Language: Tsotsil

Snichimal Vayuchil: Writing Poetry in an Endangered Maya Language

They insist that they be allowed to express themselves, above all else, in Tsotsil and as Tsotsiles.

As outlined in the controversial fall 2013 editorial from n +1, concepts of “World Literature” or “Global Literature” in translation are continually haunted by circuits of colonial power. Must we begin with Goethe and his Weltliteratur? Must translation practices always be subject to market forces and so dominated by economically powerful languages like English? What is the role of individual multilingual readers who communicate in multiple languages? These questions become all the more pressing in the cases of so-called minoritized languages. Possessing limited access to education and formal literary training within their respective nation states, minorizited languages are by definition disadvantaged with regard to publication and the dissemination within their respective national confines. Indeed, whether the context is the United States, China, or Colombia, despite the tireless activities of linguistic activists, one of the overriding concerns of publication in minoritized languages is who, exactly, constitutes the audience for a text that, more often than not, will be accompanied by a translation into the dominant language anyway?

These are a few of the topics that came up in conversation with the San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, Tsotsil Maya literary collective Snichimal Vayuchil (“The Flowery Dream”) when I sat down with a few of its members recently. Consider, for a moment, the untranslatability of the group’s name. What sounds like an overwrought cliché in English is actually the adaptation of a pre-hispanic Mesoamerican difrasism or semantic couplet, in xochitl in cuicatl (“my flower my song”) in Náhuatl, which reflects an aesthetic conceptualization linking poetry with the natural world as well as entrée into a distinctly non-European set of literary and aesthetic values.

According to Xun Betan (Venustiano Carranza), the group’s founder and coordinator, the group’s mission is to produce a Tsotsil literature that originates from Tsotsil understandings of the world. That’s why, both in their first anthology and in an upcoming English translation of the group’s work in the North Dakota Quarterly, they label themselves “a poetic experiment in Bats’i K’op (Tsotsil Maya).” Betan noted that, unlike Maya K’iche’ and Yucatec Maya, languages whose pre-Hispanic literary traditions were recorded in the colonial Popol vuh and the Books of the Chilam Balam, respectively, there are no Tsotsil language colonial documents that reflect what we would call a Tsotsil literary tradition. The group sees its work as being more “experimental” and much less proscriptive than the traditional literary workshop setting, as they explore Tsotsil language as a medium for literary expression. For readers already well-versed in US Native American literature, this situation is not unlike the one described by Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko when she asks, “What changes would Pueblo writers make to English as a language for literature?” with the key difference here being that these writers are undertaking this work in their mother tongue. READ MORE…

Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The most important literary news from Slovakia, the UK, Mexico and Guatemala.

This week brings us some exciting news from Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and Mexico, thanks to Editors-at-Large Julia Sherwood, Paul Worley, and Kelsey Woodburn as well as Senior Executive Assistant, Cassie Lawrence. Here’s to another week!

Julia Sherwood, Asymptote Editor-at-Large for Slovakia:

Two festivals concluded the hectic literary festival season in Slovakia. LiKE 2017, a contemporary literature and multimedia festival was held in Košice, the eastern metropolis, running parallel with the 14th Žilina Literature Festival in the country’s north. The latter, held from September 28 to October 8 in the repurposed New Synagogue and entitled Fakt?Fakt! (Fictitious Truth or Truthful Fiction?), focused on the alarming spread of disinformation, pre-empting the decision by Collins Dictionary to declare “fake news” the official word of the year 2017. The programme featured student discussions, workshops on how to distinguish fact from fiction, as well as readings and meetings with literary critics and writers. Michal Hvorecký discussed his latest novel, Trol (The Troll), a dark dystopia set in the murky world of Russian fake news factories, which has acquired a frightening new relevance far exceeding what the author had anticipated when he set out to write his book a few years ago.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your news from the literary world, all in one place.

Here we are again with literary updates from around the world. This week we bring you news on cultural responses to the earthquakes in Mexico and the latest on indigenous writers via Editors-At-Large for Mexico Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn. UK-based Executive Assistant Cassie Lawrence brings us up to speed on the latest from the UK, including recent prizes and publications. Finally, contributor Julia Chien and Editor-At-Large for Taiwan Vivian Szu-Chin Chih discuss the latest poetry and film initiatives in Taiwan.

