Endangered Language & Poetry in Mexico
David Shook—who has reviewed for Three Percent. in the past—is starting a new project to produce a short documentary film and a five-chapbook set of indigenous Mexican poetry. Rather than explain this in my own words, I asked him to write a short introductory post laying out the basis for this venture. As you can see below, you can help make this possible by donating through Kickstarter and at the very bottom I’ve included the trailer for _Kilometer Zero, a covertly filmed documentary about poets in Equatorial Guinea._
I’ve been writing about endangered languages since 2007, when I co-wrote the headnote to World Literature Today’s Endangered Literatures issue, which sought to extend the defense of endangered languages by emphasizing the quality and diversity of their respective literatures. In short: the death of a language means the death of a literature, whether its skeleton is preserved (and rearranged) in the literary ossuaries of the academy or forgotten wholesale.
I began translating Isthmus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán in early 2008, from an anthology of contemporary indigenous poets I picked up on one of my many trips through Oaxaca, where I had spent time in several Zapotec communities. That translation project resulted in a remarkable friendship, first stoked over mezcal-boiled plums in Oaxaca City and further strengthened by a three-week tour of the UK in 2010. Over the course of our relationship I found myself increasingly inspired—not just by Víctor’s poems, which often combine an erotic pastoralism with a sonic delight I aspired and struggled to replicate in my English-language translations, but by his activism, his vision to strengthen the Zapotec language and culture by the act of writing poetry.
His approach to the issue is pragmatic—he has little influence on the political and economic hegemony of Spanish in Mexico, and he can’t dictate educational policy. But he can—and does—inspire Zapotec speakers, especially young ones, to value their literary heritage. Cultural pride is the primary reason that Zapotec parents continue to raise their kids in Zapotec, maintaining its lifeblood.
Víctor and his contemporaries—fellow poets Natalia Toledo and Irma Pineda as well as artists like Demian Flores and Soid Pastrana—have inspired me to make a movie about their work, their literary activism. I’m working with award-winning filmmaker Ben Rodkin, a close friend and regular collaborator whose films resonate with their own visual poetry. We need your support. Please visit our Kickstarter campaign to read the details of what we’re planning, which includes the publication of poetry from five indigenous Mexican languages. I hope you’ll give if you can—any amount makes a difference. And I hope you’ll tell others about what Víctor is doing, and how we hope to document it.
David Shook is a poet and translator in Los Angeles. Recent translation projects include Roberto Bolaño’s 1976 manifesto “Leave Everything, Again” (forthcoming in the Picador edition of The Savage Detectives), Mario Bellatin’s Shiki Nagaoka, and Kilometer Zero, an illicitly filmed documentary about tortured Equato-Guinean poet Marcelo Ensema Nsang.