We begin the first episode of Female Poets with the Mexican-American poet Liliana Valenzuela. Through her poetry, we discover a woman curious about the world who questions what has been taken as truth. Her poetry reflects a family nostalgia and the concern that the human being has not yet found the reason for his existence.
Transcript written by Melanie Marquez-Adams
Adapted by Carolina Quiroga and Don Hymel
"La Malinche has been my alter ego since 1988 when I was studying anthropology and folklore at the University of Texas. I was attracted to La Malinche, and wanted to study her in more depth, find out what was true and what was part of the myth of the 'Mexican Eve.' I discovered that many indigenous communities saw her as a powerful being. In the old codices, she was represented as a duality, an opposing force to Hernan Cortés. La Malinche was, after all, one of the first interpreters of the Americas. She was fluent in Náhuatl, Mayan, and was quick to learn Spanish. I found that La Malinche is also the name of a fertility dance enacted, curiously, by men wearing lizard masks, in a remote village in the state of Guerrero. I had read so many things about her, pertinent and irrelevant – including that she was a traitor, I decided to help reclaim her legacy and give her back her true power. Later, when I became a translator, she seemed like a most fitting symbol. Malinalli, la lengua, the tongue, she who has the power of the word in several languages."
Hello, dear listeners of Tres Cuentos, the bilingual podcast dedicated to Latin America's literary, historical, and traditional narratives. I am Carolina Quiroga-Stultz, and today I am pleased to inaugurate ENA our series on Latin American poetry written by women. With this series, we kick off Hispanic Heritage Month. We will begin this literary celebration by welcoming an author who thinks of herself as a citizen of the world, the terrific poet and translator Liliana Valenzuela.
The comment I read before is Valenzuela's response to why she, as a translator and as a woman who transits between two cultures and two languages, fully identifies with the historical figure of La Malinche.
To those listeners that are also checking the Spanish episode, you will notice that there is a different voice. This poetry season was produced in collaboration with Melanie Marquez-Adams and Alexa Jeffress. So, you will hear their voices leading some of the episodes.
Regarding today's author, Melanie tells us that in October of 2021, she was invited to organize a reading panel as part of an online gathering of Latino and Latina writers in the United States. Curiously, this panel was the only activity in Spanish. Once the authors shared their poems and short stories, one of the topics addressed by the participants was how difficult it is to write and publish in Spanish here in the United States.
It was on this panel that Melanie met the Mexican-American author Liliana Valenzuela. After reading a selection of her poems, initially written in Spanish, Valenzuela said that until now, she had only been able to share those texts in English. Imagine the frustration of not being able to share a creation that comes from an authentic and vulnerable place in our first language, not having the validation of an audience in our first language. We could compare it to having to constantly translate our feelings, our words of affection and love. Wouldn't that be sad? Or frustrating?
Today's poems, "Silver Hand" and "Kiss" by Liliana Valenzuela, were translated from Spanish by Angela McEwan. You can find them in the bilingual collection Codex of Love: Bendita ternura, published by Flowersong Books.
After the poems, we will talk about the life and trajectory of our guest author, and we will wrap up the episode with one more of Liliana's powerful poems.
So, lend me your ears, dear listeners, and dare to close your eyes for a minute and enjoy a nostalgia that perfumes a distant memory.
(By Liliana Valenzuela
Translated from the Spanish by Angela McEwan)
In this open room
wet from rain
shadows bounce from curtains to windows
furry black and gray c ape
falls over her shoulders
l i g h t
while she irons
hot silver hand
hand that radiates sunshine
of the heart
By Liliana Valenzuela
Translated from the Spanish by Angela McEwan
With the sharpness
given by a brilliant day
of flowering plum trees:
I guess your thoughts
All past and present
fans of possibility—
converge here today
in a kiss,
alpha and omega
of all creation
Very well, let's return from a beautiful childhood memory and a kiss that stops reality, and let's talk. The author, Liliana Valenzuela, tells us that she was in the middle of another writing project when she got this image of a diffused light, the light/dark effect coming from a window that overlooked the patio of the house in which she grew up. She could then see the light filtering through and then the shoulders and head of her mother ironing. Later, from that memory, other images emerged unconsciously, without a particular intention.
Valenzuela considers that this is how poetry often works; it begins with something specific, and then the poem shows her other things. In the case of "Silver Hand," the first poem, the image of the heat from the iron ended up representing the warmth of the heart. And so, the rest of the images were superimposed and emerged very organically.
