ASPEN - Natalie Lacy, programs director for the Aspen Writers' Foundation, described a scene she recently read from "War by Candlelight," a 2006 collection of stories by Peruvian-born Daniel Alarcon. Lacy cringed as she recounted the tale - a group of kids in Lima on the hunt for black dogs in the street, which they would kill and spray with white paint, in an allegory for political tyranny. The gang continued till there was a problem - they were down to the last black dog they could find.
So "War by Candlelight" is not a likely candidate for a genteel social book club. But that is not what the Aspen Writers' Foundation is aiming for, necessarily. The Writers' Foundation has its populist side: The group distributes bumper stickers that say "Reading Is Sexy" and organizes the annual Great Read event that urges everyone in the Roaring Fork Valley to read the same book and participate in events to foster conversation about the story.
But with the Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, which kicks off Sunday and runs through Friday, the Writers' Foundation is most interested in serious explorations of other cultures. For the past several years, Aspen Summer Words usually has focused on a region; this year, it is Latin America and the Caribbean. The inescapable fact is that the best writers from the region - Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat, Guatemalan-based Francisco Goldman, Nicaragua's Gioconda Belli, Jamaican-born Orlando Patterson and Mexican-born Luis Urrea, as well as Alarcon and others - are investigating the harsh realities of homelands. Their stories are about poverty, institutionalized violence, repressive dictatorships and the revolutions to overthrow them, and separation from their families and native countries. They are the stories we wish were not true, and they are the true stories that need to be told and heard.
"We're supposed to be about story-telling," Lacy said of the Writers' Foundation. "But violence - that theme is prevalent. It's the nature of these countries. The revolutions they've endured, the effects of postcolonialism, that's always there."
Aspen Summer Words doesn't try to spin it otherwise. Among the presentations, on Tuesday, is "Violencia," a discussion featuring Goldman and Alarcon. Among Goldman's recent writings is "Children of the Dirty War," a lengthy article in the New Yorker about Los Desaparecidos - the thousands of Argentines who have been "disappeared" by their government - and the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, the group of grandmothers who have taken on the duty of locating the missing people.
Of Alarcon's story about the black dogs, titled "Lima, Peru, July 26th 1979," Lacy notes that the writer captures something essential about human nature and violence: "He describes this gratifying power in killing something, the same power that drives war. If you hate whatever confining government you're living under, you paint that picture by describing a violent scene."
Lacy said that it is a goal of the Writers' Foundation to bring people to books, and the organization knows that reality-based stories of poverty and political strife don't put up a broad tent for the greatest number of readers.
"It's a tough balance," she said. "But these are some of the leading voices in literature for this part of the world. If people aren't reading them, they need to be. These are voices (educating) the world about these cultures. That's not their objective - they're telling a story. But this is the power of stories. People read it and get the experience of getting onto a boat in Haiti with 12 other people, heading for the U.S. None of us would be there except for that story. You get the feeling of what it is to be abandoned or lost."
Lacy said that another theme that arises among Latin American and Caribbean writers is family.
"The characters are almost always family characters," she said, pointing for one example to Urrea, who has written two novels, "The Hummingbird's Daughter" and last year's "Queen of America," that explore the same extended family. "In the Latin culture, family becomes much more important than here."
But family characters and family novels do not necessarily translate to family-friendly material in the common use of the term. In these books, families are always struggling, usually to remain a family.
"The theme of separation, nearly all the writers address that in some form," Lacy said. "It's family, being separated from family, relocating your bond to it."