“Guatemala has always produced great writers”: An Interview with Guatemalan Poet and Feminist Ana María Rodas

One day, poetry simply came out of me. One day, I was filled with poetry.

Wearing a thin sweater, a colorful scarf, and a dazzling smile, Ana María welcomed us to her house in Zone 15, Guatemala City. Outside it was pouring, much like when she presented her famed Poemas de la izquierda erótica (Poems from the Erotic Left), forty-six years ago. She offered us tea—“To fight back the cold,” she said, still smiling—and told us we had to do the interview in the living room, not upstairs, because, “There are books scattered everywhere; imagine, a lifetime spent collecting books.” And, yes, one can only imagine.

Ana María Rodas, born in 1937, is a veteran Guatemalan poet, journalist, and teacher. Her career spans more than sixty years. She has released close to twenty books, and her work has been translated into English, German, and Italian. In 1990, she simultaneously won the poetry and short story categories of the Juegos Florales de México, Centroamérica y el Caribe. In 2000, she won the prestigious Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for her life’s work. She is also one of the leading figures of Guatemalan and Central American feminism. She has lived her whole life in Guatemala. And one cannot say this lightly. She grew up during the Jorge Ubico dictatorship (1931–1944), admired how the Guatemalan Revolution toppled Ubico in 1944, thrived during the so-called Ten Years of Spring, lamented the 1954 CIA-backed coup that removed the democratically elected, progressive president Jacobo Árbenz, and witnessed the atrocities of the Civil War (1960–1996). Many of her friends and colleagues were killed during that time. Alaíde Foppa, Irma Flaquer, and her dear friend, Luis de Lión, author of El tiempo principia en Xibalbá—considered one of the cornerstones of contemporary Central American literature. Even if she never picked up a rifle or joined the militarized resistance, her feminist struggle and intellectual defiance have influenced many generations.   

She’s not a cynic, though. Or bitter. She’s hopeful. “Even though we have a brute for president,” she says, “I believe in resisting.” And resisting, Ana María has done.

But as much as Ana María is grandmotherly and warm, as much as she’s a jokester and amicable, she is also analytical, astute, and disarmingly agile. She’s a force of nature, a rising tide, and an unmovable object. Her poetry is sensitive, electric, and subversive.

At eighty-one, Ana María is the author of a weekly column in the Guatemalan news outlet elPeriódico, teaches creative writing in her house, and is currently working on several books, including an autobiography. Two months ago, the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Quetzaltenango (FIPQ), the most prestigious poetry gathering of the region, dedicated its fifteenth edition to her, to the women who were disappeared, and to the women who are still looking for missing relatives.

“It’s a huge honor,” she says, suddenly emotional.

José García Escobar (JGE): In the 1960s and 70s, many of your friends or fellow writers went into exile, such as Raul Leiva, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, and Alaíde Foppa. Did you choose to remain in Guatemala during this period, and to write from the resistance?

Ana María Rodas (AMR): In the 1960s and 70s when many left, I, as a woman, was living a fabulous life. I wasn’t completely separated from the country’s political life, but I wasn’t really affected by it either. I was one of four feminists in the country, alongside artist Julia Vela, writer Luz Mendez de la Vega, and a lawyer whose name I can’t remember right now [she smiles]. Guatemala, like always, was very much influenced by the United States, so the ideals of the struggle of people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks resonated with us, and with me. But I think it was because I lived through Ubico’s dictatorship, the Guatemalan Revolution, and the so-called Ten Years of Spring, that made me never want to consider exile.

JGE: How so? Luis Cardoza, for example, lived through this time too, yet he left.

AMR: I suppose it’s a personal thing. It takes a certain personality and characteristics to want to go into exile. I didn’t have them. Maybe I was influenced differently by that time. From Ubico, I learned what tyranny looked like. From the Revolution and the Ten Years of Spring, I learned about my rights. I remember one Christmas when all the kids in the city got roller skates. We must have been about twenty children, and we all got them. One day we went roller-skating at the Parque Central, but the police stopped us. They told us we couldn’t play in the park. This was after the Revolution, so we were familiar with president Arévalo’s social righteousness. We stood under his balcony, calling his name. He came out. “What’s all this about?” he said. We told him that the police weren’t letting us play in the park. So he sent one of his guards to say we had all the right in the world to play there. I was seven at the time. I was seven when I talked to the president, and he told us we were right. Those moments affected me. I knew I had rights. Maybe that’s why I never considered going into exile, because I knew, even after the 1954 CIA-backed coup that ended the Ten Years of Spring, that we could regain those rights. But I definitely understand why some left.

JGE: This was around the time you became a journalist?

