Liliana Ancalao: "There was so much crying, and a lot of laughter, too": A Conversation with Melisa Stocco
Liliana Ancalao answers the telephone in Comodoro Rivadavia, a coastal city in the province of Chubut, in the Patagonian region of Argentina. For Mapuche people, the name for the region that includes Comodoro Rivadavia is Puel Mapu, meaning “land of the east,” because it borders the eastern edge of the Andes, a chain of mountains that served historically not as a border or limit, but as a birdge of exchange, a nexus, for diverse communities and inhabitants of the ancestral land called Wallmapu.
The welcoming voice on the other end of the line and the resulting conversation are as warm as the reception I enjoyed one sunny August day in 2016 at Liliana’s house in the Juan XXIII neighborhood after attending a workshop on Mapuche poetry that she had offered to the people of Comodoro. This dedication to spreading culture and collective reflection is one of the pillars of Liliana Ancalao’s work, along with her poetry and essay writing, which themselves form a point of reference in Mapuche intellectual and literary life in Puel Mapu.
Melisa Stocco: To begin with, would you tell us about the context of how you became interested in reading and writing poetry, and how that activity has developed across your life?
Liliana Ancalao: It’s a context that could be call culturally mixed because I don’t have parents who concerned themselves with poetry as a discourse or practice, but I did have a mother amazed by nature, animals, and plants, and a father with nostalgia for the countryside. They came from Cushamen and Fiatimen, spaces occupied by their families after the füta winka malon, the Conquest of the Desert, lands granted by Julio Argentino Roca around 1902 during his second presidency. Even as these lands were ceded, the families situated on them were growing and the space became insufficient to feed everyone, which resulted in migration to cities. In my case, I went to a primary school in Diadema Argentina, where they gave us poems to memorize, which were traditional poems, with rhyme, and the teachers chose good texts. I really enjoyed that activity, I liked writing, and I did it well. Moreover, there was a library where I began to find books. Then my father bought us Corazón, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and a twenty-five volume collection called The World of Children, that included universal stories, Greek mythology, biblical stories, and also stories of the indigenous Yaqui. It was a collection that I loved to read. It was the literature of my youth. In adolescence my brother arrived with rock. My parents danced tango. We had a record player at home, and my father listened to the payadores, wherein poetry is tied to song, to rhythms, to meter. And when Argentine rock arrived, the music of León Gieco and Sui Generis, for example, I understood that it was possible to express in words that nostalgia and that amazement that I inherited from my parents. That’s the mixed context through which poetry entered my life. Later, in adolescence, I wrote love poems. I was in high school during the military junta, in a religious school where they denied us the knowledge of what was happening in Argentina. The school was a bubble. Later still, in university, I chose literary studies precisely because I liked to read and write.
In the 80’s, with the advent of democracy in Argentina, a group appeared in Comodoro Rivadavia called Centro Creativo Sur (“Southern Creative Center”), where there were young musicians and poets. In that time, I went to my first poetry gathering. In university I met other writers, and we put together a poetry exhibition that we were really pleased with, and we also organized writing workshops that later would become formalized institutionally.
MS: What’s the role of your people’s history in your poetics?
LA: From the very first poems that I read in public and showed to other people, which is really the start of publishing, I would write about themes that linked me to my origin. They came from that sentiment, from that core, which was very emotional because I inevitably lacked knowledge. I knew that my grandparents who lived in the countryside were Mapuche, so [I knew] my parents were Mapuche, and me, too, though I didn’t know the language, the religion, the way of seeing the world, any of it. I always speak of that stage as one of memorylessness. Of course I wrote regardless, but with a good amount of fear of distortion, because I’d also begun to gain a critical awareness of other artists who proclaimed their Mapuche origins, though I couldn’t discern anything Mapuche in what they were saying or expressing. I was afraid of falling into that, too, so I kept writing but also studied and learned at the same time. The year 1992 was especially important, relevant, and not only for me, but also for everyone of Mapuche origin. It was then that I began to seek knowledge from the oldest Mapuche, out in the countryside. Unfortunately my grandmother died without me being able to gather that treasure which had been so near to me. In 1994 we created the Ñankulawen community in Comodoro Rivadavia with Mapuches who had ended up here like my parents: in search of work. My process of gaining knowledge accelerated on account of working with the community. As a group we sought someone to teach us Mapuzungun, we supported one another deeply, [and] we went through a period of seclusion, in which we needed a lot of intimacy to be able to discuss what had happened to us, how we’d lived this identity. There was so much crying, and a lot of laughter, too. That’s why the community is called “Ñamkulawen,” which is a healing plant.
