Prose from Poetry Magazine

Mother Tongues

Víctor Terán and David Shook's Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry and Ahmatjan Osman's Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile.

Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, edited by Víctor Terán and David Shook.

Phoneme Media. $24.00.

Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile, by Ahmatjan Osman, translated from the Uyghur and Arabic by Jeffrey Yang with the author.

Phoneme Media. $16.00.

Once upon a time, Toni Morrison wrote in her Nobel lecture, a wise old woman grew convinced that whenever language died, “out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem,” its users and makers could be held “accountable for its demise.” Víctor Terán, one of the most highly-regarded poets writing in Isthmus Zapotec, would probably agree. In his preface to Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, he says:

To write in an indigenous language today is far more than a political statement: it is a heroic act of survival.... Heroic because it means pain and suffering before the indolence of many of its own speakers, who forget their responsibility to their mother tongue, due to their desperate struggle to earn their day’s bread; because it means to endure the disregard of governments and institutions, which promote a double discourse, on the one hand passing “progressive” laws but on the other not allotting the resources that would enable such laws.

Like a New Sun, only the second anthology of its kind and certainly the most current (the oldest poet was born in 1951, the youngest in 1981), stands as a monument to that act of survival. Terán and his coeditor David Shook chose six poets working across six indigenous languages and recruited six translators to transpose their work into English, while presenting the original poems en face. While each poet showcased here merits serious attention, I was drawn to Mikeas Sánchez, who writes in the Zoque language, spoken by roughly seventy thousand people in the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Tabasco, on the border with Guatemala. As the editors state:

Zoque is an endangered language due to the rapid shift to Spanish among Zoque youths, though this is being actively combated by language activists like Sánchez, who broadcasts radio programming in the language.

No doubt inspired by her day job and her travels abroad, Sánchez’s poems, many of which are portraits of women, are passionately cosmopolitan: from “Nereyda Dreamed in New York,” where a migrant contemplates “her reflection in a Macy’s window,” to “Aisha,” who “left Marrakesh / like someone fleeing their own shadow” and “avoids streetlamps and the full moon,” and “Rama,” who is thirty-five and knows that “to be free is to sleep naked/without hands seeking your sex.” Yet Sánchez’s major contribution to this anthology — and perhaps one of the finest offerings — is “Jesus Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers”:

My grandmother never learned Spanish
was afraid of forgetting her gods
was afraid of waking up in the morning
without the prodigals of her offspring in her memory
My grandmother believed that you could only
talk to the wind in Zoque
but she kneeled before the saints
and prayed with more fervor than anyone
Jesus never heard her
my grandmother’s tongue
smelled like rose apples
and her eyes lit up when she sang
with the brightness of a star
Saint Michael Archangel never heard her
my grandmother’s prayers were sometimes blasphemies
jukis’tyt she said and the pain stopped
patsoke she yelled and time paused beneath her bed
In that same bed she birthed her seven sons
— Translated from the Zoque by David Shook

The poem begins with weakness and a strong sense of isolation, yet ends on a note of rebellion and incredible strength, symbolized by the seven sons. As Morrison wrote in her lecture, “oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence,” and violence in this poem speaks fluent Spanish. The speaker’s grandmother kneels before saints imported from the Iberian Peninsula by the conquistadores, thus outwardly capitulating to the colonialism that ravaged her culture, yet she simultaneously limits this to a mere physical act by praying in a language that the official Christian god cannot — or will not — hear. Instead, her Zoque words address the elements, allowing the grandmother to turn away from the aggressive Spanish idols and commune with nature. Thus, the grandmother’s language becomes an instrument of dissent. The italicized exclamations are Zoque invectives, which is only natural: as the old cliché goes, we tend to swear most effortlessly in our native tongue.

