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Linguistic rights
19 min read

How should we break the ice of silence?

How far do our words travel? This is the question that author Simona Škrabec asks in her essay about the importance of small, marginal, and “invisible” languages. She starts off in Chiapas at a three-day conference of indigenous writers from all over the world discussing language rights and then moves on to take the reader on a meandering exploration of language regarding language as political activism, as resistance, and as the voice of our collective consciousness.

Credits Text: Simona Škrabec Translation from Spanish: Rosalind Harvey October 29 2019

When the kingfisher dives,
the second whirrs:
What stood by you
on each of the banks
mown into another image.
Paul Celan[1]

On the plane taking me to Europe from Mexico, I read Paul Celan’s Speech-grille in Arnau Pon’s Catalan translation. I open the first page, and a little chill runs through me. Only a few hours earlier I had bid farewell to the participants of a literary conference in Chiapas. In between all those warm Latin embraces, I had enjoyed a brief snatch of conversation with Cicerón Aguilar. The musician was one of the driving forces behind the wonderful initiative of bringing together, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a large group of indigenous language writers and scholars who, like myself, simply love linguistic diversity. Aguilar and I spoke about how Nambue (the title of his 2010 record) means ‘native of the river’ in the Oto-mangue language, also known as Chiapaneca. And how his grandmother’s surname was Nuricumbo, which means ‘river bird,’ one that fishes by plunging into the depths from on high.

The figure of the Eissvogel appears in a heartrending sequence of verses by Paul Celan, which Pons translates as follows into Catalan: [...] “Quan l’alció, ocell de glaç, es/capbussa, el segon brunzina: //Allò que et va fer costat/a cadascuna de les vores, segat/ara entra en una altra imatge.” I read these rough-sounding lines and I, too, dive like an aquatic bird into a dimension that is difficult to transmit. Vodomec, the Slovenian name for this same bird—which in Catalan we know as a blauet due to the intense blue shade of its wings—was for years the password to all my online accounts. Why? It was only in that moment, thanks to Celan, that I realised I had attributed to this bird the power of that phrase of Franz Kafka’s, which says that writing must be like an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.

In the darkness of the cabin of a giant Boeing, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, all of these images, seen and sensed at such different moments, converge and say the same thing. It was suddenly clear to me where my faith comes from, a faith that it is necessary to write despite the intense effort you must expend in order to understand all that we have experienced.

In decisive moments, language, as both Kafka and Celan say so precisely, freezes and becomes the voice of a single, seamless, collective consciousness. In order to preserve the rigid links between structure and content, language becomes opaque, motionless—if a community feels threatened, it remakes itself as an indivisible whole. When that happens, an individual can do nothing. The world of petrified words is a bitterly cold one. Kafka and Celan bequeathed to us an indelible vision of all that which in Europe had to be supressed, forgotten, erased: they bear witness to how the ideology of exclusion took shape, how Nazism became a shining mirage that promised a permanently plentiful future. Kafka was taken young by tuberculosis and so did not live to see the ensuing brutality. Celan did, however. And what his verses brimming with precise words preserve is the vigour of an entire universe that was destroyed by the tectonic pressure of a few deadly ideas.

In San Cristóbal, Elías Pérez explained to us that traditional Tsotsil storytellers were taking on the poetic mission of structuring a tale in order to make tangible the thought that has accrued in their language. A poet from this community must have skill, moral conviction, and ingenuity to prevail. The human mouth is an opening through which all that we have stored away within ourselves can slip out. What the eyes see, the word can explain. Again, just as Celan reflected. Poetry is not simply the store of everything that has accumulated in the memory of a people, but rather it is the transformation of a naive sense of understanding.

The poet passes lived experiences through the filter of her consciousness until her mouth can make a series of sharp-edged words burst forth, words capable of enduring, of holding the gaze of time, and of preserving that which was not foreseen and which may have been inscribed within a language. The poet, when she takes on a mission of preserving the ‘great values of the good’, frequently contradicts her own people. The poet unpicks manipulative arguments and easy short-cuts. This is why poetry is so good at preserving pain, fears, uncertainty.

