The literary fight to break through in an indigenous language

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The Quechua writer Ch’aska Eugenia Anka Ninawaman received three blows on the day she was born: the breeze that makes young women travelers, the one that makes them weavers, and the one that makes them poets. The narrator, who migrated from Peru to France 10 years ago, says that her literary references as a child were her parents, who recited verses like these: “Butterfly with drawn wings / on your wings you carry the landscapes, the ravines, the mountains / your book blinks wide ”. When she began to write impregnated with that daily and lyrical language, it was difficult for her to publish her poems in Quechua. “If I publish it is, above all, by my own effort,” he says.

The space for native languages ​​in the publishing industry is still incipient in Latin America. But its authors, poets or novelists are not, who have known how to fight to be visible in the world of letters and promote bilingual literature among readers.

Ch’aska Eugenia Anka Ninawaman, who participates this week in the VI Meeting of Literatures in Native Languages ​​of America, within the framework of the Guadalajara Book Fair, has so far published seven books. The first three were launched in Ecuador thanks to a small specialized publisher. The fourth was released in Peru with the support of the Ministry of Culture. Only in France, where it has already published two storybooks in trilingual edition – Quechua, Spanish and French – is it backed by a large but specialized publishing group, L’Harmattan. “In Peru I would not have been able to publish these books,” he says and continues: “[El país] it carries a colonial past and it is thought that the communities are in an uncivilized state ”.

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Yesenia Montes teaches children the names of animals in Quechua, during an event at FIL.
Yesenia Montes teaches children the names of animals in Quechua, during an event at FIL.Hector Guerrero

“I make children’s books and I do them alone, by hand, because I have not found that there is interest in the Peruvian publishing world for them,” says Yesenia Montes Ñaupa, a short story writer from the Ayacucho region, Peru, where the few libraries available they did not include Quechua literature for the little ones. In the last years Montes then made four books out of cardboard for his schools. “It hurt me that our children could not read in their mother tongue, Quechua, and now we not only have the books in physical form but we have digitized them or transmitted the reading of them on YouTube. The incredible thing is that later not only the children wanted them, but also the adults who do not speak Quechua and want to learn ”.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, where 26% of native languages ​​are at risk of disappearing, according to the World Bank, the lack of space for indigenous literature persists throughout the continent. The Zapotec poet and translator Irma Pineda, in Mexico, agrees with the Peruvian authors. “We do not have access to the large publishing firms because there is a commercial criterion. We do not have such a wide audience, or these large publishers consider that we do not have it, “he says. The writer believes that works like hers continue to be viewed “as minor literature compared to literature in other more recognized languages.”

“There is an aesthetic and literary content on the issues we are covering,” adds Pineda. The translator emphasizes that contemporary writers opt for new themes. In his case, his latest creations talk about sexuality and eroticism: “We have already overcome this stage of recovery of oral tradition, when we made reference to many elements that surrounded us in the community, to nature.” And that has been fostered, he says, by access to other literatures: “We don’t just write from what we see in the community. I read a lot of Mayan or Tzotzil literature, but also Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, many Mexican authors… ”.

Pineda then exposes a paradox: “A Russian author is not known among the people [que habla otro idioma] until you spread it and promote it ”. And in that sense, he points out the relevance of publishing books in native languages ​​with at least bilingual editions. “If we want to transcend as writers, we necessarily have to publish in other languages,” he says. Authors like her or like Ch’aska Eugenia Anka Ninawaman make their own translations. “Those of us who write in indigenous languages ​​do not have readers in our own language because in our towns they are not literate in our languages, although in Mexico the Constitution says so.” “With them,” he explains, “the bet is on audio and oral.”

Visitors visit the section dedicated to Peru at FIL Guadalajara in 2021.
Visitors visit the section dedicated to Peru at FIL Guadalajara in 2021.Gladys serrano

From the point of view of independent publishers, in Peru, the dilemma is the same: readers in native languages ​​are very few and translation is necessary. “According to figures we have from 2019, the books that are published in native languages ​​are not even 1% of the books that are published per year: in Quechua perhaps 0.68% and the rest in other languages ​​such as Aymara or the wampis ”, says Dante Gonzalez, Quechua poet and director of Pakarina, a publishing house that publishes books in various native languages. The awards that various governments or literature fairs have created in recent decades to promote literature in native languages, he explains, may then become key to attracting those who speak only Spanish (or another European language). Gonzalez says that the copies of two books that Pakarina published were sold out only after they won the National Prize for Literature in the category of Native Languages: Aqupampa by Pablo Landeo Muñoz, in 2018, and Parawayraq Chawpinpi from Washington Córdova Huamán, in 2020.

Peruvian poet Ch’aska Eugenia Anka Ninawaman also sees a “Quechua boom” among young Peruvians, who have started using the internet to “recognize themselves through poetry.” A boost, he says, brought about by “cultural and political changes” in the country. The writer points out that there is a new generation of people in her community who are scientists, engineers, philosophers or writers who “take up what their grandparents have done.” “That means that Quechua can currently have a certain reception”, he values.

But Peru has more native languages, and while Quechua has painstakingly managed to earn a place in bookstores, other indigenous authors continue to be overshadowed. “Now we look at Andean literature or Andean worldview, but there is still an absence of Amazonian literature in Peruvian literary history,” says Dina Ananco Ahuananchi, originally from the Amazon region of Bagua and who recently published with Pakarina Sanchiu, the first collection of poems in the country in the Wampis language. “The green of the Amazon is our hope / is the green of our forests also our downfall?” Says one of his poems written during the pandemic, when his was one of the areas of the country with the most deaths from coronavirus infections . “Peru is a diverse country in its culture, in its linguistic diversity, but what happens to those peoples?” Asks Ananco. “According to the Ministry of Culture there are 55 native peoples here, and 51 are Amazonian. So what happens to that rich cultural diversity? “

Literary Pavilion of Peru.
Literary Pavilion of Peru.Hector Guerrero

“Indigenous literature does not exist,” is the title of an essay by Mixe linguistics Yásnaya Elena Aguilar, originally from Oaxaca in Mexico and columnist for El PAÍS, with which she did not mean that there are no indigenous novelists or poets, but rather to point out the paradox that there is to promote as a single group: a risk in reading them all under the same lens for those literary fairs or awards. What is the common literary trait between Tarahumara poetics and Zoque that allows them to be assigned to the same category? Why should a single literary award be awarded to production in such dissimilar languages? ”, Aguilar writes in his book ä: Manifests on linguistic diversitya.

The Mexican translator Irma Pineda is also cautious and warns that “there is still a certain classism in literature.” At the Guadalajara fair, he criticizes, authors in native languages ​​”are left in the last dates or less important spaces, small or far from the center.” “I do not know if it is done to meet an inclusion quota, but there is no real interest in promoting literature in indigenous languages. We are not given the same promotion and dissemination apparatus ”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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