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Damián Cabrera on Hybrid Languages, Dust, and the Invention of Paraguay

By Elisa Taber
Translated By Elisa Taber

Damián Cabrera is a Paraguayan writer, researcher, teacher, cultural manager, and curator. He is the author of the lyric novels Xirú (2012) and  (2019). He lives between Asunción and Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.

An excerpt from Xirú was published in Words without Borders’ July/August 2020 issue. This multilingual lyric novel is set in Ciudad del Este—a Paraguayan city in the Triple Frontier shared with Argentina and Brazil. It is written predominantly in Spanish but interlaced with Portuguese and Guaraní, rendering a cacophony of languages that is audible but at times only legible for a resident of the region.

I recently corresponded with Damián over email regarding his two novels, the hybrid language in which he writes, and his relationship with Paraguay and the Triple Frontier, where he lives. The following is a translation from Spanish into English of our conversation.

Elisa Taber (ET): Why do you write in three languages?

Damián Cabrera (DC): In the first place, it has to do with the fact that I am, in different measures, a speaker of those three languages: Spanish, Portuguese, and Guaraní, which intersect in me and shape the dominant codes of the triple-frontier landscape, which I adhere to imaginarily. The reference to different measures relates to my degree of fluency in those languages, which varies for biographical and cultural reasons, and this is also expressed in my writing, in which the Spanish continues to possess, at least in the domains of literature, a certain supremacy over other registers. In any case, linguistic polyphony constitutes an opportunity to exhibit how these languages echo in me and the ideological meanings they carry. Sometimes, it is true, I have also tried to appeal to modes of representation that are more mimetic of my surrounding reality, through which I seek to name not just the way in which I speak or write, but also the poetic particles present in the discourses that surround me. It is common to always think of oneself as a speaker of a language, but one is also a listener of languages, and this is not an inevitably passive condition before the world of words. It never is.

On the other hand, perhaps what I attempt to do is to linguistically and literarily dramatize certain cultural, social, political, and economic tensions that structure the way of inhabiting a specific landscape, the Triple Frontier. These tensions, which are thematically present in the texts, also appear on the linguistic level, not only through the presence of the different languages, but also on a rhetorical and syntactic level. Overall, it is still a processual question, whose efficacy in my work can be scrutinized, but it deals with a search. When I write, a heavy consciousness of writing in one language or another is always present; it is inevitable.


ET: How do you define and relate to Portunhol Selvagem—a hybrid language composed of Spanish, Portuguese, and Guaraní, and a literary current that originated in the 1990s?

DC: I believe they were authors, not necessarily related to each other, who, due to certain ideological and literary coincidences, became a collective called P3F (Poets of the Three Frontiers). Among them, the most distinguished is Douglas Diegues, who belongs to a lineage of writers who gambled on the creative use of linguistic interferences; other writers from this group include Wilson Bueno from Brazil and Jorge Canese from Paraguay. I studied Canese’s oeuvre and consider him, alongside members of the P3F group, one of the founders of this translinguistic tendency, which overlaps with a converging process led by Wilson Bueno and coincides with the beginning of the so-called democratic transition of Paraguay, the destruction of the Guairá Falls, the construction of the Itaipú Hydroelectric Dam, the boom of Ciudad del Este as a frontier market, and the signing of the MERCOSUR Treaty of Asunción in 1991. The work of both authors anticipated and converged with the political and economic processes of transnationalization of capital, and in a certain sense the linguistic interferences predicted—though not thematically—an ambiguous destiny of blurring frontier boundaries. Today Douglas Diegues is the most active representative of this tendency, in which authors like Cristino Bogado and Edgar Pou—or even Xico Çá or Néstor Perlongher—intervene. The novel Mar paraguayo by Wilson Bueno, introduced by Néstor Perlongher, is, without a doubt, a foundational text in what would come to be called Portunhol Selvagem: a literary language that fuses Spanish, Portuguese, and Guaraní without mimetic pretensions. On the other hand, in the nineties, around the time of the publication of Mar paraguayo, and coinciding with the signing of the MERCOSUR Treaty of Asuncion, Andrés Colmán Gutiérrez published El último vuelo del pájaro campana, which also offers interference to a certain degree, above all in the speech of the characters.

When I began to explore the linguistic—lexical, semantic, and syntactic—interferences in my own writing, I was completely unaware of these processes. In fact, I learned of them after writing my novel Xirú, and it was very satisfying to discover this coincidental creativity. Nevertheless, I believe that what I do is different, as much because I come from another place and experience of frontierity as because I am clearly a different subject, no?

“Even Paraguayan Guaraní can constitute a colonial threat for the other Guaraní languages.” 

I could not situate myself in the terrain of Portunhol Selvagem, though I was nurtured by it, especially after 2008, when I met, collaborated, and, of course, conversed with Cristino Bogado, Edgar Pou, and Douglas Diegues. I used to visit Bogado, who published a fragment of my novel in a cartonera edition (book with cardboard cover published by a communal press) by Felicita Cartonera Ñembyense, which he and Edgar Pou ran, and I participated in the short story anthology Asunción (Te) Mata, by the same press. Bogado also contributed some texts to a magazine that I coedited in the Alto Paraná Department. I used to hang out with Pou when he hosted a radio show called Los domingos de Ña Vida—I frequented the show and his apartment near the Plaza Uruguaya in Asunción. I also accompanied him when he created the cartonera project Tokorre Lectura, in Ciudad del Este, which then published my book Wanderlust.

I also met Diegues and Washington Cucurto, an Argentine writer and co-founder of Eloísa Cartonera, several times at book fairs and conferences. I interviewed both of them when they visited Asunción.

