"The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems" by Natalia Toledo [Why This Book Should Win]

This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, BTBA judge, journalist, writer, and translator from the Danish. She previously served as editor-in-chief of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and as blog editor at Asymptote and Words without Borders. She is currently an editor at the Council for European Studies and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.

The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated from the Spanish and Isthmus Zapotec by Clare Sullivan (Mexico, Phoneme Media)

Though Zapotec has existed as a written language for more than 2,000 years, Natalia Toledo was the first woman to write and publish poetry in her native language. In 2004 she won the Nezhualcóyotl Prize—Mexico’s most prestigious prize for indigenous-language literature—for The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems, a collection of poetry which describes contemporary Isthmus Zapotec life in rich detail. Or rather: in vivid imagery, in Clare Sullivan’s gorgeous translation, published by Phoneme Media.

In the opening poem, an overflowing river turns the world’s population into fish while God appears on a peeling wall, observed by the speaker of the poem “from behind a black leafed tree.” Leaves and flowers, sometimes black, form a recurring motif in this hauntingly stunning collection. These plants appear to be inevitable extensions of the humans inhabiting Toledo’s poems, for better and for worse. For instance, in “Loving”, a water lily is “born on the river’s surface / as you break forth / from the dream between my legs” in a tender yet slightly violent moment; in “Huipil”, flowers are involved in yet another violence, this time of the skin: “Facing the sky like a lizard / I settle you in a trunk that smells of pine. / My skin bursts with the flowers etched upon my dress. / Men and hummingbirds can come and pinch me / tonight, / my happiness is nectar that flows.”

The hummingbird motif reminded me of another Zapotec poet whose work I greatly admire: Irma Pineda. Upon finishing The Black Flower, I was thrilled to discover in Clare Sullivan’s translator’s note—located at the end of the book—that Pineda actually assisted Sullivan during the challenging translation process: “Toledo herself translated all the poems [. . .] from Zapotec to Spanish and Pineda helped me compare the original to Toledo’s translation verse by verse. Sometimes the poet deliberately changes a poem when rendering it from Zapotec into its Spanish incarnation, perhaps to clarify an image for a wider Mexican audience or to enrich the sound in Spanish.”

Sullivan goes on to explain that these translations into Spanish are always “poetry in their own right: This requires a tremendous effort on the part of Toledo and other indigenous language poets: they must not only be poets who know another language but poets in two different languages.” All the more reason why The Black Flower should win the Best Translated Book Award—this collection is clearly the result of intense and masterful poet/translator collaboration, and it is a collection which I will surely revisit for years to come.

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