AMR: Yes. I started out very young. I was thirteen when I joined the Diario de Centro América. My father was a reporter there. There were always empty spaces in the newspapers at the end of the day. So I took over those empty spaces. I was writing about Mother’s Day in San José Pinula. Things like that. Then I moved to Nuestro Diario, and they told me I could write about social events. It was horrific. I complained. They told me that all women love doing that. “They might, but I don’t,” I said. Then I moved into sports writing, and later I did coverage on the National Palace when Árbenz was the president.

JGE: We’ve talked at other times about how art and literature were always present in your life, thanks to your parents. How did poetry come into the picture for you? 

AMR: Have you seen the movie Alien? [Ana María smiles.] Do you remember that scene when an alien comes out of a guy’s chest? That’s how it was. One day, poetry simply came out of me. One day, I was filled with poetry. I wrote a bunch of awful poems that got published in local magazines.

JGE: But after those awful poems, you made quite the debut, no? The Poemas de la izquierda erótica was your first book.

AMR: Yes, but that came after many years of writing awful things. They came out in a burst—all but one, the first one. I put them aside. I read them days later and realized they weren’t bad. They were quite good, actually. The last five poems of the book got published in a magazine called Alero. My husband at the time, Ramírez Amaya, worked there alongside other writers such as El Bolo Flores, Luz Mendez, and Margarita Carrera. At the time I called those poems Después de todo yo también puedo ser feminista—I can be a feminist, after all. Then I took those poems, plus one more I had written, to Don Ricardo Juárez Aragón’s printing house, on 18th Street. And that’s how Poemas de la izquierda erótica came to be. I paid for a thousand copies. There weren’t any publishing houses at the time. You would have to find a printing house, take your book, pay for the copies, and come back the day they told you it would be ready.

Let’s assume our role of virgins
                      how men want us.

Let’s fornicate in our minds
tenderly, very tenderly
with the skin of some ghost.

                      Let’s smile
in a feminine style

And when night falls, let’s dig a dagger
and leap in the garden
let’s abandon
this place that smells like death.

JGE: What was the reaction towards the book at the time?

AMR: Varied [she laughs]. People who worked in Alero and its readers liked the book. But they were people who consumed culture. They were avid readers. And women on the street came up and talked to me. “Are you that Ana María Rodas?” they said. I told them I was. “I wished I had written that book,” they said. A few newspapers wrote pieces about it as well. It came on El Imparcial’s front page. But Nuestro Diario’s director, my boss, came up to me, showed me a pornographic photo, and said, “Look, I got some poetry right here.” But since I’ve always been able to stand up for myself, I said, “If that’s poetry, what should we call the scratches on the roof of your car that women leave when you sleep with them?” We all knew he was married [she smiles].

JGE: Can you describe the dynamics of the local literary scene during the 1960s and 70s? Did you get together often, and did you have readings? If so, were they public readings or clandestine?

AMR: I can tell you about my group: Ana María Rodas, Mario Roberto Morales, Luis Eduardo Rivera, Enrique Noriega, Marco Antonio “El Bolo” Flores, and Luis de Lión. El Bolo used to give everyone nicknames: he called Mario Roberto “El Nenón”; he called Luis “El Indio,” and so that’s what we called him. He called Enrique “El Cadejo”; he was the only one of us who didn’t drink, so he was always babysitting drunkards, like the cadejo. Not until recently did Mario Roberto tell me that El Bolo didn’t think of a name for me because he was scared of me [laughs]. We used to get together in bars and cantinas. Not because of the persecution, but because there simply wasn’t a place for us to hang out. Sometimes we’d go to my house, or to Irma Flaquer’s house. She was a reporter, and was disappeared in the 1980s. But we mostly got together in cantinas. There’s one important thing though; we didn’t talk about what we were writing. Ever. We talked about literature a lot. We used to poke other people’s eyes out over our favorite authors. We spoke of Cortázar, García Márquez, and Rulfo. To give you an example, I’ve always loved Cortázar, and whenever I talked about him, El Bolo used to say, “Here you go again, talking about Cortázar.” We used to like Mario Vargas Llosa too. Used to. I remember when Tía Julia y el escribidor came out. “Have you read this one?” I said, holding a copy of the book. I think the first half is wonderful, and beautifully written. But the second half, when he writes about his tía Julia, he never talks about her in a loving way. The feminist in me was outraged. “That’s it,” I said. “No more Vargas Llosa.” That’s what we talked about. Sadly, of that group, there are few left. There’s only Mario Roberto, Enrique, and me. Luis Eduardo, he’s in Paris. El Bolo passed away. The army killed Luis [a pause]. But that was my group of writer friends. We didn’t talk about politics, despite the political climate. We didn’t talk about what each of us was writing. We simply talked about literature.

