Scribbling Over Erasure

By Hedgebrook Guest

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Categories: Alum Experiences, Women's Voices,

Last Friday, a much-anticipated symposium took place at the college where I teach, a small liberal arts university near Seattle. I had looked forward to it all semester, designing my classes around the illustrious scholars, authors, and thinkers who would be speaking at the two-day event. I required all my creative writing students to attend the keynote address by one Very Famous Mexican Author. He was introduced as “the most important living Mexican author,” an assessment that I don’t agree with (I would humbly offer that laurel to Elena Poniatowska), but understand. VFMA gave the packed auditorium an elegant, intricate speech, weaving together pop culture, politics, and literature in an hour-long treatise on the state of Mexican affairs. He was brilliant; I was impressed.

Later that afternoon, at a “Meet the Author” event attended by twenty-five students and faculty, VFMA was asked about literature by indigenous Mexican authors. Before the questioner could even complete her question, VFMA replied, saying (more or less) that there wasn’t any. Mexico’s sixty-two indigenous languages had oral traditions only, he explained. He went on to say that the various anthologies of indigenous Mexican literature compiled by another VFMA had “academic purposes,” not literary ones.

My mind flashed to the wide shelf of Mexican indigenous literature in my house, and then to the dozens of poets and writers whose work in Mazatec, Mixtec, Nahuatl, Tojolabal, Tzotzil, Zapotec, Zoque, and other languages I admire so much—in Spanish translation.

BookshelfA dozen years ago, when I began searching for indigenous-language poetry in Mexican bookstores, I had a hard time finding the books that I knew existed. Eventually, the booksellers explained to me that I was looking in the wrong place. Those volumes of poetry and fiction would be in the “Anthropology” section, with the ethnographies and published doctoral theses, if the bookstores cared to carry them—which they often didn’t. Since then, mainstream Mexican publishers have finally begun to notice this literary richness and to publish some of it. Mexico City’s Pluralia press has led the way.

Pluralia’s director, Héctor Martínez, told me that Mexican booksellers still sometimes tell him, “The problem with your books is that we don’t know where to shelve them.” He replies, calmly and repeatedly, “That is very simple. You shelve them in ‘literature.’” Two years ago Pluralia began a new series of bilingual poetry by indigenous writers, with each collection gorgeously illustrated and accompanied by an audio CD of the poet performing the work. Every one of the half-dozen titles they have published in the series is by a woman.

On both sides of the border, we need diverse books. And on the north side of the border, we need more literature in translation. If this (horrifying) U.S. election season teaches us anything, it’s that we need to listen to / read more / heed more global voices.

Wendy and Irma

Wendy Call and Irma Pineda. Photo by Kathy Cowell / Whiteley Center

For the past six years, I’ve collaborated with Zapotec-Mexican poet Irma Pineda to translate some of her bilingual Zapotec-Spanish poetry into English. So far, I have translated about one-quarter of the more than two hundred poems that have appeared in her six published collections. You can see examples of her beautiful poetry at the websites of Asymptote, About Place Journal, Eleven-Eleven, and Kenyon Review.

It is a small, almost invisible effort. But it is a crucial part of my writing practice. It is my quiet way of taking a fat, black marker and writing over the erasures of that Very Famous Mexican Author and those booksellers. It is my way of gently underlining the ever-so-important work of Héctor Martínez, Irma Pineda, and the broad community of Mexican authors writing in indigenous languages.

 

About the Author:

Wendy Call

Photo by Rosanne Olson

Wendy Call is a writer, editor, translator, and educator. She has served as Writer in Residence at twenty-one institutions, including five national parks, three universities, two visual arts centers, a historical society, and a public hospital. The hosting institutions include:
Mineral School and Willapa Bay (2015)
Acadia and Everglades National Parks (2013)
Joshua Tree and North Cascades National Parks (2012)
Cornell College of Iowa, the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park of Vermont, and The Studios of Key West (2011)
New College of Florida (2010)
Seattle University (2009)
Richard Hugo House (2006-2008)

Learn more about Wendy by visiting www.wendycall.com.

 


 

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2 Comments

  • Jalina Mhyana
    3:29 PM - 3 March, 2016

    Wonderful article, Wendy. You have always championed global voices. I’m excited to read Irma’s work!

  • Leticia Del Toro
    8:24 PM - 4 March, 2016

    So interesting to hear, sorry the VFMA dissapointed…we should do a tour for the indigenous poets and feature them. Looking forward to checking out Irma and Pluaralia.

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