Borders of Language: Albalucía Ángel between Literature and Mysticism
Reading and becoming acquainted with the work of Albalucía Ángel has been one of those rare, almost mystical experiences that, in recent years, have led me on a journey of transformation and renewal in my personal and literary life. When we come face to face with her words, we discover that the world is much more than a simple representation of ideas and objects, that each word we choose and use in reference to something has a meaning beyond any univocal, diaphanous sense. There is something in Albalucía’s novels that constantly reminds us that all writing carries with it an inescapable aesthetic and political commitment, as the very act of writing is in itself a subversive stand against the reality we live in. Her pursuit of a simpler, more straightforward writing, lacking the flourishes that render it weighty and complex, has led part of her work in recent decades to take paths approaching what we think of as “the mystic,” without getting lost in the religious and political dogmatisms and sectarianisms of the moment.
I also owe her a large measure of my training as a reader; it is not easy to get to grips with her complex, experimental style, which challenges the best-versed and most experienced reader, making us doubt in our own comprehension, leading us to constantly leap forward and then turn back through her pages so as to pick up the thread of hidden meaning, as if playing a children’s game.
It is this play with language, with the forms that emerge from its content, that makes her writing something other than a formula to be unceasingly repeated, as in the case of some other writers. Her dedication to and work with the word are materialized in her subtle-yet-forceful images and senses, which evince a strong feminine consciousness, speaking to us from the place of a Latin American woman—and writer—ensconced in the twenty-first century.
Since her childhood, she has questioned and distanced herself from her assigned place, almost religiously, as a woman in a patriarchal society that expected her words to be measured and cautious. With a great capacity for observation and listening, a modern consciousness in the strictest sense of the word, she has always been attentive to even the softest whispers she has perceived in history, to the voice of those most unfavored by circumstance and power, so as to restore their place as subjects in a society that seeks with ever greater determination to silence them.
A forgotten matriarch of Colombian letters, a staunch critic of the contemporary world, an invincible, galactic writer who makes her nest in silence, an heir to Woolf, Lispector, Poniatowska, Garro, Bombal, Pizarnik, and many women writers more, Albalucía Ángel has taken ownership of her own courage and of her own vision of the world; for her, writing is an act of life, with no preconceived script to follow.
Writing is, for her, a vital exercise. Over the years, she has perfected it to the point of skirting the bounds of what we know as mystical experience, where her own being has taken on new names and new ways of speaking to us from another space—one closer but inaccessible to reason, as if it were necessary in these times to inhabit these other spaces, outside those of academia and science, in order to make resonate the deepest part of her thought: “Only a hazy image at the start, of something coming in through the pores, harangues me in dreams and leaves me beclouded at sunrise [...]. It grasps me by the neck and forces me to weave, to weave, to keep weaving… my threads get tangled, time falls into the rhythm of my heartbeat: do you see the picture…?”1
In the end, in spite of everything, with no certainties and only allusions, as Syrian poet Adonis would say, we can see the picture projected by her words, woven stitch by stitch like an Eastern tapestry, infinitely reproducing a mantra that seeks to echo perennially in this world.
Her work—as yet unfinished—seems to have passed through two moments over time: moments at which her writing responded differently to how she “implants” in her soul, as she likes to say, how she inserts into her mind the circumstances that surround her. The divide between these moments is no mutation or change in consciousness, modifying her style or the way she tells stories. Nor is it a change in the subjects or motives behind her writing; aspects such as violence, men, language, literary experimentation, and the search for a uniquely Latin American feminine narrative continue to be present in her work. Rather, this turn of the pen—a mystical shift, perhaps—seems derived from the recovery of a pristine tone that has dwelled within her since her first novels, in an act of gnosis between life and writing that allowed her to fall back into her rhythm, her transcendental memory, so as to deal with language in the most material, artificial sense possible.
After finishing Las andariegas [The rambling women], Albalucía Ángel plotted a new purpose in her writing: the purpose of uncovering the voices of all those Latin American women writers, still unknown to critics, who had lived in silence for so many years. Listening to each of them, she heard the repetition of an echo, something like a mantra: the phrase I come from silence. And silence would indeed be the mantra that would lead her to take distance from the spoken word for almost two years, on a spiritual and philosophical search for Ātman—Higher Essence, as it is known in the Vedanta and Zen traditions, in which she sought to recover what had been lost in the illusions of the latter-day civilized world through the teachings of the integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassa, The Mother.
In her retreat and meditation, Albalucía Ángel found within her writing a way to free herself, little by little, from all the weight that had settled over her through the years. Instead of doing so cathartically, she sought to submit her words to the most minimal units of sounds and letters, as if they were bricks falling from a crumbling wall of discourse, only to start building from the ground up a discourse that refused to transcend beyond what is possible, or not to speak. It is such that, under the name “Arathía-Maitreya,” an aspect reemerges in her that is at once new and old: a past memory that seeks to recall a before-time, one we forget with the development of our consciousness, incarnated in a writing that precedes all sense and retains at its edges the experience of the ineffable and unrepresentable.