Despite its appealing simplicity, Sánchez’s portrait of her grandmother can serve as a stepping stone to the history of Mexico’s 
indigenous people after the Spaniards’ arrival. The systematic oppression, confinement, and commercialization of Mexican indigenes was potentially more horrifying than the one faced by their counterparts north of the Rio Grande. Fenced into puppet states after the conquest in the sixteenth century, these communities were reduced to a series of villages by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The criollos — who, like the founding fathers before them, believed that all white men were created equal — then evicted them from their communally farmed lands once again in the nineteenth century. Subsequently, many of these scattered hamlets became little more than recruitment grounds where hacendados could find cheap manual laborers for their large farms. “For Grandpa,” by Enriqueta Lunez, who writes in Tsotsil, is a case in point:

A few days ago
I heard my grandpa speak
and from his mouth came forth
an incredible tale.

When he was young
out on the great estates
he saw the apparition of a man.
Listening to his words transformed in tale
I imagined myself
see St. John stand
before my grandpa
my fantasy thought it saw the bolts, heard the thunder.

And like a far off mirage
I saw him prostrate.
My ears heard his words, his pleas.

His pleas were only for the sky
it had not rained.
He asked the keeper of the sky
ceaselessly to let a few drops fall
from the sea to this infertile land,
a sea that sometimes seems to
fall.

The answer did not wait
and the waves swept over
the desert at that moment.

And till today I ask myself:
What divine messenger
gave grandpa grace
gave his words strength
even though today my eyes
see him changed
into an old man.
— Translated from the Tsotsil by Clare Sullivan

While the women stayed behind, the men went off to look for work and, as Terán points out, forgot “their responsibility to their mother tongue ... to earn their day’s bread.” In Sánchez’s and Lunez’s home state of Chiapas, a minor oil boom in the seventies led many men to learn Spanish and spend months, if not years, away from their homes, leaving women in charge of not only their families and property, but of their very cultural heritage and identity. While Sánchez’s grandfather may never have worked in an oil field, her poem stresses that 
minority languages are intrinsically anti-establishment by virtue of the fact that their very existence — and against all odds, their continued survival — defies the monopoly exercised by the chief language of commerce. “Jesus Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers” tells us that if minority languages can be considered tools of cultural subversion, it is largely thanks to women that anyone still uses those tools at all, especially since languages have been traditionally preserved within the household.

Conservation scientists tell us we are in the midst of our planet’s sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. Yet that outer extinction is mirrored by an inner one. Over the past half millennium, nationalism ensured that dozens of local languages were wiped out in favor of the ones spoken in the political centers of power, while the genocides perpetrated during the so-called “Age of Discovery” probably eradicated more than we’ll ever know. The end result is that one in three inhabitants of our world speak Mandarin, Spanish, or English as their first language — with many of them being monoglots — and linguists predict that hundreds if not thousands of languages and dialects will vanish before the dawn of the next century. Nevertheless, recent examples offer some hope. The resurgence of Québécois French and Irish Gaelic have shown that languages backed by governmental support can trump the odds, although it’s safe to say that the majority of endangered languages are spoken by marginalized communities 
who can only dream of the enfranchisement and purchasing power enjoyed by the Irish or the French Canadians. Fortunately, the past few decades have seen a revival of minority languages that have found unique and inspiring ways to combat economic liberalism and cultural homogenization. Anthologies such as Like a New Sun will 
undoubtedly play a great role in that process. As Shook writes:

In the Zapotec community, for instance, the example of established artists like my co-editor Víctor Terán and Soid Pastrana, the visual artist responsible for our cover, have inspired the youth to invent new genres of indigenous expression, like the Isthmus Zapotec rap group Juchirap and the recent Zapotec-language comic book adventures of Spiderman.

In his preface, Eliot Weinberger is equally hopeful, because while in the past indigenous culture was appropriated by the West, “we are now at a moment — still in its early stages — where inspiration is flowing the other way.”