Perhaps it is difficult to present myself as a Portunhol Selvagem writer because that label strongly signifies an authorial community, though my writing does not exclude the exploration carried out by those authors, whom I also studied. Perhaps it is worthwhile to say that my expressive explorations rest on the achievements of those authors.


ET: How do you define and relate to Paraguayan Guaraní—a colonial, Spanish language according to the Paraguayan-Spanish linguist Bartomeu Melià?

DC: In the first place, a cultural and linguistic relationship exists between the Guaraní speaker and the Guaraní listener subject. I place emphasis on the figure of the listener, since, at least in me, there’s a dramatic misalignment between my auditory and expressive aptitudes: I understand Paraguayan Guaraní very well and write it correctly, but I am a deficient speaker with a marked accent that evidences my colonial and foreign relationship to the language, despite the fact that my parents are essentially Guaraní speakers. It is something that was intensified by the educational systems of Paraguay, which banish Guaraní and compartmentalize the speaker experience by restricting its field of use. For example, I only speak Guaraní with my paternal grandmother and rarely address my parents in Guaraní; meanwhile, I have no issue communicating with strangers in Guaraní, but with people I know it becomes impossible. There are certain barriers or limitations, the reasons for which I do not understand well, and which I do not experience in Spanish or in Portuguese.

“After the fall of the dictatorship in 1989, a great future was expected in Paraguay.”

In reference to my writing, a very natural transition toward a minor literature form was part of my formative process, a result of coming from the field of one language and being efficiently colonized by another in which I am more fluent. In my texts, the Guaraní appears as a kind of irreducible figure, at most barely decipherable for a few people, and which names, in general, an ominous and ambiguous excess.

But, once again, I know Paraguayan Guaraní, a variant in itself colonized, and which Bartomeu Melià denominated “Paraguayan Spanish” because it is composed by signifiers emptied of their essential signifieds and filled with colonial signifieds. Melià’s thinking was essential to understanding this process and the fact that though it is a language of indigenous origin, Guaraní is and is not an indigenous language, and that even Paraguayan Guaraní can constitute a colonial threat for the other Guaraní languages. It can appear confusing, and usually is, since Paraguayans frequently reclaim their Guaraní past while fervently rejecting Guaraní people in the present.


ET: Last year you interviewed Bartomeu Melià (here is a link). Sadly, he is no longer with us. Melià said, “The invented Paraguay is a dreamt Paraguay.” What does that dream mean to you?

DC: After the fall of the dictatorship in 1989, a great future was expected in Paraguay. People believed that, once the authoritarian regime of Alfredo Stroessner was overthrown, destiny would guide itself toward a minimally utopic social justice tendency in which the national society—itself culturally, geographically, and linguistically bifurcated—would reconcile with the historically excluded indigenous peoples. The first years of the 1990s were times of utopic thinking. Nevertheless, it was soon clear that that dream was threatened by old interests in exploiting the earth: the invention of another Paraguay was postponed, and its foundation was deferred indefinitely.

Almost everything that is done and dreamed in Paraguay, at the margin of the spoliation of the landscape, territory, and people, requires much energy to prosper, not to let die. Many projects are ephemeral; few are sustainable. They open up in space and disappear promptly. The artist Carlos Colombino would say that what one does in Paraguay does not resonate. Dialogues are difficult. And this is also true of dreams. The evil that inhabits reality threatens the potential of dreams. And, even so, at the border of the state project in Paraguay, its markets and dominant production models, there are glimmers of the oneiric and idyllic.


ET: You describe dust in Ciudad del Este. Does this barely tangible substance both exist and embody how you approach borders, the form of language and identity there?

DC: When I began reflecting on the dust in my writing, my first intention was metonymic. To me the dust was the most inescapable mark of the border landscape. That’s how it was: you could not walk without your feet or shoes growing dirty, you could not touch anything, you could not sit without staining yourself with dust, with earth. That’s still how it is. Every visit to the less urbanized areas of the Alto Paraná Department leaves its tracks on your clothing, hair, skin, under your nails, in your mouth, in your burning eyes. At some point, that ethereal presence acquired other meanings. Almost a sculptural or architectural function at times. All that fragmentation brings to mind the kind of spectral return of a ground-up solid consistency: that is, of biology, fauna, and flora, but also the various cultures, submitted to an intense pressure that dissolves them (that pressure being colonization and a capitalist model of agricultural production and commercial circulation). But that dust is also sublime, in the Kantian sense: a presence that is startling and in a certain way beautiful, while at the same time painful and uncomfortable. In my other book, , I tried to transfer that fragmentary quality to my texts. The syntax of the sentences is triturated. The direct objects in the sentences are annulled, postponed, or deferred. And the punctuation is entirely composed of periods without paragraph breaks, almost like the specks of dust that dominate the landscape of my imagination and certainly my home.

Damián Cabrera is a writer, researcher, teacher, cultural manager, and curator. He is the author of the lyric novels Xirú (2012) and (2019). Cabrera teaches literature at the Universidad Columbia del Paraguay and fine arts at the Universidad Nacional de Asunción. He coordinates the Documentation and Research Department of the Centro de Artes Visuales/Museo del Barro and has curated several art exhibitions in Paraguay. He is also a member of the Ediciones de la Ura collective, the Red Conceptualismos del Sur (RedCSur), the EACH-USP research group “Grupo de Investigación Estudos Culturais: Identidades e Cultura Política,” and the Paraguayan chapter of the International Association of Art Critics. His texts have been published in Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico.

Related Reading:

Ñe’ ẽ: An Introduction to Contemporary Guaraní Poetry

"Defiled Woman" by Washington Cucurto

The Translator Relay: Erín Moure

Published Sep 8, 2020   Copyright 2020 Elisa Taber

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