What to Read When You Want to Be Inspired by Latin American Resistance
As Julia Alvarez writes in her introduction to Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution, “There is a strong and vibrant tradition in the Americas of a poetry of witness. This should come as no surprise in a hemisphere carved out of violence, wrested from the Indigenous, built on the backs of the enslaved, the conquered, the murdered, the raped.” Co-editor Tina Escaja and I hoped to allow readers to thoroughly experience the vitality of that tradition in its lyrical form, given a poetic viewpoint through which they might grapple with the myriad of issues that texture its vibrant tapestry. So, we assembled a radically diverse brigade of voices using their pens in resistance to an unprecedented range of challenges. The intimacy of each poem should be further illuminating by the variating electricity on the pages that surround it.
We did limit the span to poems written just over the past one hundred years, so that in its anthological form, while being enriched by each poem readers also get the added effect of being able to trace the evolution of how this poetry has developed, decade after decade, cause to cause, within one general ecosystem, a region with a unique poetic richness, consistently grappling with similar threats from tyrannical and oppressive powers.
We also hope the book will serve as a launching point, a gateway, for seeking out specific poets and translators to explore even further. I hope the below selection of books by some of our contemporary contributors with the project will provide portals for readers to dive even further, and then beyond and beyond.
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
Zamora’s debut collection chills the reader by letting his vulnerabilities bleed on page after page in such transfixing, honest lyricism, as he reckons with the effect of civil war and migration on his family, as he retraces his four-thousand-mile journey alone as a nine-year-old from El Salvador to the United States. When he reached Arizona, he lived under the classification of an “undocumented,” but through the years he has resisted that classification by documenting his own experiences, through the practice of composing and revising these poems with such raw intimacy. Like many of the poems in Resistencia, the resonance from between the time they were written and the collection’s publication is palpable, if not eerie. “To President-Elect” provides a vivid, unflinching account of the trauma involved in migrants’ experiences. Given that the book was published in 2017, it’s easy to assume Zamora is addressing Trump in the title, but the poem was written before the 2016 presidential election was decided. In these months before the 2020 elections, its transfixing to experience how much the intensity with which the poem rips your gut changes when you read it, switching it back and forth the candidate he could be addressing this year.
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis and Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times edited by Carolina De Robertis
It’s hard not to serve up a double shot of Carolina’s ceaseless commitment to resistance through her writing right now. After the 2016 election, De Robertis quickly turned to her power tools: words and communities. The result: a collection of resistance essays written by an array of thirty-one dazzlingly diverse voices. The letters are as timely, provocative, and helpful now ahead of our coming election as they were following the past one—to see how those hopes, questions, and assertions resonate with our current reality. And, De Robertis’s luscious new novel Cantoras has arrived just in time for this new chance to change power through democracy. Published in 2019, the New York Times described Cantoras as “a challenge to the notion of ‘normalcy’ and a tribute to the power of love, friendship and political resistance. It’s a revolutionary fable, ideal for this moment.” Set in the author’s native Uruguay, the novel follows the resistance of five lesbians in a country where the military government considers queer love a dangerous transgression. It received the Stonewall Book Award, among others.
Sky Below: Selected Works by Raúl Zurita, translated by Anna Deeny
Pulitzer-prize winner Forrest Gander contends that, “There isn’t a more important contemporary writer than Raúl Zurita.” That importance began with Raúl’s response to the atrocities of the Chilean military dictatorship. Tortured for weeks on a cargo boat following the coup, Zurita pledged to stay in his native land: “I had to learn how to speak again from total wreckage, almost from madness, so that I could still say something to someone.” In his resistance he found his voice in his verse, which he writes onto paper, in the sky above New York City, or bulldozes into the Atacama desert. Like that desert, Zurita’s work is sweeping and epic, abrupt and intimate. Sky Below gifts us the joy and pain of that range through Anna Deeny’s remarkably deft translations. Zurita developed dexterity as well, with which he uniquely traces and defines that total wreckage he arose from. We’re all confronting some sort of wreckage, which is why this book is so satiating, so important.
