"The Blue World": A Conversation between Sergio Rodríguez Saavedra and Elicura Chihuailaf
Living in Kechurewe, in Chile’s Andean south, and savoring the wind and rain of the mountains as they fiercely thrash his blue house, Elicura Chihuailaf (Cunco, 1952) carries out the everyday activities of any man of his town and then writes poems in Mapuche. His unique work has deep roots in the culture of his ancestors, whose orality now holds a place of prestige in the ever-changing field of Chilean poetry. Our conversation, which aims to present something of the poet’s cosmovision, starts there:
Sergio Rodríguez: Elicura, since the 1970s, in the journal Poesía Diaria and publications like El invierno y su imagen [The winter and its image] (self-published, 1977), poetry stamped as “ethnocultural,” specifically Mapuche poetry, has emerged as a definitive poetic form within Chilean literature. How conscious were you in those years of the importance of your early work?
Elicura Chihuailaf: El invierno y su imagen was a pamphlet my friends put together, printed using a system called “offset” on stapled-together Roneo papers. I think what emerged back them was more oralitura than literatura: our writing alongside the orality of our elders (of their memory, our survival); that is, the stamp of cultural diversity. If we remember the native origin of the Greek prefix “ethno,” we have to refer in general terms to Mapuche “ethnoculture” along with the “ethnoculture” of the Chileans, French, Americans, Germans, Spanish, English, Chinese, etc., don’t you think?, because the meaning of the word “ethno” is “people.”
SR: And your work in particular?
EC: I was conscious of its close-range importance, yes, but always with doubts, I think, in terms of its collective importance (because I was already in exile in the city). I think about it in relation to the times of the dictatorship when my work began to spread and I wasn’t worried about publishing, since books were foreign to me (there were no books by Mapuche authors). Publishing my work was a matter of chance. Being honest, I can say that I began expressing myself through writing mostly as a form of catharsis, in my melancholy while watching the intense autumn, that exterior-interior, through the windows of what was then the Liceo de Hombres No. 1 boarding school in Temuco. Now it’s the Liceo Pablo Neruda, and that’s where I studied the poet.
SR: Does your poetry originate purely within your own culture, or does it also make use of other references? If so, which?
EC: I think that every (poetic) word spoken and/or written, regardless of its origin or which culture it belongs to, emerges from and resides in the soul of a people, and, for this reason, it echoes the voice of its ancestors. My words have their origin in the Mapuche vision of the world, which is my vision: the orality of the songs (poems), stories, and advice of my grandparents, parents, aunties and uncles, which is then widened with the worldview of deep chilenidad, Chilean-ness, which also speaks within me, in my spirit and in my heart, through its orality and its writing.
Within the Chilean written word, which came to me through school, there is also knowledge of the other cultures of the world, which I make use of in poetic terms when reading or reciting “patriotic” poems, mostly: poems I had to learn as an obligatory task I had no choice but to complete. I don’t remember the names of those first poets. Later, over the course of my public education, others emerged. In any case, Sergio, I’d say that my most important references within the so-called literature of otherness were and are generally fiction writers, Chilean or otherwise: Nicomedes Guzmán, Manuel Rojas, María Luisa Bombal, González Vera, Pedro Prado, Olegario Lazo, Blest Gana, José Eustaquio Rivera, Arguedas, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Italo Calvino, Balzac, Gorky, Dostoievsky, etc. I read the prose of Gabriela Mistral, Neruda, Huidobro, and De Rokha, among others.
SR: Do you think Mapuche poetry functions as a current within Chilean poetry, like the anti-poetry of Nicanor Parra?
EC: As I said before, although nothing is absolute, I think one current clearly belongs to diverse mapuchidad, Mapuche-ness, and another belongs to deep, and also diverse, chilenidad, nourished by various elements from Mapuche and other native cultures of this country now known as Chile, and from other elements of universal culture.
SR: If the symbolism expressed in your work Sueños azules y contrasueños [Blue dreams and counter-dreams] has been integrated into cultural consciousness, it’s no less true that this symbolism is a product of the spoken word, a subject that you have frequently discussed and defended. What do you mean by “Mapuche orality”?
EC: I mean the constant conversation that emerges from the book of nature, from all living beings: flowers, grass, plants, trees, forests, rivers, lakes, insects, fish, birds, animals, human beings; and also from apparently inanimate beings like stones, clouds, rain, mountains, volcanoes. All being and feeling themselves part of the visible and invisible fabric of the earth and the universe, all related and in conversation with the sun, the moon, and the stars.
It is the universe and its dreams that breathe life into our vision of the world, and that are manifested in gvtramkan (conversation), an art expressed in the ability to learn to listen, which is the hardest thing, they tell us; in epew (stories); in konew (prophecies); in gvlam (advice).
Orality is the memory that reminds us of the Kvme Mogen (Good Life) and asks us: Pewmaymi? Pewmatuymi? (Did you dream? What did you dream?).
SR: Do these sources keep you in the land of your ancestors? Could you give us a description of your creative space?
EC: Yes, of course. Kechurewe is my tuwvn, the place where I was born and grew up, where my kvpan was and is, the beautiful brownness of my family lineage, and the kvpalme, the community that encompasses my home and with which we interact today, tomorrow, and always. This is my place, because nobody chooses to be born with a certain skin color, nobody chooses their place or their vision of the world, but they tell us we must know the place in order to love it and to love each other, to respect it and to respect each other, and thereby to value otherness as well. That is the task and that is the only path, with all its footprints and shortcuts.