At the same event, Otília Lux de Coti, an experienced political activist, said with total conviction: ‘I will speak so as to muffle the mouth of silence.’ She acknowledged that she dressed in traditional Mayan clothes as an open provocation, wanting to bring to the surface all of the racism and contempt towards the so-called ‘Indians’that is still present today across Mesoamerica. Then, Tsering Kyi, so young and so fragile, was overwhelmed by a trembling she could barely contain, until tears filled her eyes and memories robbed her of the power of speech. ‘All’ she had to do was present the case of the Tibetan activist Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang, reading out some biographical information written in neutral language so as to avoid any possible accusation of partiality. But the young woman cried, in the restrained, delicate way of someone who is not used to expressing their feelings. Tsephel was her teacher, the man who helped her to leave her country and who opened the doors to the digital world, thanks to which she has become the most [widely read blogger of the huge Tibetan diaspora.

Towards evening, when our party visited the cultural centre Casa de Cultura de San Juan de Chamula, a group of Tsotsil women immediately recognised Tsering as one of their sisters, doubtless due to the similarities of their features, the gracefulness of a few restrained movements. I watch as they surround her and plait her hair around her face, a traditional braid like the ones they are wearing, spontaneously, and simply because they had sensed so rapidly that she was one of them. From a distance, they are watched with an even greater restraint by Natasha Kanapé Fontaine, who lives in Quebec and is also extremely young. This Inuit poet is so silent you almost don’t notice she is there. Until she starts to speak, that is, and uncompromisingly denounces the “systemic racism” her people suffer in a country as tolerant and open as Canada.

Our hostess in Chamula was Enriqueta Lunez. I still remember her participation at the Universal Forum of Cultures in 2004 in Barcelona when, at the foot of the steps in the Plaza del Rey—a highly significant place—she gave a reading of her poetry in Tsotsil. The poet from Chiapasspeaking in front of a palatial government building where, according to history, kings who devised the systemic exclusion of her people welcomed in ‘the discoverer.’ Meanwhile, here we were,listeningto voices from a humble village in the mountains, and trying to construct a fragile bridge, a narrow, precarious walkway—but a viable one. The ice-bird of poetry is able to connect centuries of silence.

Does a previous world exist? Tibet and Chiapas literally touch the sky; the Sami in Scandinavia and the Inuit of Canada lives take place in the frozen terrains of the Arctic Circle; and a letter about the Aboriginal literature of Australia also reached us in Mexico, ‘written in the sovereign Noongar land,’ as the solemn note accompanying it said. These are inhospitable landscapes, far removed from fertile plains. The life that manages to take root on these summits or deserts naturally has to provide its own germ of resistance. The church at Chamula—famous for its eccentric beauty—has a marble floor covered in a thick layer of dry pine needles; once we are dead, our bodies become not dust, as the religion of the conquerors says, but humus, that dense material on the forest floor from whence new life will sprout… You don’t have to know how to write in order to transmit such an unambiguous message, in order to contradict symbolic domination, I think with a mischievous smile, as I feel how this vegetable carpet crunches under my feet, reminding me of the woods of my Slovenian dolina.

And so we continue for three days, learning one lesson after another from people who embody the resistance of their communities, but not in the abstract; rather, as an immediate, inescapable commitment. Ruperta Bautista insists on the ‘urgency of the word’ for the Tsotsil; Iván Prado, an infectious smile on his face, endeavours to radiate an indestructible optimism – surely part of his resistance strategy—and reveals to us that the Quechua storytellers of Bolivia have decided to step into global postmodernity, forming a group that writes science fiction, clearly drawing on the powerful collective imagination of their own tradition. Petrona de Cruz tells us she has taken her plays from Chiapas to the stages of New York.

