Q&A: Award-winning indigenous poet Jaime Luis Huenún

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Published On : Sun, Nov 10th, 2013

The recent recipient of Chile’s 2013 national award for poetry reflects on the greater importance of his work and that of his contemporaries.

Q&A: Award-winning indigenous poet Jaime Luis Huenún

Photo by Guillermo Salgado Mora

“Reducciones,” by indigenous poet Jaime Luis Huenún, was recently recognized by the National Council on Books and Literature as Chile’s best poetic work in 2013. The book is a compilation of poetry, stories and archived documents which aims to shed light on the history, culture and the heart of the indigenous Mapuche people.

Huenún, who has received numerous awards over the years including the Pablo Neruda Prize in 2003 and a Guggenheim fellowship in 2005, comes from a Williche community in Osorno, Chile.

Recognized as a representative for indigenous writers in the country and beyond, Huenún tells The Santiago Times why now is the time for native writers to come to the forefront and play a role in shaping literature in the continent.

What was your reaction upon hearing you won the national award?

Awards don’t necessarily validate the time put into a book, but they do determine concrete benefits for the writer to stay current and it also helps economically, because we live in a country where poetry isn’t profitable, and I don’t know that there is any country where it is.

But certainly the award helps a little with visibility and to have a presence in the cultural environment — from this perspective the award seems to me to be very valuable especially because it was decided by an impressive jury including two-time literature award winner Oscar Hahn; as well as a poet who also holds international awards, Tomás Harris; a specialist well-known in the world of poetry, Nain Nómez and another important well-known poet Carlos Cociña. A jury that is so well known participating adds value to a work that I spent 10 years preparing.

What was your inspiration for this book?

More than an inspiration, my motivation for this literary project was basically to make visible through poetry a part of the hidden history of Mapuche society, and the Williche Mapuche that we are a part of, to create a work that could make accessible a history that is practically closed off by the Chilean establishment. And so my intention was to create a junction between poetry, chronicles, archived history and the oral history that comes from a time when people shared through storytelling. My intention was to configure a work that realizes diverse realities through the works of many characters — my book is like a series of movies, or films, where there is a story in each poem, where each character speaks, though not me. I am interested in being able to separate myself — in everything I write obviously I am present but the idea was to put together a world of many characters, of many voices that create our stories, histories and memories in a poetic form.

Your father was Williche and your mother non-Mapuche — what influence did this have on your work and your identity as a poet?

I believe that being the son of a couple with distinct cultural differences on the surface has led in one way or another to creating my work and a form of ethics and politics, as well as possibly influencing a discussion of mixture in the case of poetic pieces.

Racial mixing is a reality in Chile — more than 80 percent of the population has indigenous blood. My mother has indigenous blood even though she is not directly indigenous. I believe that to write about this mixing is good and is imperative in a geographic context as well as a cultural and ethnic context, in order to create the possibility for an understanding of cultures that are not always at peace. In the majority of cases in the Chilean population each family is made up of a mix. I believe that, in a way, the mixing of races is a joining of humanity. The discussion about indigenous purity held by some today is complicated because the majority of the original peoples of Latin America have had contact with the West. There were a series of cultural exchanges and sharing — of course there are some rural communities and cultures less “contaminated” than others but we know that the majority of the indigenous population in Latin America live in cities, and have lived in cities for three or four generations.

So I believe that it is interesting to show this movement, the historical movement of the communities from the rural areas — from jungles, the Altiplano, the mountains — to the city and how in the city there were the first instances of this indigenous identity full of contradictions. For me, I am not interested in talking about a pure indigenousness — the contamination is what interests me, the crossroads and the contagions. And, obviously, I am also talking about the crises, the contradictions which have persisted in indigenous populations, not because their choices, but because they were forced to leave their original lands.

What role do you believe poetry and literature should play in the discussion of indigenous identity in Chile and Latin America?

I believe the creative work, the literature created by authors from indigenous communities above all is marked by intense anti-colonialism. I believe that practically all of the mixed race indigenous authors of the continent have been absolutely clear that literature is a portal to creating a more visible culture, that is to say their own cultures are strengthened in some ways by literature in that it helps make them become more present in the national context of a country. And this creates tension. Indigenous literature has generated tension within its own national body of literature and the literature and culture of Latin America. Tension that in some ways questions the idea of an individual national state, for example, the idea of a canon of literature or a specific structure for literature as the only kind which can exist. Take the idea of the author — an individual author — which is very important in the West. In the West the painter, the composer, the author and even the dancer are all considered as individual subjects.