Paul Worley and Kelsey Woodburn, Editors-At-Large, Mexico:

This week on Thursday, October 12, the 17th Annual Book Fair opened in México City’s Zócalo (main square downtown), and will run through October 22. As reported by Mexico’s Cultural Secretary, under the hashtag #CulturaSolidaria, the event will explore the role that the arts and culture play in rebuilding a city devastated by the September 19 earthquake that took over two hundred lives and left parts of the city in ruins.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

You can't end the week without being up to date with the latest in the world of literature!

Need another reason to welcome the weekend? We heard you! We’ve got literary scoop from three continents—literary prizes, festivals, and much besides to help you travel the world through books (is there really a better way?) 

From Singapore comes a dispatch from Editor-at-Large, Theophilus Kwek:

Celebrations were in order last month as graphic novelist Sonny Liew became the first Singaporean to win—not one, but three—Eisner Awards for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, originally published by Epigram in 2015 and later released in the US by Pantheon. The volume, which narrates an alternative political history of Singapore through the life and work of a fictional Singaporean artist, also received the most nominations in this year’s awards, which were presented at Comic-Con International in San Diego on July 22. The National Arts Council (NAC), which had previously drawn criticism for withdrawing Liew’s publishing grant on the grounds of ‘sensitive content’, came under fire once again for its brief (and some argued, half-hearted) congratulatory remarks on Facebook which did not mention the title of the winning work. Liew’s forthcoming projects include a take on the story of Singapore WWII heroine Elizabeth Choy.

Just a week after Liew’s win, Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu, responded to a parliamentary question over another NAC grant decision, this time concerning a novel by Asymptote contributor Jeremy Tiang, State of Emergency—also published by Epigram this year. According to Fu, funding was withdrawn from Tiang’s novel, which traces the lives of several fictional political activists and detainees, because its content had “deviated from the original proposal”—a statement which immediately drew mixed responses from Singapore’s literary community. At around the same time, fellow novelist Rachel Heng joined the ranks of Singaporean authors gaining recognition abroad as her forthcoming dystopian title, Suicide Club, was picked up by both Hodder & Stoughton in the UK and Henry Holt & Co. in the US.

Finally, on the eve of National Day (August 9) just this week, twenty-four writers and poets from Singapore presented a marathon 4-hour reading at BooksActually, which also runs an independent publishing arm, Math Paper Press. In addition to the literary delights on offer, the bookstore also served up another spicy and flavourful local favourite—fried chicken wings.

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Translator Sean Sell on Contemporary Indigenous Literature in Mexico

Political concerns are in the back of my mind, and when translating I try to keep them back there. I hope the works can speak for themselves.

During the past thirty years indigenous literatures in Spanish and indigenous languages have slowly emerged onto the literary scenes of many Latin American countries. Despite what many refer to as a literary renaissance, these literatures garner scant attention beyond the region, and many masterworks of contemporary indigenous letters remain unavailable in English translation. A graduate student at the University of California-Davis, Sean Sell recently published an excellent translation of Maya literature from the Mexican state of Chiapas with the University of Oklahoma Press. We caught up with Sell to discuss his work, that of the authors he translates, and his role as a conduit of indigenous writing in English.

Paul Worley & Kelsey Woodburn (W&W): What led you to an interest in Mayan languages and literatures?

Sean Sell (SS): Credit the Zapatistas, I suppose. Their uprising captured my attention as it did with so many others, so in 2000 when I was looking to visit Mexico and work on my Spanish, I got involved with the organization Escuelas para Chiapas or Schools for Chiapas. I figured I could improve my Spanish and support this intriguing project at the same time.  Schools for Chiapas is based, at least on this side of the border, in San Diego, where I’ve lived most of my life. They regularly organize trips to Zapatista territory. Our group helped prepare a site for school construction in one of the communities. But the trips are as much about cultural exchange as they are about any particular project.

It was on this trip that I first learned of indigenous languages like Tsotsil and Tseltal. Organizers told us that many of the Zapatistas we would meet did not speak Spanish, and for those who did it was probably their second language.

Years later I was getting a master’s at San Diego State University, and I took a class called Mexican Sociolinguistics.  I thought it would be about Mexican variations and regionalisms in Spanish, but it was all about indigenous languages—their history, their variety, their different levels of health today. Estimates of how many indigenous languages remain in Mexico range from 68 (the number with government recognition) to almost 300, with some disagreement as to when languages are distinct rather than different dialects of the same one. It was fascinating to learn about this, as each language represents a particular cultural world.  I drew from my experience in Chiapas for the class.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your literary updates for the turn of the year from Brazil, India, Mexico, and more!

