“Within each one of us lives the thought of our elders and our ancestors”: A Conversation with Elicura Chihuailaf
On September 1, 2020, Mapuche poet, author, and activist Elicura Chihuailaf became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile’s National Prize for Literature. This recognition marks an important turning point in Chilean letters as the nation reckons with historical and current injustices against indigenous peoples, manifested in the widespread presence of the Mapuche flag, the wenufoye, during the recent “estallido social”, which culminated in October with the approval of a referendum to write a new Chilean constitution. Meanwhile, in LALT’s home state of Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in 2020 that the Muscogee (Creek) Reservation still exists as a sovereign territory—a surprising gesture in support of self-determination. In short, winds of change for both indigenous poetry and indigenous sovereignty are blowing across this land, from north to south. This fall, I spoke with Elicura about the National Prize, the necessity of conversation, and the place of indigenous literature in Chile and the United States:
Arthur Dixon: First of all, congratulations for the honor of receiving Chile’s 2020 National Prize for Literature, a much-deserved recognition. It was a pleasure for us to share the good news, and we hope this inspires even more readers to read your work, in Chile and elsewhere. How did you find out about the prize? What was it like when you heard the news?
Elicura Chihuailaf: Thank you very much. At the time, I was undergoing a pandemic exile in a beautiful, rural part of Spain, in Asturias, where I had arrived with my partner and my daughter in late May (the lockdown caught us in the middle of literary activities in Barcelona). I received a video call from a contact with the Ministry of Culture who was reading the jury’s decision at that very moment, apparently finishing up, saying, “he has carried the oral tradition and the poetic universe of his people beyond the borders of his own culture…”
It was a very emotional moment. I heard my wife shouting, “Elicura won the National Prize!”, hugging our Kallfvuray. My grandparents, my parents, my brother Carlitos, my daughter Betirayén, they all came to me as if in a vision from the invisible side of the Blue. On its visible side, I thought of each of my daughters, of each of my sons, of my sisters and brother, with whom we immediately got in touch. I was moved by the Dream of my people and of my friends, especially those who had come together in a Collective that was called Nube Azul, “blue cloud,” in support of my candidacy, led by the Universidad de la Frontera in Temuco. All at the same moment.
AD: The current Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo, belongs to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma—the state where we publish Latin American Literature Today—and is the first indigenous poet to hold this prestigious title. Like you, she has had a long and important career, and as in the case of Chile’s National Prize for Literature, she was selected as Poet Laureate not by the government itself but by a group of experts. What do you make of these parallels between the United States and Chile, and of the fact that two indigenous poets have received the highest literary honors in their respective countries?
EC: I think it’s wonderful, and from this conversation I send a warm greeting to Joy. It seems to me to be a sign that humanity is starting, little by little, to wake up, to recover its memory—also, now, through the pandemic—of its belonging to the original, the native, the indigenous, the aboriginal, however you want to call it. Because just as every human being comes first to orality and then to writing, all of us who live in this world come from native peoples / cultures, but only a small number of us still maintain the memory of our belonging to the Earth, to Nature, no more and no less than all living beings and all those that appear inanimate, like stones and minerals. It is the awakening of deep nations and peoples—all over the planet—that are beginning to realize we have to fight against fragmentation, against the violence carried out by a small group of families that have taken hold of power and embedded themselves within it (the superficial United States; the superficial, alienated Chile). Itrofil mogen: the whole without exclusion, the entirety with no fragmentation of life, of all living things. This is what native peoples are telling us, my Mapuche people among them.
AD: You mentioned you recently returned from Spain, where you were participating in a literary event when COVID-19 put a halt to international travel. How do you feel (or, better said, how did you feel) traveling between different countries to share your work? What is it like to be a spokesperson for your community and its literature on a global scale?
EC: This has been my task for more than thirty years, in Abya Yala (América), Europe, Oceania, and Asia. It is a great privilege; it is an immense responsibility.
AD: When I was preparing this interview, I watched a video of a conversation you had with Cristián Warnken on the Chilean TV program La belleza de pensar. In that interview, you refer to the “ritual act of conversation,” which is of great importance for the Mapuche people. In many cases, the COVID-19 pandemic has separated us from those with whom we normally converse: family, friends, etc. How have you been able to keep up the ritual act of conversation in these times of isolation, so far from home? How does literature fit into this conversation?
EC: Conversation is memory, interiority, and exteriority. Within each one of us lives the thought of our elders and our ancestors (our Alter-Natives). When we speak or write, when we think, it is their voice that speaks; all we put in are questions and some small fragment of our experience in the beauty and brevity of life. The circle of silence, contemplation, creation is possible only thanks to this dialogue, which is permanent. When we say Nature—Mapuche means People of the Earth—at the same time, we say infinite: body and spirit, the finite and the infinite. And we converse with a flower, with the clouds, with the wind, with a bird or a butterfly, with the water, with a fish, with the Blue sky, with the stars, with the Moon, with the Sun, with the spirit of things, with the spirit of the house where we find ourselves, etc. We converse in our Dreams and with our Dreams (remembering that everyone dreams, but not everyone remembers their dreams).
AD: Like all the contents of LALT, this interview will be published bilingually, in English and Spanish, and the poems that go with it will be available to read in three languages: Mapuzugun, Spanish, and English. What is it like to see your poems translated to English, and many other languages? What do you make of this journey your verses take from Mapuzugun to Spanish and from Spanish to the other languages of the world?
EC: Forgive me, but my answer will be in Castilian—the Spanish language does not exist. In Spain, there are a variety of languages: Euskara, Catalan, Asturian, Castilian, Galician, among others... Standing before the Universe, all human beings, in all languages, ask ourselves the same questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going? And my traveling poems return in translation to other languages, for which I am infinitely grateful.
AD: More than a writer, you have described yourself as an oralitor: a bearer of Mapuche oral tradition, or a translator of this tradition from orality to the written word. In your opinion, what is and what will be the state of Mapuche oraliture in these times of the massive growth of audiovisual media? What are the possibilities for oral traditions now that the spoken (and recorded) word has caught up to the written word in terms of diffusion and importance?
EC: For all native peoples, the book was a foreign invention. But the majority—including ourselves, the Mapuche—took up the book in order to leave a record of their language, of their worldview and of their history. In the future, there will be so many books that we will probably run out of physical space for them on the Earth. And it’s likely that, from oraliture, we will return to orality, if audiovisual media continue to allow for its recording in ever smaller formats.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
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.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.