Saturday, June 13, 2009

Whose Literature is it Anyway?

The take-away from a panel on Literature and the Left and Right turns in Latin America was that testimony is out; gone are the articulate first-person narratives of key figures that made us understand in an intimate way moments in the national liberation movements. I think of Omar Cabezas in Nicaragua, unforgettable Mario Payeras in Guatemala, Nidia Diaz, Ana Maria Guadalupe, and the story of Radio Venceremos in El Salvador.

“The testimonial mode is out, and the neo-liberalism T.V. mode is in, “ said Marc Zimmerman. That must be at least partly true, given the appearance of some of Brazil’s famous telenovelas which include memory of the military dictatorship and torture as themes amid romance and usual format (more about memory marketing later).

Literature in Latin America has long been associated with political and social commitment, represented by the left. But as the very clear and funny Ileana Rodriguez showed in words and pictures, the return of the left in Nicaragua, for instance, can too easily be seen as a joke, with Ortega the punch line. Alliances between writers and “revolutionaries” cannot now be assumed. No more Gabo-Fidel.

When Mario Benedetti died recently, it felt as if an era were passing. At the panel it was easy to understand why when Jon P. Beasley-Murray, younger and more brusque than Zimmerman, said when he heard the Benedetti news his reaction was surprise. “I thought he was already dead,” he said. Tellingly, Beasley-Murray’s presentation was titled, “Literature at the Margins.”
Does commitment and engagement for revolutionary change disappear for the writer now that the shooting wars are over? If the left is in electoral power here and there (Let’s leave aside “what the Left is” for the moment), does that mean the writer no longer feels a compulsion to expose hypocrisy and the human condition?

And testimony is some of the most riveting literature on earth -- just ask the protagonist of the haunting Senselessness by Honduran novelist (in exile) Horacio Castellanos Moya. Or ask the tens of thousands of students first exposed to the realities of Central America in I, Rigoberta Menchu. It’s not a fashion genre.

A lot of us have stayed up nights reading truth reports (or our own interviews) from Argentina, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, as unable to put down the troubling stories as we would be unable to close a page-turner of a novel. The fact that they are first person and non-fiction grabs us in a way all its own. Now that fear is dispersing in certain corners like fog in the sunlight, it’s arguable new and even more crystal testimony is forthcoming, written by witnesses themselves, or with collaborator writers cursed with commitment.

The LASA “Left Turns” panel might have been happening on a different planet from another on modern Quechua and Maya poetry. I cannot speak to Quechua, but two of the most prominent Guatemalan Maya poets, the Kakchiquel Calixta Gabriel Xiquin, from Poaquil, Chimaltenango, and Humberto Ak’abal, who is Ki'che from Momostenango, have been my friends for more than 20 years; their poetry, and their lives, have been and continue to be testimonial, committed, and engaged. Panel chair and novelist Arturo Arias, a former LASA president, recognized their “revolutionary” work, and that of memoirist Victor Montejo, Jacalteco Maya. One presenter from the United States delivered an entire paper on Calixta’s poetry.

When talking about “the literature of Latin America” it’s just dangerous and embarrassing to open the umbrella only half way.