Soon after I attended my first camaruco (a sacred Tehuelche ceremony), which was a second birth for me, and I began to live what I had heard in one form or another and knew to exist, to live and practice the ritual, the ceremonies. My second book, Mujeres a la intemperie, emerged from those experiences. In my first book, Tejido con lana cruda, which is divided into three parts, I “safeguard” the poems most tied to my identity in the third section, those in which I knew with some degree of certainty was appearing the knowledge that I wanted to recover.
MS: Which poets have influenced you?
LA: Elicura Chihuailaf was the first Mapuche poet I read. My sister had given me his book
Invierno, su imagen y otros poemas azules as a gift. His poetry and his world, his mode of living his identity is what I took away, being so inspiring and moving. Sometimes when I’m reading a work by Elicura I feel a sense of something interior settling in, a spiritual question that emanates from his writing.
I like Jaime Huenún’s poetry, the dazzling and powerful images of his writing.
I like the symbolism of Bernardo Colipán, and the history in Lienlaf.
I like many Patagonian poets. They’re tied to the Peces del Desierto (“Fish of the Desert”) collective. Almost all of them have been published there.
Furthermore, I should mention by name Eduardo Galeano, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Silvio Rodríguez, and the Patagonian troubadours. My poetry seems always tied to music (in fact I’m married to a musician), so I also admire the poetry of the singers of the region. They’re important contemporary references and friends. We’re more or less a mass of people from distinct cultural spaces who’ve found one another, tied together by an aesthetic question. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to them live at recitals and on shared stages, as well as in my kitchen. It’s a beautiful experience.
MS: What was the importance to you of participating in the Taller de Escritores en Lenguas Indígenas de América (“Workshop for Writers of Indigenous Languages of the Americas”) in 1997 in Temuco?
LA: That workshop was a revelation, a wonder, a discovery of something that I hadn’t even know was going on in the world. To begin with, I encountered the concept of “oralitura” (“oraliterature”/“oralit”), which was totally unknown to me and already being used. There I also had the pleasure of being among indigenous poets, talking a lot and listening a lot, an amazing thing because one begins to discover affinities, symbolic questions that are repeated in communities, and also the possibility to publish in an indigenous language and in the imposed language, because I met poets from the Americas who were publishing in their indigenous language and in French, Portuguese, Spanish. I found it beautiful and an ethical discovery to realize that you can write in your indigenous language without restricting the text to your community, but rather opening it to the possibility of other people reading it and getting it because it’s written in a second language. Friendships also emerged from that workshop which continue to this day. I met up with some of those poets at the 2014 Festival de Medellín (“Medellín Festival”) with books to swap and the opportunity to get to know their communities a little better. It’s an experience that endures. This past April, for example, I met up with Elicura at the Feria del Libro en Buenos Aires (“Buenos Aires Book Fair”), in a space for the promotion of reading. We shared a conversation between poets, reading, talking.
MS: And those experiences gave you the idea to write your own poetry in Mapuzungun?
LA: Yes, they opened in me a new desire: to set myself to translating into Mapuzungun. I’d already been studying the language with Marta Melillán and Ignacia Quintulaf, but, as always, in the time left over after my other activities. With Mujeres a la intemperie, I was able to do the translations into Mapuzungun, having first written the poems in Spanish.
MS: What is your relationship today to Mapuzungun?
LA: For me, learning Mapuzungun has been like learning a second language, [and] under precarious conditions. My relationship with Mapuzungun continues to be loving, and it goes hand in hand with learning the culture and the history of the Mapuche people. I continue to learn, refining my ear in ceremonies led by Mapuzungun-speakers, spending time on the Internet, returning to grammar books and dictionaries. I learn it, too, each time I translate my poetry from Spanish to Mapuzungun. My life’s work is to continue learning it and sharing it. It’s a question of health, of balance, of reclaiming what belongs to us, reclaiming what was so traumatically taken from us. It restores me, healthy and happy.
MS: What thoughts come to mind when you reflect on not having grown up in a context in which your Mapuche roots were visible to you and your generation?