The intensity of this poem works like sensory stimuli that take us back to our childhood like a time machine. In literature, this is known by the curious name of "Proust's magdalena effect" in honor of the French critic and novelist Marcel Proust. In Proust's novel Remembrance of things past, when one of the characters tastes the soggy crumbs of a sweet cake known as magdalena, he feels immediately transported to the summers of his childhood in a small French town.
And what about you, dear listeners? What kind of tastes, smells, or images take you back to your childhood?
Before we continue talking about Valenzuela's work, let me share a bit about her translator, a woman who is no longer with us but who lived quite a fascinating life. Angela McEwan was born in California in 1934. She lived in many parts of the United States, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Spain. She had a B.A. in English and a master's degree in Spanish from the University of California. McEwan worked as an editor of educational materials and a translator. She was a certified court interpreter for state and federal courts, also certified by the American Translators Association. Incredibly enough, she was also an actress, best known for her role in the Oscar-nominated film Nebraska, having appeared on stage, film, and television. Among others, she had roles in the T.V. shows Parks and Recreation and New Girl.
Wasn't that fascinating?
Back to today's poet, Liliana shares with us that her poem "Kiss" is part of a series of erotic poems that, at one point in her life, she felt she needed to explore and, with it, express her perspective as a Latina and Chicana woman. Through this expression, our guest poet wanted to overcome taboos, speak from a place of freedom and joy, and transcend stereotypes and rigid molds. She comments that this poem is also very cosmic because it goes from the physical to the metaphysical act, showing how the entire universe comes together in that intimate moment of a kiss. She says that this is what poetry facilitates, to reflect on something concrete —smells, flavors, sensations, and memories— so that we can project them to other levels of our human essence.
Liliana Valenzuela considers poetry her life companion, a place where she can take her concerns, sorrows, joys, and questions. Poetry has always been there for her, by her side for several decades, and in her two languages. Although she confesses that her life revolves mainly around English, her most intimate poems, especially those that have to do with difficult or profound situations, come to her in Spanish. After all, it is her first language, the language of her literary ancestors.
Even though most of Liliana's work can be found in English, the language of her memories and nostalgia—key sources of inspiration for writers—is Spanish. Through her poetry and her essays in two languages, she seeks to express the experience of a Mexican woman who lives in the United States but is also a citizen of the world.
This poet and translator, who has lived in Texas for four decades, received a bachelor's and master's degrees in Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. Her well-known English-to-Spanish translation work includes the work of acclaimed writers such as Cuban-American author Cristina García, Dominican-American novelist Julia Álvarez, and Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros, both Mexican American and Chicana writers. In fact, Liliana is the narrator of the audiobook version of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros published by Random House Audio.
Speaking of Mexican American and Chicanas writers, and because we are celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month here in the United States, I would like to talk a little about the term 'Chicano.'
According to the Oxford dictionary, this term is "a person living in the U.S. whose family came from Mexico." On Wikipedia, we find that Chicano or Chicana is a chosen identity for many Mexican Americans who sometimes use these two labels interchangeably. This is what happens with labels! They can have different connotations for different people aligning with their history and trajectory. For this reason, Melanie decided to talk directly with today's poet about her perspective regarding this term's meaning, nuances, and complications.
And here's what Valenzuela shared with Melanie. Liliana tells us that as she understands it, the term Chicano originated in the context of a movement that grew during the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in Texas and California, as a way of vindicating the indigenous roots of people of Mexican origin. Before that, the use of the label 'Hispanic' by the United States Government had been established, but Americans of Mexican descent saw this term as related only to Spain. For them, it was essential to be considered beyond their European ancestry as they wanted to emphasize their indigenous heritage. Liliana thinks that perhaps it was from this resistance that the term came to be and how 'Xicano' (with an x) came from the word 'Mexican' and then evolved into 'Chicano.' She also says that at the beginning, the Chicano movement was extremely misogynist, relegating women to the role of assistants to leaders and caudillos and that it was from this other resistance that a feminist perspective by Chicana and Latina women began to be explored. Liliana also observes that, although the label of 'Chicano' is sometimes included in 'Latino,' it can also be opposed to it, primarily because it is related exclusively to having Mexican roots. But, as she tells us, this dynamic is just an example of the different 'Latinidades' that can be found and experienced in the United States.