In this sense, Los cuadernos de Arathía Maitreya [The notebooks of Arathía Maitreya] (1984-2002)2 are a literary testament to her long contemporary spiritual and philosophical journey. Here, Albalucía engages in constant dialogue with a long literary and mystical tradition she has known well since her youth. In the early notebooks, she makes constant reference to Saint Teresa of Ávila and The Interior Castle, in a sort of literary and philosophical debate on the use of language and its own limits, along with many reflections on the word’s ability to transmit the ineffable nature of mystical experience. For her, Saint Teresa’s writing somehow illuminates her own passage through life, and this condition—revealing what cannot be revealed by the poetic word—is what allows her to proceed down the path of silence and meditation on which she directly confronts the very impossibility of the human condition.
Minimalism, paradox, tautology, fragmentarism, neologisms, nonsense, contradiction, and the constant use of images, often found as discursive strategies in the mystical writings of many cultures3, are used in exemplary form in the notebooks of Albalucía Ángel. These particular uses of language allow her to establish a direct confrontation between her thoughts and feelings, thereby unveiling a certain poetic radicality expressed in her words. The experimentality that initially marked her style remains intact: mystical writing, like poetic writing, implies a search for a novel way of telling things, through nontraditional narrative forms able to transmit some measure of the subjective experience the writer is forced to confront with the loss of meaning in its dispossession of the word.
And as her consciousness begins to skirt the borders of language, before reaching that point of the unexpressive and the unthinkable, reading the Cuadernos leads us toward a path of no return—a path that implicates us, beyond all possible comfort or safety, bringing us face to face with our own culture and our own precepts, making us understand that other logics exist in the world, other ways of seeing and feeling that inhabit our universe, even while some stand in contradiction to others.
Human experience is lived as tales and stories that come to life in the words that represent them, and each one of these words bears more truth in what it keeps silent than in what it says out loud. Albalucía’s stories in her notebooks are the literary materialization of her feelings and thoughts, seeking to go beyond all possible fictionalization, relying ever less on narrative as a connecting stitch between her words to carry us to the threshold of the mystery they conceal, emptying the senses so as to leave us on the edge of the precipice, from where we might contemplate that which cannot be named.
Reading part of Albalucía Ángel’s work as contemporary mystical literature allows us to set the coordinates plotted by her writing in this process of spiritual and literary rebirth. It helps us to understand that the words we are reading are not pure or absolute in their complete meaning; rather, they bear on their backs the frameworks of a culture, of a language that cracks little by little as they appear before us, in search of shelter. While Albalucía uses these words to describe her spiritual footsteps and her way of perceiving and feeling the world, they grow all the more inhospitable and distant. But in this radical distance, brimming with new metaphors and stories, a renewed narrative emerges, leaving its mark on her passage as a writer—a narrative in which, unintentionally, we hear the echoes of the literary universe that first laid the groundwork for what would become her path.
Refusing to preach and attempting to faithfully recount what she feels and sees, as the mystic and the poet do, is precisely the risk Albalucía takes in daring to speak differently. This is a complex and “galactic” risk, as she calls it, fearlessly sacrificing the very materiality of the word. In more fitting terms, as she would say, it is “how to grab a raging bull, spitting fire left and right, by the horns.”
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
1 From an interview with Albalucía Ángel, conducted during the pandemic in 2020 as part of the first university course dedicated exclusively to the author, directed by writer Alejandra Jaramillo at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Unpublished.
2 Some transcriptions from these notebooks can be found at the following blog: http://arathaia.blogspot.com/p/blog-page_3.html.
3 Felipe Cussen, “Un ensayo sobre mística y poesía contemporánea”, Forma: revista d’estudis comparatius. Art, literatura, pensament 4 (2011): 17.
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.
Manuel Alejandro Briceño Cifuentes (Bogotá, 1987) is a psychologist, editor, and literary scholar. Since 2014, he has worked as coordinator and editorial assistant of the journal Desde el Jardín de Freud, the annual publication of the School of Studies in Psychoanalysis and Culture of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. He is co-founder of the collective E-laboratorio, an experimental laboratory of art and psychoanalysis that seeks to establish an academic space for dialogue between art forms and psychoanalytic discourse. He is currently researching the circulation and reading of the complete published and unpublished works of Albalucía Ángel.
In our seventeenth issue, we highlight the work of groundbreaking Colombian writer Albalucía Ángel, alongside Octavio Paz, a towering figure of Mexican letters and the second Latin American winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. We also feature Peruvian poet Eduardo Chirinos, a series of photo portraits of writers in the pandemic, a selection of new translations seeking publisher, plus writing in the Murui, Quechua, and Tseltal lenguages in our ongoing Indigenous Literature section.