I, Elisa Taber, interviewed Liliana Ancalao via email between May and July 2022. This interview is the culmination of multiple informal conversations on Zoom during the span of a year, while we coedited this Mapuche lyric essay issue for Words Without Borders.
I hope you, the readers, will undo the violence writing and translation inflict on speech in another language by falling into silent reverie before the weight and beauty of Liliana’s words. The thread that runs through Liliana’s, Elicura Chihuailaf’s, Adriana Paredes Pinda’s, Daniela Catrileo’s, and Jaime Huenún’s words stitches together the open wound that is the genocide of the Mapuche people, which, as Liliana puts it, “neither the official history nor those enriched by the spoils have taken responsibility for.”
We met in person for the first time at Jorge Newbery Airfield on August 27, 2022. Our hair color gave us away; hers is silver and mine is copper. Liliana was traveling from Resistencia, where she attended the 27th International Forum for Fostering Literature and Reading, to Comodoro Rivadavia, where she lives. It was a beautiful “in person” encounter during which words came and went—living words.
Elisa Taber (ET): Do the writings we gathered overflow the lyric essay genre and, more broadly, the discipline of literature? Is this overflow born out of a form of writing that grew alongside the orality of the ancients?
Liliana Ancalao (LA): Some of the texts we selected approach what we could define as an essay according to Western categories, others are poems or lyric prose, and some are more lyrical than others.
We, the selected authors, are poets, insubordinates, part of a people that problematizes cultural impositions, including literary genres. I prefer to define these texts as writings by people “of great foresight,” borrowing Jaime Huenún’s expression in “Reductions.” That definition can contain every piece in this issue.
We think our writings into being today. Our reflections revolve around poetry, which is an asking after oneself, who one is within a people, its language, its existence today. Who one is within a territory and the diversity of its lives.
What we write is sustained in our küpalme, our familial origin, our relatives who we name insistently. We include our writing professors in this küpalme.
What we write is sustained in our tuwün, our territorial origin, our equals in existence who we name insistently: the rivers, the trees, the birds, the stones.
ET: “I Write to Purge This Memory,” published in this issue of Words Without Borders, is an account of why you write, and “The Silenced Language,” published in Latin American Literature Today, is a history of Mapudungun linguistic colonization.
In this issue, the contributors approach writing between languages differently: you and Elicura Chihuailaf wrote in Spanish and self-translated into Mapudungun, Adriana Paredes Pinda alternated between writing in Spanish and Mapudungun, and Daniela Catrileo and Jaime Huenún wrote in Spanish.
How does this history of linguistic colonization influence the form and content of your writings and that of the other contributors? Does literary translation become cultural translation as you write between an Indigenous linguistic world (Mapudungun) and a colonial linguistic world (Spanish)? And what do the Mapudungun terms left untranslated in all five texts signal about the limits of linguistic colonization?
LA: Translating an Indigenous world into a colonial one is a monumental task; it’s a task we’ve been carrying out since long before academics spoke of decolonization. First, we reencounter ourselves (which is akin to decolonizing ourselves). A journey back to the origin implies, among other things, reexamining our cultural history and continuing to ask ourselves which objects, existences, concepts were imposed on our people and which ones were welcomed through exchange with others.
It also implies showing “deep” (borrowing Elicura Chihuailaf’s term for those challenged by their own humanism) Argentina and Chile our open wound: the genocide that neither the official history nor those enriched by the spoils have taken responsibility for, adding insult to injury by continuing to conceal it to this day.
Because, what dialogue between equals, which is also a form of translation, can prosper between peoples and cultures when what needs to be discussed is not discussed?
Our way of seeing the world is of the Southern hemisphere, a world experienced and named from this place, which is the beginning of our world. Knowledge of this world was subtitled, censored, and substituted by another knowledge, coming from the Northern hemisphere, foreign to this territory. That is how I express it in the essay you reference, “The Silenced Language.”
In Mapudungun, the language of the earth, lies our knowledge, the Mapuche kimün. The kuifi kimün and the we kimün, the ancient knowledge and the new knowledge. We, as writers, contribute to the latter when we risk using signifiers from our contemporaneity, when we redefine concepts.
There is no refusal to translate what we write in Spanish into Mapudungun; many Mapuche writers carry the tremendous wound of not knowing our maternal/paternal language because we were denied that inheritance. Though we also are part of a people that makes great efforts to revitalize it.
In the pieces we feature in this issue, the circumstances of translation differ in relation, I believe, to authorial style, to the dominion one has or acquires of Mapudungun, to the decisions taken in one’s writing trajectory.
It’s interesting to stop and dwell on the writing in Spanish, or its translation into English: when a word or phrase in Mapudungun appears, it’s due to the difficulty or complexity of its translation, and to the quite probable need for cultural translation. In general, the word or phrase in Mapudungun precedes an essayed approximation that is comprehensible to the Western world, but it is merely that: an approximation.
In some texts, the author’s own knowledge of the Mapuche world is explicitly stated. The result is poetic, and at the same time a wink to those of us who recognize what it references.
Some cultural Mapuche concepts have been widely disseminated for years, among our people and others, such as the Itxofill mogen, the diversity of existences, which you’ll also find in these texts.
ET: What you said about poetry and untranslatable concepts leads me to understand the selected texts as conceptual poems. Regarding concepts, they share another way of understanding the world and correcting history. Regarding poetry, they share the possibility of inhabiting another world, that of mystery, that of what cannot be understood but can be poeticized and mythologized. Why are the worlds of poetry and philosophy woven together? How are writers transformed by their writings, and how do they seek to transform readers? How does poetry, the sensibility that teaches you to listen and respect silence and mystery, help you live?
LA: We write from an “us,” as part of a people, and we write as contemporaries to humanity.
