Pedro Shimose, Julia Wong Kcomt, and José Watanabe are Spanish-language writers celebrated in the South American countries of their birth, and authors increasingly seen as icons of ethnic Asian authorship in Latin America. For a U.S. reader inculcated by English literary traditions and North American approaches to race and difference—the economic, historico-cultural, and civil fraternity between the United States and Canada is so durable that we are likely to unsee it—translations of work by authors like these can be fabulously destabilizing. Disruptive even, with respect to what we have long learned to ahistoricize: the idea that English is exceptional for its illuminatory and reflective coherence as a language, much more than for its refractive and unreliable unbindings. We gringos tend not to fiddle with English’s ostensible status as lingua franca par excellence, or with its self-evidently cosmopolitan scope. More than others with whom we share the planet, North American English speakers seem to miss the uncanniness and fertility of language per se. It’s often hard for us to hear, as it were, spoken lilts and accents as a supplement rather than a cue for stigmatism. It’s easy to ignore our blindnesses to the trappings that reliably come with English proficiency, not to mention the structural heft of colonial settlings, advanced industry, and neoliberal love within the Anglosphere.
We stand to learn so much more from comparative literary and linguistic explorations (translations, broadly defined) with respect to ethnic literatures. This certainly goes for Asian American literatures quietly and traditionally bounded by the United States and Canada, as literatures and writers of the Caribbean, the Pacific, and even the Indian subcontinent continue to have a straggling relationship with fields like Asian American literature and English literature. Whether we reckon with diasporic Asian writing in Portuguese, Jamaican Patwa, or Korean (say, for a Korean-born Korean Argentinian for whom such a “native” language is nonetheless foreign), the work it takes to inhabit a language that is not one’s “own” so often remains unshared. Yet we have this gift of proximity, of living among multiple bellies of the explicitly unwieldy Americas, whose messy and overlapping spaces were never American to begin with. They are places where we might learn, like the monkey of Watanabe’s “Engraved Gourd,” to try to get comfortable, that is, with never being entirely so.
Let’s quickly detour into a literary sketch not included with our following translations, “El sueño” (“The Dream”) by the Peruvian novelist Augusto Higa Oshiro. A girl with chocolate-toned skin knocks on the doors of a village, looking for water. Poor thing, there’s not enough to give you, say the neighbors. Time and again she is turned away with her earthen jar. Waqchita, they call her, in the nearly loving Spanish diminutive of wakcha—a Quechua word that may mean orphan, indigent, a vagabond without land or homeland. Dismayed and without water, the child falls asleep outside. She wakes up in a blessed inundation of endless rain—a dream, we realize, from which neither she nor her neighbors can return.
Higa Oshiro’s piece helps cohere a vital but tricky theme (“tricky” in an overtly and precariously liberal sense, as Audra Simpson uses it) that weaves across the following poems and through the works of many writers not only of the Americas, but of the Anglosphere: the honoring of native presences and indigenous life. Life that thrived differently prior to modern colonialisms and settlings; life that continues to percolate through the heavings of late capitalism. Such homages occur through indigenous language (Quechua or Aymara, in some of the poems to follow), through the mixed-race heritages and bodies of literary personae (Shimose and Watanabe, for example); or by way of natural objects and places that open into sacral vitalities, where human life need not be empirical or even unitary, but merely incidental. One senses a reverence, an awe of human meagerness, the sense of one’s ignorance of all that exceeds it. In Shimose’s poem “Huelga de hambre” (“Hunger Strike”), a despondent tin miner dares speak for the right to eat, on behalf of his hungry young family and fellow miners. In supplication he calls his boss huiracocha—a respectful yet damning term that the poet elaborates for us in a generous glossary included in his anthology Poemas: “Boss, master, patron. A legendary being deified by the Incas. The Conquistadors were identified as children of this god, and so named them ‘huiracochas.’ White men in general, by extension.” Where the clinical and juridical partition of a comarca—a Latin-derived Spanish term that may denote an administrative place or region—blurs into a lushness of leaves and snails in Wong’s poem “El jardín andino” (“The Andean Garden”), Watanabe’s “La cura” depicts a matriarch who relinquishes her young son’s sickness to an egg, through which he is cleansed.
Rather than assume a proper place for these poems with respect to an overarching narrative of Asian Anglophone diasporic writing in or beyond the Anglosphere (and then stuff it into a prefab storyboard of ethnic development, in other words), we can begin to try to constellate their multifarious elements. Indeed, constellations arrange themselves before the human eye, at least when the eye is in the right place at the right time (when one reads in another’s language, for example). If we add any constellation’s insistence on the recognition of our provisional location and necessarily partial knowledges, our questions continue to refract. How are we to reckon with heterolingual languages and literatures of the Asian diaspora, or of any ethnic, native, or diasporic literature, for that matter? Some questions get trickier, and darker. How do we qualify nativeness, that is, without branding it as “permitted” within the scarcity of Asian diasporic writing, particularly with respect to our “side” of the globe? If globalization and settler colonialisms have been ushers of immigrant and refugee literatures, how can we read diasporic Asian writing as literary work that, as it slogs across and hangs its hat upon different tongues, is work that also cooperates in the inscrutability, disappearance, and even death of native life?
Higa Oshiro, Augusto. Todos los cuentos. Campo Letrado, 2014.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Harvard University Press, 2016.
Shimose, Pedro. Poemas. Playor, 1988.
Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press, 2014.
Vucetic, Srdjan. The Anglosphere: A Genealogy of a Racialized Identity in International Relations. Stanford University Press, 2011.
Watanabe Varas, José. Cosas del cuerpo. Caballo Rojo, 1999.
—. Historia natural. PEISA, 1994.
Wong Kcomt, Julia. Ladrón de cordonices. Ediciones Patagonia, 2005.