Passo Fundo may be a small agricultural and cattle town of just 184,000 inhabitants in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost Brazilian state, but it also happens to be one of the most literate cities in Brazil. Its Jornada Nacional de Literatura, a biannual literary festival taking place in August, offers teachers and students of all ages opportunities to discover the myriad pleasures of reading. The city is also known for promoting reading year-round through activities in schools and public spaces.
The result is that Passo Fundo has one of the highest rates of reading in the country. Recent research indicates that Brazilians read an average of 4.7 books per year, but once you discount books read at school, this number drops to a mere 1.3 books per year. In Passo Fundo the average is much higher, with people reading 6.5 books per year, a number on par with France’s average. For that the city was named the “National Capital of Literature” by President Lula in 2006.
It has been already 30 years since Tania Rösing launched Jornada Nacional de Literatura. In 1981 she had the inspiration to have a literary event where people would read at least one book of one of the invited authors in advance. They would then gather together to discuss literature in a big “book club” that would climax with socializing and talk between writers and readers. And it is this first goal that still drives the festival.
In all, a total of 130,000 people have taken part in Jornada (the last edition was the most successful one, with 30,000 people attending the debates). This year’s festival takes place August 22-26, with Gonçalo M. Tavares, Alberto Manguel, Beatriz Sarlo and Pierre Lévy among the foreign writers scheduled to appear. The programming also includes seminars, workshops and debates on how to improve literacy, with researchers coming from universities from all over the world.
In all, more than 800 authors have participated so far, including Edgard Morin, Carlo Ginzburg, Mia Couto, José Eduardo Agualusa, Guillermo Arriaga, and Jostein Gaarder. One curious story about the event concerns the Norwegian Gaarder, the author of Sophie’s World. When he left the quiet press room in 2007 he was astonished by what he saw before him: hundreds of kids lying on the floor with their lunchboxes on one side and books on the other. He could hardly believe his eyes and just how many children were involved. “I have never seen such a thing,” he repeated and repeated. More than 17,000 children and teenagers are expected at each festival.
The Jornada takes place in four large tents spread across Passo Fundo’s University. The largest one, called Culture Circus, holds 5,000 people and is typically packed for readings. People participate in the debates while seated in wooden bleachers and trying to keep warm — the average temperature during the festival is a mere 9ºC/48ºF — by drinking chimarrão (mate). Three additional tents offer events for children — and to see so many young readers lining up to talk to an author about the meaning of their work and to ask for advice is something truly remarkable.
The Jornada Nacional de Literatura has served as the template for several more festivals around the country, though none has surpassed the original. And while it is among the premier literary events in Brazil, challenges remain. Money is always a concern. Year after year, Tania Rösing and her team have to lobby Jornada’s partners — the government, private companies, publishing houses and whoever might be interested in helping — for financial support. “This is an important investment in the human beings,” says Rösing, “but it is not possible to promote culture by executing education and cultural initiatives with no money.” The festival benefits, indeed can only exist, because of special tax incentives.
It is also often a challenge to enticing foreign writers to make the journey to off-the-beaten-track Passo Fundo. “Famous authors are in demand and have full schedules, says Rösing. “Since they don’t always know the extraordinary nature of what we do in this distant city, they need convincing that it will be worthwhile for them to travel beyond the São Paulo-Rio circuit.”
Asked who she would most like to see grace the Jornada’s mainstage Rösing says: “Umberto Eco is my dream,” though adds, “all writers are welcome!”