One of Mexico’s “first languages,” Isthmus Zapotec is laden with x’s, drawn out vowel sounds, and glottal stops; the first time I heard it spoken, I thought that the recording was being played backward. As far as I know, nobody wields this gorgeous and little-known language with more lyricism, richness, and sheer attitude than Víctor Terán, a free verse poet and endangered language activist from Juchitán in Southern Oaxaca.
As his translator David Shook notes, for someone who hails from such a small place and works in a language spoken by so few, Terán is a remarkably global poet. His translations have appeared in Poetry, World Literature Today, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Agenda, Modern Poetry in Translation, Oxford Magazine, PN Review, and a Poetry Translation Centre chapbook (2010). His latest project is an Isthmus Zapotec anthology of forty poems by forty world poets—including Basho, Cavafy, Baudelaire, Whitman, and Eliot. A substantial trilingual selection of his poetry has been collected into The Spines of Love, which is out from Restless Books this month.
Recently he took the time to discuss over email how he has resisted power, learned to talk to himself, and constructed reality from scratch.
JSS: You’ve made great efforts as an activist to preserve the Isthmus Zapotec language, which is spoken by fewer than a hundred thousand people. Some Mexican political parties consider it a language of revolution and subversion and have made efforts to eliminate it. Do you direct your Isthmus Zapotec poetry more toward remaining speakers of the language in order to enrich an embattled tongue, or in an act of defiance to those who wish to squash it? In other words, do you consider whom your poetry is “for”?
VT: Honestly, when I write I don’t think about what I am doing to defend or preserve my language—I am compelled by the necessity to express my joy or courage before the things that happen in my life. I write because I am moved by beauty: flowers, women, the miracle of life; I write because injustice stirs me and kills my soul: the horribleness of poverty or the insolence and arrogance of the opulent.
Why do I write in Diidxazá (Zapotec)? Because it’s the language I have mastered. What writer in the world writes in a language he hasn’t mastered? And for whom do I write? For the world! What’s it matter if my language is of the majority or the minority? I, the writer, write inspired by what I see, think, and feel. And that’s the beauty of the work of the writer, which inspires its translation into other languages so that it might be known by the wider world, like what’s happening now with my collection The Spines of Love. Of course I am conscious of the fact that my language [a family of 60+ mutually unintelligible dialects, of which Isthmus Zapotec is one] has only 460,000 speakers, and that the 500-year assault by the plutocracy weakens and corrupts it more each day. Nonetheless, we resist doing things in our own individual ways: in the fields and in the home parents speak and transmit it to their children; writers polish and enrich it by reviving old expressions or creating neologisms; indigenous politicians and organizations fight for institutional programing and resources for its preservation and development. Political parties in Mexico don’t care about indigenous languages and cultures, the only thing they care about is getting votes so that they can continue enjoying the privileges and table scraps of the moneyed few; the Mexican people have become aware of this, little by little, and are organizing themselves to appoint government functionaries outside the official programs proposed by our political parties.
The challenge to defend and preserve our first languages and cultures in my country, the neoliberal onslaught that seeks to impose, for market reasons, hegemonic languages and to end minority ones, through formal education and mass media, obligates writers not just to stand around with our arms crossed. It’s not enough just to write, we must raise our voice and organize ourselves to avoid the homogenization and impoverishment of the human being in favor of capital.
Save the occasional poem like “Soldier,” the poetry selected for this collection generally abstains from overt political statement. Was this a deliberate choice? Do you consider the publication of poetry in Isthmus Zapotec a political statement in itself?
Today to write in an indigenous language, more than being a political statement, is a heroic act of survival. Survival because writing strengthens and extends the future of a language. Heroic act because it means pain and suffering before the indolence of many of its own speakers, who forget their responsibility to their mother tongue, owing to their desperate struggle to find the day’s food; because it means to endure the disregard of governments and institutions, who promote a double discourse, on the one hand passing “progressive” laws but on the other not allotting the resources that would make such laws possible; because it means discrimination on the part of mass media organizations and national publishing houses; because it also means desperation and sadness at not being able to hold the fruits of one’s labor in one’s own hands, not being able to publish it and share it with the Zapotec people.
The poem “Soldier” belongs to a series of political poems that I wrote in the period from 1975 – 1980, when I participated in starting a popular leftist political party, COCEI, that took back the municipal government of my town, which was in the hands of big business, the region’s caciques, and PRI, the official party of national plutocracy. The poem speaks of the kidnapping and physical disappearance of the peasant leader of the COCEI, Víctor Yodo, kidnapped in the very center of town in Juchitán de Zaragoza, Mexico, by a military envoy of the Mexican Army, in July of 1979. The title of the book that Restless is publishing, The Spines of Love, was what suggested the inclusion of this poem, without any political premeditation, because just as we’re injured by the spines of the love we feel for women, we’re also injured by the spines of our love for our companions who fight for a better world, like my friend Víctor Yodo.
There are many elements of heartbreak and pain in this collection. To what degree is the poetry autobiographical? Is the speaker in all of them “you”?
I am the shadow that my words cast, said Octavio Paz. Essentially one writes what he lives in and with this world; of course the poet doesn’t write things exactly as they are, he’s a great trickster, an exaggerated narrator, and in that way he recreates reality to exaggerate the good or bad. Remember that literature is an artistic composition, an art of language, a recreation of reality, not a reflection of that reality, but the making conscious of it, be it written in Spanish, Portuguese, English, Maya, or Zapotec.
In this book, then, I sing the joys and disappointments that love provoked in me as a young man.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
I began to write poetry because I longed for my hometown, my family, my friends. At eleven years old I was taken to Mexico City, 900 km from the city of my birth. In the capital I didn’t have anyone to talk to in Zapotec, so I began to talk to myself, by writing. I didn’t know how, I crammed two 100-page notebooks full of writing. And on a visit to see my parents, in the month of December, 1985, I took those notebooks to a great man, who was at that time the director of the Casa de Cultura in Juchitan, the great poet Macario Matus. I read him a few poems and the poet stood up suddenly from the table where he was playing chess, and ripped the two notebooks out of my hands to look through them. Done, he said, go home, select no more than 40 poems, and bring them to me as soon as possible, because I’m going to publish your book in May. That was my entrance to the world of poetry, and the publication in May of 1986 of my first book, Barefoot Words.
What other Mexican poets writing in indigenous languages should we know about in the United States?
There is a very important movement of literary production in the first languages of Mexico, and this speaks to the notable vigor of these communities to survive despite the injustices they suffer and have suffered for more than five centuries. This tendency to write in indigenous languages will continue, with or without support from the Mexican state. The first communities of Mexico have understood that the issue of survival and development does not depend on the government but on their own actions and determination.
Many of the works being written today in indigenous languages aren’t lesser siblings of greater world literature at all. Names like Javier Castellanos Martínez, Briceida Cuevas Cob, Mikeas Sáánchez, Víctor de la Cruz, Juan Gregorio Regino, just to mention a few, prove that the literature known as “indigenous” is as powerful, artistically speaking, as that produced by writers working in dominant languages
I’ll end by saying that literature, besides serving to immortalize life and events, and helping us to think about and feel our common world from new perspectives, also functions as a safeguard for a language, a culture. That’s the importance of writers working in indigenous languages—they save their language and culture from impoverishment and disappearance.
Translated by David Shook