When asked if she considers herself a Chicana, Valenzuela says that since she came to this country 40 years ago, she has identified a lot with Chicanos in Texas: those Mexicans and descendants of Mexicans who lived in that state for several generations. As a poet, she was also inspired by several Chicana and Latina writers whose work was starting to get noticed at that time, such as Sandra Cisneros, Denisse Chávez, and Julia Álvarez. She says that all of them and other Chicano and Latino writers became an inspiration through their struggles and courage. From her perspective, those authors had fewer obstacles in expressing certain things that were still taboo subjects in Latin America and Mexico at that time. This is how she started to get involved in different organizations, such as the Macondo Writers Workshop in San Antonio, which brought together many writers of different nationalities and backgrounds.
Valenzuela continues saying that although technically she may not qualify as a Chicana because she was not born or raised in the United States, she does feel Chicana mainly for two reasons. The first one is because she came to this country when she was still in her formative years: she went to college here and had professors who were very important for developing her critical thinking. The second is because she considers that she has opened to other horizons and outlooks, claiming specific struggles beyond a Mexican context. She clarifies that it seems to her that things are changing in Mexico but that there were marked differences four decades ago.
In addition to being a poet, Liliana Valenzuela is a prolific and renowned translator, and in 2006, she received the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation. Her poetry and essays in English have been published in several literary magazines in the United States. Her work in Spanish has been published in Mexico, Spain, and Argentina. She is also the author of two bilingual collections of poetry, Codex of Love: Bendita Ternura, published in 2020 by Flower Song Books, and Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino, published in 2013 by Mouthfeel Press. She is part of the Hablemos, Escritoras podcast team, a platform for contemporary women authors and translators from the Spanish-speaking world. Liliana also serves as an online content coordinator for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.
On her Facebook page, this prolific author tells us that she has always found inspiration in the world. "And what inspires you?" she asks her followers. This simple question can help us discover what is most important to us and what we want to dedicate our time and passion to.
And how is that world that inspires Liliana Valenzuela? Pakistani author Sehba Sarwar's review of Liliana's book Codex of Love: Bendita Ternura gives us a glimpse of that beautiful and complicated world. In her review, Sarwar tells us that Valenzuela's work "examines body, roots, family, and shared spaces. Through lyrical bilingual text that collapses borders—real and imagined—Valenzuela situates herself in the open space in and between Mexico and the United States."
So, dear listeners, would you like to answer Liliana's question? What inspires you? I encourage you to do so and to share your responses with us on our social media.
And that is all for today. Before we finalize today's episode, I will leave you with one more of Liliana's poems. This one is self-translated and can also be found in her collection Codex of Love: Bendita Ternura.
I see the Big Bang in your eyes
I gaze into your eyes
and we are same looking into same
since the time before we were born
Your blue eyes wander right and left
we look past time and space
the neighboring houses
all the way to the galaxy and the Big Bang
Is this the same awareness
since before humans existed?
Is this the same awareness
since before we were born?
If animals and rocks share
why hunger, why war?
I gaze into your eyes
and see me, see all of us,
see my Neanderthal ancestors
my DNA branches splitting
in one unbroken chain.
And with these powerful images coming to us from Austin, Texas, we end today's episode. Next time, we will hear the beautiful poetry of Sandra Uribe Pérez, a Colombian author who sees poetry as her home. Until the next poem, adios, adios.
Tres Cuentos is an exercise of creative writing, researching, and retelling.
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The list of credits per song can be found in the transcript.
Thanks for listening, adios, adios.
Article: Penguin Random House UK. “More than cake: unravelling the mysteries of Proust’s madeleine”. URL: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/07/more-than-cake-unravelling-the-mysteries-of-proust-s-madeleine.
Conference: National Latinx Writers Gathering. URL: https://www.uslatinxlit.org/
Codex of Love: Bendita ternura. Flowersong Books (2020) URL: https://www.amazon.com/Codex-Love-Bendita-Liliana-Valenzuela/dp/1733809260
Women writers and translators. Hablemos Escritoras Podcast. URL: https://www.hablemosescritoras.com/writers/223
Author’s website. URL: http://www.lilianavalenzuela.com/bio.html
Biography. Angela McEwan. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela_McEwan
Review: Codex of Love. Varios autores. URL: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/codex-of-love-liliana-valenzuela/1136475250
Voices of Mexico. Digital literary magazine. URL: http://www.revistascisan.unam.mx/Voices/pdfs/8807.pdf
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