On the journey back to the origin, we recover, from diverse sources, some of the ancient knowledge (much, perhaps, will remain unknowable). We listen to the recent memories that still circulate through orality. And we live the current processes of resistance against the advancement over our territories. Carrying this burden and treasure, we write. Risking the criticism of the “purists” among our people, as machi Pinda puts it.
There’s a joint attempt to understand why we don’t know what we should know, why we’re sick, why we have to explain our existence today. Both we and the others are our readers. We transform as we write, because ours is a writing tied to identity, and our personal identity processes are recorded in our works.
And, especially, texts with “great foresight,” like those we selected for this issue, intend to transform the reader, to make the reader aware of us, of our historical and cultural continuity.
No silence or mystery, at least in these texts, cannot be elucidated through an approach toward learning about our culture. And our narratives are not myths or legends—they are “gutxam” stories that surge in conversation, testimonies of what’s lived.
I find that the Mapuche kimün is bound to ancient Western philosophy, the one considered mother of all the sciences. Because there is a relationship and interdependence between Knowledge of Oneself, Health, Spirituality, Coexistence with All Beings, Respect for the Forces of Nature.
I hope our writings will be lawen, will help heal our wound.
ET: How is the Mapuche kimün treasure protected yet shared?
LA: From the Puel side of the state—in other words, from Argentina—there is no safeguard of the Mapuche kimün insofar as the elderly carriers of knowledge are unprotected. Perhaps recognition accompanied by financial aid would permit the kimche or sages to devote themselves to the task of cultural transmission in contemporary contexts.
Knowledge currently circulates within families and expands its circle through spiritual ceremonies such as Gillatun or Kamarikum. Participation in said ceremonies is not open—one must be invited. This is a safeguard to protect the spiritual health of the ceremony owners.
I believe that human beings exist as part of the web of nature, and that this important lesson has already been imparted not just by the Mapuche people, but by all surviving Indigenous peoples.
ET: What forms of resistance prevent cultural appropriation?
LA: The greatest cultural resistance is to defend our continued subsistence off our territories, in the places of quotidian coexistence with the sacred, with the Forces of Nature. The roads between the country and the city are vessels of communication that we continue traversing, connecting one space with the other.
ET: Linguistic hybridization has been instrumentalized by “indigenismo”1 to reproduce colonial paradigms. How does Mapuche writing subvert this process?
LA: Writing in Indigenous languages, adopting the Western grapheme, publishing bilingual texts in the maternal/paternal language and in the imposed language are all revolutionary ways of practicing our contemporaneity, and I refer here to the actions of writers from the various Indigenous peoples of Abya Yala.
The molds that museums and official historical discourse propose for us are so unfit that they presume us dead.
Our historicity, which gathers ancestral and recent memories, our presence in cities, our denunciation of the silencing of our language, the processes of Mapudungun revitalization that we have embarked on; all this is the content we, the Mapuche, write about from who we are. And it is not that we set out to break stereotypes, it is that life always overflows.
ET: In “Letters Drawn from Foye Bark,” Adriana Paredes Pinda mentions that “Poetry has ngen.” She defines ngen as “the principle (master/mistress) of self-balance and self-preservation, which allows for all things to exist.” How does ngen possess poetry or, more broadly, how do such concepts and their spiritual connotations influence writers, and how does their writing, in turn, alter the ways of understanding and being in the world of its readers? Is poetry a faith—faith that words have souls, souls who protect life?
LA: Sometimes, only a few times, while immersed in the writing process, I enter a trance state—it is a depth I reach by gathering written words in a phrase, grasping an idea, an emotion, a feeling.
Then, I can think there is something new, something that can change the readers, that they won’t emerge immune.
All of us for whom words are the material of art have faith in the soul of language.
I think metaphorically about the souls of written words, but as I have participated in readings in which writers read their texts aloud in their Indigenous languages, I have listened to the souls of their languages in those small gusts, in the breath that emits those words, in the cadence and rhythm of their saying. The sounds of the soul in the language of each poet.
The texts gathered here share a faith, above all, in the heard language, the words pronounced by the beloved ancestors that are now the material of writing.
In Recado confidencial a los chilenos (Message to Chileans), Elicura Chihuailaf writes, “el impulso constante de la Palabra intentando asir lo hasta ahora innombrado” (the Word’s constant impulse to grasp what is to this day unnamed). Faith in Kallfü or Blue, which the poet insists on in the text selected for this issue, as in all his creations, supplies that word with a sacredness that helps grasp the unnamable.
Adriana Paredes Pinda’s disquieting text admits us into a dimension in which she receives a dream name and the mandate to write. In the context of that dimension, she risks writing this statement: “Poetry has ngen, song has ngen, Mapuche writing has ngen (…) And it has ngen because it is writing with spirit.”
“I write for the children who had the Mapudungun silenced in their mouths in civilizing, evangelical schools,” I denounced with faith while reading in silence and out loud, from my limited condition as a human being because I’m not ñamko nor nawuel, sent from another dimension to help my people.
“I heard it, because of that I became knowledgeable.” Daniela Catrileo rescues these words by Kallfün when she stresses the names of the Mapuche authors previously considered “informants” by social scientists who stripped their knowledge of authorship.
“I remember out loud the names / of the places where my grandparents lived,” beautiful names whose sonority is prompted by Jaime Huenún when he evokes his grandmother’s sayings and says to himself, “I must go.”
1. Indigenismo is a cyclical movement that seeks to constitute a heterogenous yet singular Latin American canon. Indigenous peoples are assimilated as component and foundation of a national and continental identity, thus reflecting cultural heterogeneity while reproducing colonial paradigms. ↩
Copyright © 2023 by Elisa Taber and Liliana Ancalao. Translation © 2023 by Elisa Taber. All rights reserved.