The blue house where I was born and grew up sits on a hill, surrounded by trees and next to an ancient forest inhabited by a wide range of insects, birds, little animals, mushrooms, vines, and flowers. In my poem-story Kallfv Pewma mew (Blue dream) I say:
At night we hear songs, stories, and prophecies around the fire breathing the aroma of bread baked by my grandma, my mother or Auntie María, while my father and my grandpa Lonko (chief of the community) watch with attention and respect. I speak of the memories of my childhood and not of an idyllic society. There, I think, I learned what poetry was; the glory of daily life, but above all its details, the flickering of the fire, the eyes, the hands.
Sitting on my grandma’s knee, I heard the first stories of the trees and the stones that talked among themselves and with the animals and with the people. Nothing more, she would tell me, you must learn to read their signs and to make out their sounds, which sometimes hide in the wind.
SR: Speaking with regards to the last National Prize for Literature, Raúl Zurita said that to recognize your poetry is also “an act of reparation that opens, once and for all, a true conversation” about the debt that Chile owes to the Mapuche people. Do you believe that Chilean society is in debt to your people?
EC: In the first place, I believe the deep Chilean people is in debt to itself, because to this day it has refused to truly free itself from the colonialism imposed upon it by a superficial, alienated sector of Chilean society (a few families who took ownership of State power, as we well know). This colonialism requires ideological alignment through unambiguous concepts, such as “legality,” which was used to simulate a legitimacy that should have been destroyed with the so-called “Pacification of Araucania,” their euphemism for the invasion of our Mapuche lands. Its concept of development goes against nature, not alongside nature; its concept of health objectifies human beings by excluding the importance of the spirit; its information and education privilege beautiful whiteness and despise beautiful brownness.
That’s the source of the debt that the deep Chilean people owe to the native peoples of these lands in general, and to we Mapuches in particular: its lack of identity, that is, its lack of affection for its own beautiful brownness, a path toward recognition that has progressed far too slowly given the urgency of the times. Those who bear the absolute debt for the military invasion of our territory in the second half of the nineteenth century are the families that continue to flaunt their power here and that now contaminate and despoil nature, water, forests, and minerals that belong to all native and Chilean people.
Raúl, like Mistral, Neruda, Huidobro, and De Rokha, like Violeta Parra and Victor Jara, is ahead of his times, and I think he’s right: the National Prize for Literature could be a shining window, perhaps even a door, for a true dialogue between our peoples.
SR: Do you believe the Mapuche word will be able to integrate itself into Chilean society, or into the word in general? Do you see it as being in a crisis due to changes in technology?
EC: I don’t know if it will be integrated, I think that’s more of a question for Chilean society. In any case, we are interested in a conversation about diversity, not integration. But still, I must say I see a growing interest in knowledge about Mapuche culture and attempts at Mapuche recognition developing within Chilean society.
I think conceptual questions are inescapable today, because the word has been in a crisis since long before recent changes in technology and media. Let’s think only of the concept of “democracy”: does this mean political participation or dictatorship by the groups that hold economic power?
SR: And your own word, toward which skies does it fly?
EC: Toward the knowledge and revindication of nature.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Elicura Chihuailaf is a definitive voice of contemporary Mapuche poetry. He writes in both Mapuzugun and Spanish, and he has translated works by other poets, such as Pablo Neruda, into Mapuzugun. His published works include En el país de la memoria (1988), El invierno, su imagen y otros poemas azules (1991), and De sueños azules y contrasueños (1995), Recado confidencial a los chilenos (1999), Kallfv (2006), A orillas de un sueño azul (2010), La vida es una nube azul (2019), and El azul del tiempo que nos sueña (2020). In 2020, he was awarded the National Literature Prize of Chile, becoming the first Mapuche writer to receive this honor. He has been referred to as the lonko, or headman, of present-day Mapuche poetry.
Sergio Rodríguez Saavedra (Santiago de Chile, 1963) is a professor, poet, and literary critic. He belongs to a generation that he has defined himself as "the blacked-out generation," since its members had to take on, in their youth, the consequences of the "cultural blackout" that their country suffered. He is a member of the Writers' Society of Chile and the International Honor Committee of the Frans Masereel Foundation (Belgium). He has published the verse collections Suscrito en la niebla [Signed in the fog] (1995), Ciudad poniente [Setting city] (2000), Memorial del confín de la tierra [Memorial to the edge of the earth] (2003), Tractatus y mariposa [Tractatus and butterfly] (2006), Militancia personal [Personal militancy] (2008), Centenario [Centenary] (2011), Ejercicios para encender el paso de los días [Exercises to ignite the passing of the days] (2014), and Patria negra, patria roja [Black homeland, red homeland] (2016). They have earned him various awards in his country, whose poetry continues to stand out for its quality, richness, and willingness to take risks. He has served as subdirector of the journal Rayentrú, reviews editor of the newspaper Carajo, and director of the editorial project Santiago Inédito. He has collaborated with the journal Pluma y pincel, the supplement Literatura & Libros and the weekly El Siglo.