Black Woman and Other Poems and Before a Mirror, the City by Nancy Morejón
Morejón’s mentor was fellow Cuban Nicolás Guillén, a key poet also contained within Resistencia, and she follows his stress on celebrating Blackness, while not yielding to be defined by a single identity or social fight. “I am, at once, Nancy Morejón,” she asserts, “an individual, a unity, who cannot be subdivided into parts as one does when learning math… I am not more of a Black person than a woman; I am not more of a woman than a Cuban; I am not more of a Black person than a Cuban. I am a brief combustion of those factors.” That combustion flares with the flames of all the factors and identities of herself and the collective realties and histories of her fellow Afro-Cuban women to burn lines that rage in resistance, among other struggles, to their continued erasure from contemporary and historical narratives. Black Woman and other Poems (Mango Publishing 2004) is one of several bilingual collections of Morejón’s work, often out of print. Her latest book, Before a Mirror, the City offers an exciting new angle, where she focuses on the poetry of place, richly illuminating the character of Habana in all its vibrancy, and translator David Frye brilliantly maintains this vividness in his translation. Morejón’s earlier poetry can be found in several bilingual collections that have been published over the years.
The Winter Garden Photograph by Reina María Rodríguez, translated by Kristin Dykstra
Devotion to “the open expression of literary care for society, identity, and modern life,” that, in the words of Roberto Tejada, is what exemplifies Rodriguez’s career as a poet, as a literary activist, as one of Cuba’s most dynamic thinkers, as a nourisher of community. The Winter Garden Photograph won the 2020 PEN Award for Translation. Kristin Dykstra, its principal translator, has worked with the poet for years now. When asked what Rodríguez’s work means to the spirit of resistance, Dykstra concluded: “What she resists most insistently is the reduction of life to codified platforms. What she gives us instead in her poems is something vibrant, moving, fleet.” (Dykstra’s translation of Rodríguez’s “California Apples” appears in Resistencia).
The Violent Foam: New and Selected Poems by Daisy Zamora
“Shaped by revolution and gender, Zamora’s poetry is true and universal, transcending political boundaries and sounding clear notes of sanity in times of madness.” So wrote the MultiCultural Review twenty-five years ago, in response to Daisy Zamora’s first book of poetry to be published in English. Well, we are certainly living through mad times right now, and we are fortunate to have even more of Zamora’s verse available to us. Her voice continues to shine clarity through illuminating blend of resilience and sensitivity, drawing on a deep well of experiences. Her revolutionary involvement began when she joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front in her native Nicaragua in 1973, both as a combatant and as a programming director and clandestine announcer on Radio Sandino. With the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, she served as Vice-Minister of Culture until 1982. Art, feminism, human rights, and love are the beacons of her work and this collection, translated by her lauded husband George Evans.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution, edited by Mark Eisner and Tina Escaja and out now from Tin House Books! – Ed.
Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution edited by Mark Eisner and Tina Escaja
With a powerful and poignant introduction from Julia Alvarez, Resistencia: Poems of Protest and Revolution is an extraordinary collection, rooted in a strong tradition of protest poetry and voiced by icons of the movement and some of the most exciting writers today. The poets of Resistencia explore feminist, queer, Indigenous, and ecological themes alongside historically prominent protests against imperialism, dictatorships, and economic inequality. Within this momentous collection, poets representing every Latin American country grapple with identity, place, and belonging, resisting easy definitions to render a nuanced and complex portrait of language in rebellion. Included in English translation alongside their original language, the fifty-four poems in Resistencia are a testament to the art of translation as much as the act of resistance. An all-star team of translators have made many of the poems available for the first time to an English-speaking audience. Urgent, timely, and absolutely essential, these poems inspire us all to embrace our most fearless selves and unite against all forms of tyranny and oppression.