If at least some of the blame for linguistic extinction can be placed at the feet of international media outlets, then Jeffrey Yang’s account of how he first chanced upon the work of the Uyghur poet Ahmatjan Osman is an exception that proves that rule. While researching a folio on Uyghur poetry for Two Lines, the annual anthology of world literature, Yang learned that his coeditor Dolkun Kamberi, the director of Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service, not only knew Osman but had helped him find asylum in Canada. This connection led to years of collaboration between Osman and Yang, the fruits of which have now been published in what is the first collection of Uyghur poetry to ever appear in English.

Osman was born in 1964, into a Muslim Uyghur family in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China’s largest autonomous region, in the country’s Northwest. He was raised in a housing complex owned by the coal mine where his father worked. As he later recalled:

These housings were neither urban nor rural — they were in the middle of nowhere. The only things that connected me to the outside world were the Sun, Moon and stars in the sky. You could say that the Sun, Moon, and stars comprised my dream world.

Like many of his generation, Osman’s father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution and was dispatched to a labor camp for “re-education,” only to succumb to lung disease a few years later. As a result, Osman’s mother became the family’s sole provider. That time in Osman’s life clearly left its mark, as evidenced by these lines, excerpted from “As One Who Walks in a Dream”:

To this day
your sad lullaby, Mama,
echoes in my ears
like caravan bells
To this day
the taste of your bitter labor
is still under my ungracious tongue
I was born into this world
bearing your wishes on my shoulders
Did I feel this way in the cradle
as my mouth tightened around your nipple?
I am your son, Mama, your son
who grew up counting the stars.

Osman achieves a delicate balance between naked sentiment and self-pity, never allowing his lyrics to spill into outright laments. The poem is charged with an acute sense of responsibility — “I was born into this world / bearing your wishes on my shoulders” — while simultaneously infusing a great deal of humility and gratitude into his lines by declaring himself the unworthy recipient of his mother’s “bitter labor,” which his “ungracious tongue” is unfit to praise. At his most confessional, Osman’s language is both tender and exacting, aspiring to a sensual directness that borders on the erotic.

In the early eighties, Osman was one of the first Uyghur students after the Cultural Revolution to attend a university abroad, and he elected to study Arabic at the University of Damascus. In Syria, as Yang tells it, he “became one of the central figures of what came to be known as the new poetry movement, or gungga,” roughly the Uyghur equivalent of the “Misty Poets” group centered around such figures as Shu Ting and Yang Lian, among others. Osman began immersing himself in international literature, which led to translations of Celan and Pessoa; he was also introduced to Adonis, who seems to have had a marked influence on Osman’s work. Like Adonis’s, many of Osman’s poems marry lyrical descriptions of the natural world with the human need to ask metaphysical questions. There is no better example of this than “Nights that Pass from Scheherazade’s Mouth,” where the poet sits in a park in Ankara thinking about “the possibility of committing murder” until a fortune-teller appears and just as quickly vanishes, leaving Osman to muse:

What I wanted to know
was if she could really determine
the unknown, a human’s will
that which is impossible for even gods and demons
to discern, as we wander leisurely in public parks.

Osman also seems to have adopted Adonis’s use of the qit’a (or fragment) as one of the primary vessels for his poetics, juxtaposing images to create a vortex of sights, sounds, and ideas that always circle back to raw emotion. Take the brief ten-section sequence “Strange Sense of Familiar Things,” which takes everyday objects or activities — such as “Tobacco,” “Hat,” “Book,” “Dance,” and “Song” — and drains them of their mundanity to restore the link between perception and emotion. “Guitar” is a case in point:

Nostalgia wears a crown of thorns
and leads a convoy of camels
through the desert of the body ... 
I am its homeless string.

