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from the July/August 2020 issue

Ñe’ ẽ: An Introduction to Contemporary Guaraní Poetry

This feature of Guaraní poetry is the first installment in the Words Without Borders Indigenous Writing Project. The selection criterion for the feature was simple: I sought lyric texts that made me uncertain. Discomfort and incoherence are signs of different ways of poeticizing or narrativizing the world. Peruvian literary critic Antonio Cornejo Polar said of Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s work, characterized by deviations in spelling, that it is “bad writing” that fabricates a fiction of orality, a kind of writing in the air. I privileged not a poem’s eloquence but its potential for attunement, its capacity to transform, to make other ways of ordering and being in the world perceptible.

An unweaving technique must be employed to extricate the colonialist and nationalist modes of silencing that have traditionally woven these Amerindian literatures and languages together. A minor literature homogenizes distinct languages and cultures, and contrasts them against a major literature. Following the Mixe linguist Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, I refute the dichotomy between Spanish and indigenous languages, and posit a multilingual approach to national literature. In this feature I seek a multilingualism stripped of the deceptively homogenizing effect of mestizaje. Still, it is the resilience of these languages that refutes displacement; in material terms, they blur boundaries by evidencing that history can be recorded otherwise.

In resistance there is lament. The Peruvian writer José María Arguedas said of Canto kechwa (Kechwa Song), “they are laments; of an oppressed people one cannot ask predominantly joyful music.” To speak of indigenous literature is to speak of colonization; the genocide turned ethnocide continues through the imposition of a disarticulating identity. Indigenous languages are not in danger of extinction but intentionally subjugated by national aspirations to Westernization. It is in this space of displacement and disarticulation that a nostalgia for the old—in the form of the oral word and pre-Hispanic world—encounters the new.

As aforementioned, a real work of Amerindian literature makes perceptible another way of ordering and being in the world. In terms of order, a cosmology and epistemology that transcends the matrix of coloniality, what Gloria E. Chacón, Assistant Professor of Literature at UC San Diego, terms Mesoamerican cosmolectics. In terms of being, an ontology that transcends the human, what Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro terms Amerindian perspectivism. To honor language is to refuse to exploit its potential to deceive and so coexist with contradiction; producing poetry that is oral and written, communal and authorial, sacred and colloquial—juxtaposed elements that threaten Western conceptions of authorship and literature.

Latin American indigenous literature is inextricable from orality and ancestry. In the last decade of the twentieth century, two movements brought this tradition into the present: Oralitura (Oral-literature) and the Antigua y nueva palabra (Ancient and New Word). The Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf described the first as writing that runs alongside orality, in conversation with the author’s elders. The Mexican anthropologist Miguel León Portilla described the latter as poetry that flows between the shores of the ancient and new word. Chacón adds that there were comprehensive writing systems in the pre-Hispanic world; she describes the lyric flow between the ancient and new word as a “a symbiotic relationship between ‘glyphing’ the cosmos to writing everyday reality.” Contemporary poetry in this tradition is defined by its form, not oral or chirographic, but digital.

The appearance of multilingual collaborative anthology platforms of Amerindian poetry suggest that digital media may be summoning a secondary orality. These platforms include Siwar Mayu, edited by Juan G. Sánchez Martínez, Assistant Professor of Spanish at UNC Asheville, and Hawansuyo, edited by Quechua writer Fredy Amílcar Roncalla. The auditory and visual performance components of oral literature are rendered through multimedia. Thus, this feature includes audio recordings of the authors reciting their poems and artwork by Osvaldo Pitoe. Returning to the concept of writing in the air, digital media makes the form of a text lose its weight, it becomes ephemeral, alterable, it stops belonging to one person. Still, the content is rooted and contained, it alternates between focus on the quotidian—the act of boiling a potato—and the metaphysical—the distance between life and death bridged by another conception of corporeality within time and space.

When a text becomes audible, the transgressions writing inflects on orality become visible. What you hear is a dialogue with the afterlife, a language and literature that is intentionally made “extinct.” Violeta Percia, Professor of Comparative Literature at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, thinking through the Mapuche concept of Nüxam (a conversation that seeks listening, not articulateness), describes poetic thought as the capacity to reach essential spaces of knowledge and sensitive modes of transmission. Amerindian literature, which is intrinsically bilingual and poetic, allows us to exist between languages, and attunes us to a broader poesis. It brings into being what is said and kept quiet, in your language and another. Dialogue, translation, and lyricism together produce this kind of deep listening.

We begin the Indigenous Writing Project by featuring the work of Paraguayan poets working in Guaraní. Paraguay is a bilingual country: most of the population speaks Spanish and Guaraní, an indigenous language. However, paraphrasing Paraguayan-Spanish linguist Bartomeu Melià, the Guaraní spoken and written by the majority, though subaltern, is in many ways a colonial, Spanish language. He adds that there are seventeen ethnic groups that correspond to five linguistic families. Within the Tupí-Guaraní family there are six dialects: Mbyá, Avá-Guaraní, Pãi Tavyterã, Guarayo, Guaraní-Ñandéva, and Aché-Guayakí. In addition, there is Jopara, a neo-language that merges Spanish and Guaraní.

The linguistic, cosmological, and poetic diversity of the region is evidenced in the featured poems written and recited in Guaraní by Alba Eiragi Duarte, Miguelángel Meza, Susy Delgado, and Alberto Luna. The regional linguistic mestizaje is rendered in an excerpt from a lyric novel written and recited in Portunhol Selvagem—a Spanish, Portuguese, and Jopara hybrid—by Damián Cabrera. Cabrera explains that since the last decade of the twentieth century, Paraguayan, Brazilian, and Argentine writers have dared to make Guaraní a literary language, though it lies at the crossroads between colonial languages.

In Guaraní, word and soul are one word: ñe’ ẽ. If the language is alive, ontologies and epistemologies encrypted in untranslatable aphorisms are recovered. Spoken words, then, defy mortality with their intangibility: what they bring into being was always there, just imperceptible.


© 2020 by Elisa Taber. All rights reserved.

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