JGE: And how did that group come to be?

AMR: Out of nowhere. It was all very natural. I can tell you, for example, how I met Luis. But you’re going to be disappointed [she laughs]. Mario Roberto knew him and brought him along. That’s it. One day my husband, El Bolo, and I were drinking, and Mario Roberto brought Luis. He introduced him to us, he told us he was a teacher and a writer, and immediately we started talking about literature. It was almost by accident that we began seeing each other.

JGE: Were you close, for example, with Francisco Morales Santos and the other authors from Nuevo Signo?

AMR: Usually, I’d just hang out with the other five I just told you about. From time to time we’d run into someone else. Pepe Mejilla, for example. He also lives in France now. He used to sit with us, but couldn’t really stand us. Dante Liano too. We scared them, maybe. People had to put up with the men’s foul mouths and attitude. But since I had two brothers, I learned to be among loud men from a very early age. Here [she says, touching the top of her nose], I have a scar. One of my friends when I was growing up hit with me a baseball glove. These were my brothers’ friends. Meme Colom and others. We used to play baseball. I didn’t have any girlfriends. There weren’t any other girls to play with when I was growing up. So I grew up among men, and learned to be with them, and to stand up for myself. Maybe that’s how I became a feminist [laughs].

JGE: What do you think Guatemala would be like today if the army hadn’t targeted the literary movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s? If many of our writers, artists, and intellectuals hadn’t needed to go into exile?

AMR: Ah [she sighs]. Dreams we had. We had a lot of dreams. Guatemala has always produced great writers: Asturias, Landivar, Cardoza. Despite the hardship, and despite being persecuted, our writers thrived. Luis (de Lión) would’ve become one of the region’s most influential writers. Enrique, he’s a magnificent poet. He’s a first-class poet. Part of that persecution meant that our literary scene and the cultural scene didn’t have the chance to spread its wings. We didn’t have access to editors, publishing houses, to a network that would allow us to connect with the rest of Latin America, to the literary world. Imagine what would’ve happened if Enrique, if he, a first-class poet, would’ve had the chance to publish outside and be part of an international publishing house.

JGE: What are you working on right now?

AMR: I’ve just started writing my autobiography. I’m writing a novel based on the life of my grandmother, and it’s focused on the time she came to America. I’m writing a book of short stories and a book of poems. They must know what they’re doing with me. One day I might wake up and work on my autobiography, the next I might write a poem or two, and the day after that I might go back to the novel about my grandmother.

JGE: Recently the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Quetzaltenango (FIPQ) paid homage to you and your work, the women who were disappeared, and the women who are still looking for missing relatives. What did it mean to you, to a poet who wrote from the resistance?

AMR: As you say this, I feel like my heart is swelling. I hadn’t been celebrated in Guatemala before. It’s true, I received the Miguel Angel Asturias National Prize in Literature, but they give one of those every year. Other countries have recognized my work: Spain, Austria, Germany. One time the Cervantes Institute and the Goethe Institute published a book to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publications of the Quixote. It was called VERSschmuggel or Contrabando de versos. And they picked twelve German poets and twelve Spanish-speaking poets, three from Spain and the rest from Latin America. Among those selected, it was your dear friend Ana María. I couldn’t fit in a room when I got the invite. Some weeks ago, the University of Salamanca also celebrated my work. But I then thought: When is Guatemala going to celebrate my work? That’s when Marvin (García, the director of the FIPQ) called me to say he wanted to dedicate the festival to me, to the women who were disappeared, and to the women who are still looking for missing relatives. I felt twice my size.

Image credit: Victoria Castañeda

Ana María Rodas is a poet, journalist, and short-story writer born in Guatemala City in 1937. She is one of the most influential intellectuals in Central America and began her career as a poet. First, she published Poemas de la izquierda erótica in 1973, followed by Cuatro esquinas del juego de una muñeca in 1975, El fin de los mitos y los sueños in 1984, and La insurrección de Mariana in 1993. In 1974 the Guatemalan national journalists’s association gave her the Premio Libertad de Prensa. In 1990 she received the first prize at the inaugural Juegos Florales de México, Centroamérica y el Caribe in both the poetry and short story category. In 2000, she received the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature, Guatemala’s highest literary recognition.

José García Escobar is a journalist, fiction writer, translator, and former Fulbright scholar from Guatemala. His writing has appeared in The Evergreen ReviewGuernica, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. He is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for the Central American region. He works as a journalist in Agencia Ocote.


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