Osman didn’t linger in Syria and chose to return to Ürümqi. However, it didn’t take him long to realize that his growing literary reputation would present him with considerable obstacles, not least of which was finding steady employment. He spent years juggling various jobs, during which time his poetry increasingly attracted the censors’ ire, as “the Chinese authorities intensified their cycle of harassment, arrest, imprisonment, and release,” as Yang puts it. Thus, Osman decided to move back to Syria in 1994, at which point he began publishing his work in Arabic, at first translating it himself from his native Uyghur, but as a result of the near impossibility of seeing his work published in Uyghur, he began to write directly in Arabic — bringing the pain of his geographical and linguistic dislocation to bear on lines like: “My faraway home / is surrounded by a fence of words.” After a decade in Syria, Osman was forced to exile himself even further, this time to Canada, but it was halfway through his second stay in Damascus that Osman penned the title poem of this selected, Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile. While many of Osman’s poems can seem dominated by a passive sort of nostalgia, this one brims with hope:

In my early isolation, I’d often withdraw
homeward into my heart. Then, as my grief
subsided, my eyes would quickly close
not giving me a chance
to say, “I am alone ... ”

After days of staring
at lit candles (the flame
no longer burns in the corner
of the old house in the land of memory)
a strange feeling woke me up
to the time of searching
for the birds
who pronounced the words of the Wandering Angel
between lines of buried books,
“Uyghurland,
the farthest exile!”

Now I wish to forget
what emerged from the tongues of birds
and accept a land of darkness
where my feet bleed. To stop
thinking of the ancient things I’ve heard
for the voices have shifted direction in me
so that am I indeed what the birds pronounced?
Here, the mysterious moon
falls, heavy twilight on my shut eyes
as if embracing a stray thought
in the springtime of reincarnation
“Come toward me,” the candle beckons,
“you must leave this extinguished land
to shout freely with a vital voice,
‘Uyghurland!’”

In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether Uyghurland suggests “an imagined landscape much broader that Xinjiang or Ürümqi,” Osman answered:

It refers to a place (East Turkestan) where I belong to as an Uyghur but at the same time refers to an imagined place where I belong to as a poet. This makes East Turkestan, the country I belong to, a place of exile for me whereas the Uyghur language is my real homeland as a poet.... The Uyghur language is under threat of becoming extinct; this is the biggest pain I have to suffer as an Uyghur poet.

Like the Tibetans, the Uyghurs — a Turkic ethnic group that has far more in common with the peoples of the Central Asian “stans” than with China’s Han majority — have watched their region undergo radical economic changes over the past couple of decades, while being increasingly shunted to the sidelines and forced to endure a great deal of discrimination. As a news report in September 2015 noted, an official from the Political and Law Enforcement Office of the Township Party Committee — a Kafkaesque mouthful if ever there was one — informed local parents that they would henceforth be forbidden to give their children certain names — even going so far as to provide them with a list, which despite including such bizarre choices as Bin Laden and Saddam, mostly featured fairly common names, such as Abdul’aziz, Asadulla, Hussein, Aishe, and Fatima. What’s in a name? Everything, it seems.

Yang concedes that because he speaks neither Uyghur nor Arabic, he was able to translate these poems largely thanks to Osman, who sent him “a kind of skeleton key in English” and also answered all of his questions. Yang makes a good point about the need for such an approach in certain circumstances:

It should go without saying that a translator’s base-level responsibility is to know the language of the original. However, as we weren’t able to find someone who knew not only Uyghur and Arabic but also American poetry, and as there is some remarkable historical precedence for good, if not exceptional, translations rendered under the guidance of a knowledgeable 
informant, we pressed on.

We should feel lucky that they did; translations produced from cribs are better than nothing. Besides, Yang and Osman clearly make a good team: throughout their work, both poets deftly shift gears from the intensely lyrical to the epic, from the personal to the historical, from the grand scale of the objective to the minutiae of the subjective. As Morrison’s old woman said, “a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis.” Luckily, the Uyghur language appears to be in safe hands:

The first time I met the mountains
and saw their snow-capped peaks
I imagined Grandfather’s white hair
The forests also read me the books of autumn
Birds migrated to the stream of human existence
Clouds without shelter spoke to me
as I listened to their silence
besieged by the lightning of poetry.
—From As One Who Walks in a Dream
Originally Published: July 1st, 2016

André Naffis-Sahely’s first collection is The Promised Land (Penguin, 2017). His translations from the French and the Italian include works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and Alessandro Spina.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In