In the case of indigenous and mixed authors, I believe we are transversal communities. We pull from these communities the contradictions and the tensions that we find. We are always chosen by the community and our literature speaks for the community collecting its voices in order to build a more collective literature with a more collective author, beyond the individual writer. I believe our works promote the idea of a political consolidation of the indigenous people within the national culture. The presence, visibility and influence that we have been talking about isn’t just for the community but also for the culture created and the art we make.

Chile has a rich history of poetry, with greats like Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. What is your take on this history and what do you think of the new generation of poets and writers?

Yes, Chile has this tradition, a little more than 100 years of great poets some of whom are well known and universally appreciated like Neruda and Mistral, and other who crossed borders into Latin America and even translated into other languages like Nicanor Parra and Gonzalo Rojas and many others. The tradition of Chilean poets is very strong, it is a solid tradition with a lot of diversity and I believe that the poets of indigenous descent realistically are alongside this tradition.

The universally important authors, as we have named, at the time of their careers sought to support the country’s indigenous peoples. Gabriela Mistral wrote a lot about the indigenous communities in Chile, she defended the indigenous cultures in the North, and consistently defended through her work and her poems the Mapuche society and culture. Neruda did the same. During a major part of this life, Neruda started conversations that supported and defended the Mapuche culture. The same was done by Parra, Rojas and Jorge Teillier.

In reality I believe that poetry continues to shape the land, as poets in some ways have understood Chile’s diversity before Chilean society understood it. Poets anticipated that it is necessary to live together, to coexist and to come to understand the “other” that is generally delineated and that Chilean society had not understood or comprehended, or taken in. Therefore I think that there has been an integral alliance between indigenous poets and Chile’s famous poets, an alliance that has been very important and valuable and has also made possible the emergence today of more than 100 indigenous poets and writers who are out there working. I am not the only one — there is Elicura Chihuailaf and Leonel Lienlaf and more than 100 poets, both men and women that are creating this great lyrical and poetic discussion about Mapuche culture and obviously the discussion includes the construction of an identity in these very neoliberal times in Chile.

So what is next for you?

I am working on several books — an editorial that captures indigenous Chile called “Kenunwenu,” which in Mapudungun means “to enter into heaven,” a novella and a book of poetry that is more Latin American, more open. It will incorporate the very dramatic realities in Latin America, like derogatory political policies, guerilla fighters, narcotrafficking, the loss of dreams.

For the last 30-40 years in some ways we were building a force that moved organized society more than anything to the left — the revolutionary dreams of the 1970s, the dream of [former President Salvador] Allende, the possibility of a more united Latin America. These [dreams] have all been broken by the realities of our times.

So I am writing a book — not super enlightening but it has let me realize these things in this poetic form — with character that are writers, from the colonial poets and the poets of the 20th century. They talk of a place that doesn’t exist but that could have existed — a fictional city, a city that is the amalgam of all the impossible dreams of Latin America.

The book isn’t too extensive — it currently has about 70-80 poems. But it is a book that is not strictly tied to indigenous issues, rather it is a reflection of the emotions across Latin America about policies created, about politics that haven’t been rejected, about the impossibility that we will arrive at a Latin America that is not layered by the understanding of its diversity. Because Latin America is African, it is European, it is Asian, it is indigenous, and all of these are our realities.

In our greatest cities there are unknown and suppressed realities. It is because of this I am creating another project, an editorial that is more social more cultural. In order to situate indigenous literature in Chile within Latin America we will also publish Latin American authors from other indigenous communities and coordinate the more than 500 indigenous communities and make them current, from Mexico to Argentine Patagonia.

We believe we are creating and arriving at this great explosion of authors. There are many indigenous authors — in Mexico there is an enormous amount, as well as in Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and in Bolivia. There is a lot of material to publish and realize this intense movement of indigenous writers, authors, poets, narrators and storytellers that are trying to share their words in some way. We are also trying to overcome this idea of literature strictly tied to profit as in the United States. It is very difficult — here everything is always tied to the atmosphere in London, New York, Paris and Madrid. Our idea is to create an intense autonomy of literary production.

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis (kwillis@santiagotimes.cl)
Copyright 2013 The Santiago Times

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