to spotlight their literary and artistic culture.  Last year la FIL tweaked this tradition a wee bit by extending its Invitado invitation to the City of Los Angeles, which, in turn, invited four dozen writers to travel to Guadalajara as L.A.’s cultural ambassadors.

While a number of well-known and widely-read authors – Ruben Martinez, Yxta Maya Murray, Dagoberto Gilb, Geoff Nicholson, Jonathon Gold, and Alex Espinoza – traveled to la FIL, at least one fairly unknown author also got the nod – that would be me.  Sort of like Ringo being chosen once upon a time to bring up the rear for the Beatles.

A highlight of our Guadalajara sojourn was, of all things, the hotel.  Not that there was anything the least bit distinctive about it, but because each morning, upon entering the café for breakfast, one focused not on what to eat, but with whom to eat it.  Writers who principally knew one another by by-line alone got to chat over café con leche with writers they – we – admired.

One thing that came up repeatedly in conversation was how charmed and enamored we all were with our host city.  Guadalajara has wonderful colonial and beaux arts architecture, parks hither and thither,  several museums and community arts spaces, and some of the most congenial and polite citizens a large city could possibly boast.

It felt, one thought, like a rather enhanced, civilized version of L.A.

And that’s where the thought began to germinate, to propose a small anthology of writers’ reminiscences about our time in Guadalajara, as sort of valentine not only to our host, but also to the National Endowment for the Arts (which funded our trip) and to the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles (which organized it).

My sweetheart friend Veronique de Turenne, late of the LA Times and still of the “Here in Malibu” blog on LAObserved.com, enthusiastically volunteered to co-edit the submissions, which filtered in from a dozen fellow authors.  David Kipen, who organized the L.A. writers contingent, agreed to contribute a cheery, pithy foreword; and Veronique and I each had stories about Guadalajara we wanted to contribute. Veronique’s fun tale, which ends the book, inspired its title, Waiting For Foreign.

The essays include a pair of lovely, nuanced pieces: Alex Espinozas uneasy meditation on his complicated relationship with the land of his birth; and Michael Jaime-Becerra’s sweet ode to his father’s alternating power and fragility.

There are some light-hearted pieces as well: Dagoberto Gilb’s stream-of-consciousness take on Guadalajara, the publishing biz, and Cesar Rojas, which ends on a slightly bitter rant about racism; and Ruben Martinez’s reggae-foxtrot love song to Guadalajara and all things tapatío.

I had taken dozens of photographs in Guadalajara, and as I graphically reworked them in Photoshop, these began to complement the stories in the book. I found a website – Blurb.com – which enables users to design and create their own books, through its downloadable program, and which the website will then print on demand.

Admittedly, it felt a little ironically complicated to be self-publishing and printing-on-demand a book inspired by an international book fair that relies on the participation of dozens of publishing houses, particularly at a time when no one knows what the future of publishing holds or what the workable model will be.

Perhaps this eight inch square, eighty-page book, labored over for months, and then uploaded in a half-hour and printed – “on demand” – and delivered directly to my door less than a week later, is one of those models for the future.  .

I only know that it offers a creative person the liberating opportunity to gather and organize thoughts and insights however one best sees fit into an actual physical book – that still palpable, valued object.

Whether anyone else cares to read, to purchase, or to own that creation remains to be seen.  But thus has it ever been with writing. May it ever remain so.

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