LA: Today I see young Mapuche trying to make their way, and I note impatience, intolerance. And I believe I, too, passed through that stage of anger for what I didn’t have and ought to have had. It has to do with the identitarian stage one is in and with age. Today I have a different, broader perspective, one of not insisting on keeping everything within the community, but to open dialogue, to listen to what people have to say. So I had their attitude, but now I read a lot of history and anthropology. It’s a source of nourishment I’ve always had. My poetry is nourished by my experience, my family memory, the memory that I’m recovering with my work with the Ñamkulawen community, and it’s also nourished by what I read and discover in historical texts. Above all else it occurs when I come across documentation discussing the genocide, the mistreatment, the betrayals, their vision of us as savages, Eurocentric constructions of the indigenous. To this day I look at Europe and note “This country was a colonizer, this one a slaver.” I go there and it expands my perspective and interaction with my environment, with the people with whom I coexist, with whom I work. There’s new documentation appearing all the time; new archives continue to open, and one learns of things that in truth are quite infuriating.
MS: Given that persecution and violence against indigenous people in Argentina have a long history, what can you tell us about current wave of assaults on Mapuche people in Argentina to repress and criminalize them?
LA: This is a personal vision that’s yet to take root in my community, which follows other rhythms. As a group we have other ways of advancing. I see battles and resistance that have a lot to do with the health of the land, with protecting the land from predation. So even if indigenous people lead the way in such resistance, it seems to me it will need to give way to thinking of humanity en masse in so far as such fights have long ceased to concern only indigenous people. Society at large seems to be waiting for indigenous people to lead the way and then get behind them, but it seems to me we all need to be at the forefront of this fight.
In terms of the political landscape, I’m disenchanted. There’s been a global regression, and on questions long ago answered and that I’d genuinely believed would’ve remain resolved. Labor laws won through so much struggle, and laws for the media that had been secured—I thought those victories and triumphs were firmly established, but I guess not. And when one considers that Donald Trump won the election in the US, and that Nazi groups in Germany have reclaimed ground, it creates a deep sense of disillusionment. In Argentina we have businesspeople in power and holding positions of such importance to rural societies as the Minister of Agriculture, for example. This is all a regression. I very much respect democracy; the people chose this government. But I’m also a pessimist. I look around and see people here that are unemployed, young people who are finishing school and can’t find a job.The political economy of this government is offering neither job opportunities now, nor prospects of them for the future.
MS: What projects are you working on right now?
LA: I’m writing my third book of poetry, which I’d like to publish bilingually.
MS: You once said that Mapuche poetry represented one of the voices that can make the world healthier. In what ways do you think that poetry and essays by authors like you and Elicura Chihuailaf can resonate in real-world dilemmas?
LA: For me it has to do with the evolution of the spiritual health of the world, so that those barred from being themselves might one day be themselves, freely and happily. And maybe those who’ve imposed their ways of organizing the world, perhaps out of ignorance, might open their minds and hearts to other ways of existing. I think that art offers a language that can enter more easily and deeply into other discourses. From there reconciliation can emerge, listening to one another, getting to know one another and accept one another, and from every perspective in which there’s something in need of being freed.
Translated by Seth Michelson
Melisa Stocco studies Latin American literature and translation through the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) at the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, Argentina. She focuses on indigenous literatures, particularly those of the Mapuche people of Argentina, and she has written extensively about Mapuche poets including Liliana Ancalao.
Liliana Ancalao (b. 1961) is a member of the Mapuche-Tehuelche Nankulaven community in the Patagonian province of Chubut in southern Argentina. She is a leading Mapuche poet, and her academic investigations of Mapuche culture and indigenous musics are similarly acclaimed.
Seth Michelson is a poet, translator, and professor of poetry at Washington and Lee University. He loves to cook, eat, and travel. He has been awarded the International Book Award in the Poetry category (2013). His recent verse collections include Swimming Through Fire (2017) and Eyes Like Broken Windows (2012). He has translated works including Ghetto by Tamara Kamenszain, The Red Song by Melisa Machado, Poems from the Disaster by Zulema Moret, and roly poly by Victoria Estol. He has been lucky enough to live in many important places in the world, such as Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, Sydney, and Helsinki. He currently lives in Lexington, Virginia, where he teaches at Washington and Lee University. Michelson regularly visits schools, festivals, community centers, and artistic groups throughout the world.
LALT No. 5 features powerful literary voices from across Latin America, including dossiers of essential writers Sergio Pitol and Victoria de Stefano, a special selection of Latin American chronicles curated by Felipe Restrepo Pombo, and a moving collection of trilingual poems by Mapuche poet Liliana Ancalao.