Nina Jaramillo is a Kolla woman from Argentina, a lawyer who has been fighting for indigenous rights for many years. Pedro Cayuqueo has a Chilean passport, yet acknowledges only his Mapuche identity. The two confront everyone with a mirror, that smooth, shiny surface that must be broken with the sharp beak of the ice-bird if we want to understand who we are. The thing that enslaves and excludes all these communities is the fact that they do not have a fully formed image of themselves they can use as a mirror. Overcoming self-discrimination is the first step. Jaramillo and Cayuqueo insist that indigenous cultures do not take place in museums but out in the streets, that they are not part of the past, but of the future, and that all of them represent a culture in motion. On the two opposite banks of the same river—as in Celan’s poem, cited above—the rules of the game must be changed. We have to stop seeing indigenous people as a problem from the past. They all make up part of the societies of today. Many indigenous people nowadays live in big cities: seventy percent of Mapuche people, for instance, are urbanites. Hence the call for a ‘cultural offensive’ that aims to imbue the dominant culture with the presence and the steady gaze of native peoples, in all their diversity. We must find a way of talking openly about all the nuances, adaptations and assimilations that have marked them so profoundly. Equally, indigenous people must abandon the notion of purity and broaden the criteria for inclusion in their own tradition, finding strategies to include in this debate the significant mixed heritage population, which suffers from a ‘conflict in the mirror.’

As she spoke, Nina Jaramillo spread out a flag with the seven colours of the Aymara people on to the table in front of her. And when she had finished, she held up the feather of a condor that had flown in to hear our words…

The Obscurity of Silence

While I prepared my talk for the conference, I visualised a clip from Mexican national television from the 1980s, in which Octavio Paz and Seamus Heaney discuss the traces that indigenous languages had left in their poetry. The two Nobel prize winners are notable for their wisdom and sensitivity, but they turn subaltern languages into a simple residue, valuable but irretrievable. It is a ‘murmur,’ says Paz, an indelible rumour, vague and merely aesthetic. All of this past that we are speaking of has left no other legacy in universal poetry but these intangible outlines. Or at least this is what these two oh-so-wise men thought in their televised conversation from a few decades ago.

Meanwhile, in early May 2019, cameras from national television have yet to reach Chiapas. Perhaps we won’t leave behind an enduring document of any kind. It was primarily the women who spoke from their own direct experience. Because all of these languages, banished from public spaces, have survived in the intimacy of people’s homes, in the closest proximity to people. These same women have now learned how to write drama and prose and poetry; they have educated themselves and have all become kingfishers with sharp beaks, beaks that can break the ice of indifference. They fight courageously to preserve a tradition full of the losses and pain they have inherited, highly conscious of the importance of their role. From Chiapas to Quebec, Quebec to Tibet, Tibet to the Sami of Finland, the poetry of the people who were uprooted centuries ago now speaks with a woman’s voice and a bravery so determined that I have the sense it will no longer be easy to turn it back into a murmur. On my way to the airport to fly home, I read a playful poem by Pirita Näkkäläjärvi, which talks of how Western women have to constantly remove their hair – God forbid a single hair end up in the mouths of their lovers! The Sami poet’s daringness, not to say insolence, made me laugh out loud. These voices, supposedly more fragile than ours—they observe us, they judge us, they hold our gaze in the mirror. We would do well to listen to them.

I cannot end on any kind of optimistic note. The ice that petrifies languages and turns them into discriminatory, heedless discourses is still forming. Hannah Arendt used to go to school with very clear instructions from her mother. If the teachers said anything bad about the fact that she was Jewish, or anything against Jews in general, the girl was to come back, gather up her things without saying a word and simply walk back home.

A week later, I take part in a mini-symposium on multilingual nations at the University of Lugano. The atmosphere is cordial and committed, and I feel part of this mixture of senior officials and Swiss professors, of translators and Canadian cultural representatives. The third country there is Spain, which I represent with a talk on the novelist Mercè Rodoreda, who spent most of her long exile in the city of Geneva, where she also wrote her best-known and most translated work, Plaza del Diamante (In Diamond Square, in Peter Bush’s 2014 English translation). In the final scene of the book, some little birds, pigeons, disturb the sky (reflected in a puddle’s mirror) with their beaks and mix all of it up—the most noble ideas and the most base desires—into a muddy swirl: ‘happy, happy.’ I try to use this literary scene to explain Catalonia’s nonconformity over the last few decades. People there are no longer easily convinced, and simple gestures are not enough to leave us ‘happy.’

