Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join as us we celebrate indigenous writers, intercultural connection, and the importance of linguistic diversity.

This week, we return with three dispatches exploring multicultural and multilingual connection. We begin with a reflection on the work of Humberto Ak’abal, an influential Indigenous poet who wrote in both K’iche’ Maya and Spanish. We also explore the multilayered dialogue between China and New York in the Hong Kong literary scene, and get an exciting firsthand account of the recent Creative Multilingualism conference in the UK.

 Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-at-Large, reporting from Guatemala

As declared by the United Nations, 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. According to their website, of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on the planet, over 2,500 are currently endangered. In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and around the world, many hope this global recognition will lead to wider acceptance of Indigenous languages, as well as to increased opportunities for their oral and written expression.

The world of Indigenous letters in the Americas was rocked on January 28 by the unexpected passing of K’iche’ Maya poet Humberto Ak’abal. Born in 1952, Ak’abal was one of the first Indigenous poets from Latin America to rise to international prominence, publishing numerous books of poetry as well as an important non-scholarly adaptation of the K’iche’ Maya sacred text the Popol wuj. Although it is hard to summarize the work of someone with such an extensive oeuvre, Ak’abal’s work stands out aesthetically for his use of translingual onomatopoeia, which makes him one of the first people in the Americas to write across a Maya language and Spanish. Content-wise, his deft and nuanced handling of quotidian scenes in places ranging from his native Momostenango to Venice reveal remarkable insights about the human condition.

Beyond his considerable reputation as a poet, Ak’abal is a somewhat controversial figure in Guatemalan letters for his 2004 rejection of the country’s highest literary award, named after the Nobel Laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias. Ak’abal turned down the award because Asturias, in his master’s thesis, attributed Guatemala’s underdevelopment to its Indigenous population, which Ak’abal saw as a considerable offense. His poetry is widely available in English translation through sites such as Words Without Borders and Poetry International Web, and videos of his performances are available on YouTube.

 Charlie Ng, Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong, reporting from Hong Kong

As part of the Hong Kong Literature Season, the “Charming Tastes and Fragrance: Literature and Visual Arts Exhibition,” organised by the House of Hong Kong Literature, was first opened to the public from December 29 to January 17 in the Pao Galleries of the Hong Kong Arts Centre. For those who missed it the first time around, the exhibition has been extended from February 1-17 at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre. Curated by Hong Kong writer Tang Siu Wa and artist Shek Chun Yin, the exhibition features nine art creations—produced by nine pairs of writers and artists—that explore Chinese food culture through the theory of four states in Chinese medicine and the theory of five flavours in Chinese gastronomy. The works aim to bring literature and visual arts together in a dialogue to inspire imagination on food and provoke memories of tastes.

Moreover, from February 8-22, Hong Kong writer and artist Chan Sai-lok, who was featured in a visual interview in our Fall 2018 issue, will hold a solo exhibition in the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Titled “Land of Longing and Exile,” the exhibition will showcase art produced in response to the artist’s experience of a residency programme in the Flux Factory art space in New York. Chan will present his reflections on his intercultural experience through the colours of the American flag: red, white, and blue. As the beginning of a series, the exhibition will use “red” as a thematic colour to explore how Chinese language literature and visual arts represent New York City.

The Hong Kong-based online literary journal, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, organises an ongoing series of reading events throughout the year. On February 13, “Stonewall Fifty Years On” will be held to honour the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969, featuring speakers to engage in a discussion on the rights of the LGBT community and their experience in Hong Kong. On February 26, Hong Kong-based writers Dani Van De Broucke, Clint Ettinger and Sonia Leung will explore the idea of reinventing oneself and how it is reflected in their writings.

 Lou Sarabadzic, Assistant Managing Editor (Issue Production), reporting from the UK

 On February 1 and 2, Creative Multilingualism, an exciting four-year research programme investigating the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity, held its third annual conference, this time at Birmingham City University. In 2017, the Oxford conference focused on “Languages and Creativity.” In 2018, in Reading, it examined “Creative Multilingual Identities.” This year, the theme of the conference was “Performing Languages,” bringing together “researchers, artists, and cultural practitioners” to discuss “what it means to perform languages (in the broadest sense), to develop new insights, be inspired by new performance/research ideas, and expand their networks.” As an attendee, I can attest to the fact that all of these objectives were successfully achieved!

The format of the conference was extremely enjoyable: it allowed time for talks and discussions, as well as more practical approaches through performances and workshop. I chose to join a workshop on “Making Multilingual Theatre” led by Tim Supple of Dash Arts, who from 2006 to 2008 directed a multilingual and multicultural version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” While Supple shared his experience of this international collaboration in his keynote address, during the workshop he asked us to complete improv and comprehension exercises in a language we didn’t know, to see just how much is transmitted through a given language beyond the actual meaning of words.

We were also treated to some brilliant performances: Rinkoo Barpaga, who directed the film Double Discrimination, about racism in the Deaf community, introduced us to Urban Sign Language, and demonstrated how different it was from British Sign Language. He gave us specific examples, and explained how race and class play a part in how you sign. We listened (and sung! Would you believe?) to the skunk rock from RTKal, and attended a moving representation by Ashlee Roberts on languages, identities, cultures, and intergenerational transmission. And I couldn’t even stay until the end of the Saturday session, so just imagine how intellectually stimulating these two days were!

During parallel talk sessions, I had the pleasure to hear Anne Smith talk about the programme she developed with Creative English, which used drama, role-play, and games to help create a safer, more inclusive environment for learners with little or no English speaking skills. I was also fascinated by Peter Wynne-Willson’s talk “Orange Polar Bear—an account of developing a bilingual performance piece for and with teenagers in Korea and the UK,” about a play that he directed and that everyone in Birmingham was talking about last year.

Finally, during roundtables, we learned from other delegates’ interests and research, and heard their reactions to performances. If you want to read a few quotes from the conference to get a sense of the event atmosphere, do check #PerformLangs on Twitter.

Next year’s conference already has a title: “Global – Local: Creating a Multilingual World,” and will be held at SOAS, University of London. Having attended and loved the Birmingham conference, I really hope to be there. Will you?


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