Before we jump into our weekly world news tours of 2017, here at the blog we wanted to look back at the waning days of 2016 and give the literary achievements that closed such an eventful year their full due. There is already so much we’re looking forward to in the year ahead, but no piece of writing or writer exists in a vacuum; each new publication, reading, and translation takes from and makes space within the existing cultural consciousness. To be able to understand the developments in the literary scenes around the world this year, we have to see the full scope of 2016’s progress. Luckily, Asymptote has eyes and ears in every hemisphere!  

First stop on the map: India, where we check in with our first contributor this week, PhD student of postcolonial literature Tanushree Vachharajani:

2016 saw a huge uprising across India for Dalit rights. The suicide of Hyderabad PhD student Rohit Vemula in January 2016 and the assault of a Dalit family of cow skinners in Una, Gujarat in June 2016 have led to a resurgence of Dalit identity in social and literary fields, along with much dissent and unrest about the government’s attitude towards lower castes. The Gujarat Dalit Sahitya Akademi in Ahmedabad issued a special edition of their literary journal Hayati, on Dalit pride this fall under the editorship of Dr. Mohan Parmar. Also in September, under the editorship of Manoj Parmar, literary journal Dalit Chetna published a special edition on Dalit oppression, featuring works written by Dalit as well as non-Dalit writers.

The well-documented human rights violations continue to inspire a flood of responses. For the first time last month, Delhi saw a literary festival dedicated entirely to Dalit protest literature, offering a platform for Dalit regional literature and its translations into English, French, and Spanish to increase accessibility and broaden the demographic of its readers.

Dalit literature is also no longer in the realm of the purely literary. Inspired by the death of Rohit Vemula, three young activists from Mumbai—Nayantara Bhatkal, Prem Ayyathurai, and Shrujuna Shridhar—have set up the unofficially titled Dalit Panther Project for which phone numbers were collected on December 6, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death anniversary. Through the popular social messaging app WhatsApp, they will transmit four videos on the origins and legacy of the Dalit Panther literary movement. The videos were shot at the homes of Dalit Panther supporters, and are in Hindi. The creators are also looking to bring out a full-length feature film on the subject this year.

Hearteningly, the Dalit community is pushing back strongly against abuse of any members of the lower castes. From threatening a sanitation strike to bringing Dalit literature into mainstream circles and creating inclusive literary institutions and awards, Dalit protest movements across India only seem to be getting stronger as the New Year begins.

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Translating Indigenous Mexican Writers: An Interview with Translator David Shook

"I suspect many casual bookstore readers might not know how many languages are still spoken in Mexico. The sheer diversity is astounding."

David Shook is a poet, translator, and filmmaker in Los Angeles, where he serves as Editorial Director of Phoneme Media, a non-profit publishing house that exclusively publishes literature in translation. Their newest book is Like a New Sun, a collection of contemporary indigenous Mexican poetry, which Shook co-edited along with Víctor Terán.

Seven translators in total—Shook, Adam W. Coon, Jonathan Harrington, Jerome Rothenberg, Clare Sullivan, Jacob Surpin, and Eliot Weinberger—translated poets from six different languages: Juan Gregorio Regino (from the Mazatec), Mikeas Sánchez (Zoque),  Juan Hernández Ramírez (Huasteca Nahuatl), Enriqueta Lunez (Tsotsil), Víctor Terán (Isthmus Zapotec), and Briceida Cuevas Cob (Yucatec Maya). I corresponded with Shook over gchat to speak with him about the project.

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Today is Columbus Day, a controversial holiday in the United States. Several cities have recently adopted Indigenous Peoples’ Day over Columbus Day, clearly a victory for recognizing indigenous cultures in the United States. Which leaves me wondering: how are the indigenous Mexican writers recognized today in the Mexican literary landscape?

As someone who regularly visits Mexican literary festivals and also translates from the Spanish, I’ve observed the under-appreciation of indigenous writers firsthand. Mexico’s indigenous communities make up 10 to 14% of its total population, and you certainly don’t find anywhere near that percentage of literature being published in Mexico today. READ MORE…