Fabio Pontiggia, director of a regional Swiss newspaper, Corriere del Ticino, is charged with introducing me and with leading a short discussion after the event. He does not ask me a single question and refers to me with snide impertinence as ‘la professoressa,’ using the third person, as if I were not sitting right next to him. And then, instead of starting a conversation, he delivers a sentimental, jingoistic speech that lasts twice the length of my talk. He considers himself a serious observer of the current Catalan situation because his mother lived in Barcelona under Franco, and this means he is convinced of his privileged view of what we Catalans are like. Meanwhile, the moderator gives me no due at all because I have lived in Barcelona a mere thirty years. Without a sound, I get up from the table we are sharing, step down from the podium and go to sit in a corner of the room. I let Pontiggia finish his speech, which he is giving from memory—which tells me he must be following directives coordinated at a national level—with all the usual arguments against the Catalan process. All his accusations are based on mere approximations and the most outlandish enthymemes. I listen to him and I think of Hannah Arendt, of the obstinate silence her mother demanded of her when she was so very small. The Spanish language used by all these apparatchiksis turning into Orwell’s Newspeak, into Víctor Klemperer’s Lingua Tertii Imperii, into the iron-like hardness of Soviet diplomats. Do they not realise the damage they are doing to their own community by turning the most influential voices into simple transmitters of dogmatic orders?

When a language has hardened into ice, opaque, impenetrable, standardized, insensitive and desensitising, it must be resisted with silence. There is no sense in arguing against it, and one mustn’t offer oneself up as easy prey to a pair of hands trained in twisting the fingers of opponents considered so obviously inferior. We must learn from those who have managed to build resistance from within. We must dig down into the depths of ourselves, we must know and want to know who we are, how we are, why we are as we are. I do not owe the answer to a journalist with a nostalgic moustache, but rather to myself, and to all of you: what ice do we Catalans need to break so we can be what we are? Do we know how to look at ourselves in a mirror? Do we recognise in what is reflected there the insufficiencies and the frustrations, too?

The elemental question, then, is how far do our words travel? Do they remain purely on the surface? Are they reflected in the water, content with their own image? Do we use words solely to confirm how easy communication is? Very few of us, meanwhile, know how painful it can be to get words to break the layer of crystalline ice in which reality is encased. In order to speak with poetic intensity, the mirror of language must be smashed. Language is not direct access to experience. Language is a system of codes we share, and which allows us to draw parallels, and thus to understand each other. Thanks to language, we are able to transmit our experiences and accumulate memory. But for this very same reason, language as it is tends towards inertia and standardization.

The poetic word aims to fulfil the function of an ice-bird that must transport us beneath everyday images, beneath established concepts, beneath communication understood as a commercial exchange to obtain goods. The poetic word is not a form of consolation for belonging to a community that welcomes us and soothes us with a feeling of easy belonging.

Wanting to transmit that which a linguistic community finds unpleasant or unnecessary is never easy, and instead requires extreme boldness. The obstacles are great, and at times seem insurmountable. The need to preserve ‘minor’ languages sounds lovely as a message, and always has a slight tang of heroism and nobility. But we must be very prudent, very responsible. Having suffered repression does not give one the right to impose oneself carelessly on any community.

Ringing out loudly out Celan’s lines, just as in the voices of poets from further afield, is the childlike confidence of recognising plants from one’s youth and the minerals that survive long beyond any human idea. Recovering the exact name of each and everything is to open language up to profundity. Thanks to this method of poetic memory, beauty can break through the ice of indifference. And then condemnation is no longer just a slogan but is louder even than the cry of a heartrending testimony. Poetry returns to us the flavours of a world that has been suppressed, destroyed, rubbed out. This is how we can understand the immensity of an irreparable loss, which is what the loss of a language or the capacity to communicate in it publicly means.

Language is a highly sensitive tool and if we use it like a boomerang, it will come back to us thin, repetitive, ostentatious and vengeful. A language made up of slogans will never be able to enrich us or serve as any kind of foundation. We must pervert all metaphors of exclusion, destroy the vile intention of keeping cultures weak without access to social cohesion or political visibility. We must change the rules of the game and resolutely demand the possibility of a future.

[1] Excerpt from the poem known as ‘Voices,’ translated by John Felstiner, in his book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 98.

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