“We are a fragment, perhaps a line, of that great book called nature; not the center”

The renowned Mapuche poet, National Literature Award Winner 2020, and one of the most anticipated guests of the 47th Buenos Aires International Book Fair, states that all words originate from nature. And he adds:

“Everything is poetic word and, therefore, memory. It’s the way to remind humans that we are part of this Universe.”

Elicura Chihuailaf Nahuelpan (Quechurehue, Cunco, 1952) moves calmly among the streets of Cerro Alegre, Valparaíso, where he has been invited by the Regional Office of the Cultures Ministry for a series of exhibitions. He watches everything carefully. “This is my favorite time, autumn,” declares one of our country’s most important poets, the only Mapuche writer honored with the National Literature Award (2020) in its 81-year history. Widely lauded and internationally recognized, his poetry books have been translated into 20 languages, including French, English, Greek, Italian, German, Hungarian, Finnish, Swedish, Russian, Estonian, Arabic and Mandarin. All of them have the word ‘blue’ in the title: El invierno, su imagen y otros poemas azules (Winter, its image and other blue poems, 1991); De sueños azules y contrasueños (Of blue dreams and counter-dreams, 1995); A orillas de un sueño azul (On the shores of a blue dream, 2010); La vida es una nube azul (Life is a blue cloud, 2016), Sueños de luna azul y otros cantos (Blue moon dreams and other songs, 2018); and El azul del tiempo que nos sueña (The blue of time that dreams us, 2020).

“It’s the fundamental color of my culture,” he explains. “For us, the Mapuche people came from blue; not any old blue but the color of the east, where the moon and the sun rise. It allows us to think that the earth is one great garden. There are native peoples who have other favorite colors, and a garden is precisely the acceptance of a diversity of colors, of the importance of all the flowers. When one withers or disappears, an entire garden is lost.”

—It’s possible to distinguish the powerful connection of the Mapuche people with poetic speech and nature in your words.
—Like all native peoples who have the possibility of living in such a rich and varied environment, a permanent reading of that great book that is nature is always present. And, as our elders say, we have the task of reading it, knowing that we are only a fragment, perhaps a line, of that great book; not the center. It’s from there that our words come. The forest, the water, the desert, the rocks, the sands all speak. And we assume the presence of onomatopoeia, which is where all languages begin. And he explains:
—Everything begins with observation; then, little by little, we move towards silence, and from silence towards contemplation, creation and, finally, conversation. And the art of conversation isn’t related to how we express our thoughts, but to whether we have learned to listen to be able to enter into in-depth dialogue with what surrounds us, whether they are people or stones, which are apparently innate but have a spirit…

—Stones have a spirit?
—Of course. Everything has a spirit: animals, plants, flowers, birds, clouds, water… When we observe everything that’s in nature, understanding that nature is part of something infinite, then everything speaks to us.

—When you say that the stones, the clouds, the earth have a spirit, it’s impossible not to think about the climate crisis we’re living through… How do you interpret it from that point of view?
—We consider the Earth our mother and father. She gives us everything we need to live. That’s why in my essay “Recado confidencial a los chilenos y chilenas” (Confidential message to Chilean men and women), I say that we are warriors out of tenderness; that we rise up, not in a hostile way, but in tenderness in defense of our mother-father. That’s the relationship we have with Mother Earth and, therefore, with the Universe.

—What does the Earth want to tell us when we are facing the worst climate crisis in history?
—The Earth is a living being and, from the moment we have consciousness, we know that we’re only a small part of her. When we enter a forest and take away a tree, we ask permission; it’s not about saying, ‘here I go and we sweep everything away’. That relationship has been forgotten by the powerful humans who simply assume their arrogance and think that it’s of no consequence; and if they do, they don’t care. This whole climate problem is precisely because of the arrogance of the groups of power that have led us to this. If you act with negative energies, as the groups of power do, Earth’s response will be defensive.

—What then would be the role of literature, poetry, art in general, as a vehicle to relate to and better understand nature?
—Everything is poetic word and, therefore, memory. It’s the way to remind humans that we are part of this Universe. That’s what the poetic word is for, to bring us together; if not, what use would it be? The poetic word isn’t only verse; it’s also gestures, color, flavor, aroma, texture… The poetic word is, therefore, an appeal to that memory, to insist that humans belong to nature, without differences.

—The director of UNESCO, Audrey Azuley, spoke of you as an ‘echo poet’, “a man who expresses with powerful eloquence this link between indigenous knowledge and the protection of ecosystems.” Do you think of yourself as such?
—I feel like a person who appeals to that ancient wisdom that our grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts transmitted to us, and who is simply in harmony with what we belong to. We have to defend nature; we have to listen to her… I don’t know if that is what’s called ‘echo’. What interests me is that nature is a living being, and that is what I try to express in my words.
And, staring fixedly, he adds:
—I don’t feel part of literature; I was born and raised in the oral tradition of my elders. I accessed literature and education, but never literature understood as such. I feel myself inhabiting an unnamed space, an empty space, between orality and literature, the ‘oraliterature’. I feel like a channel fed by two shores, one is orality and the other is literature; so, I continue being an ‘oralitor’ (carrier of the oral tradition).

—Neruda and Mistral, who you’ve translated into Mapudungun, had an important connection with nature; it was a great source of inspiration for their poetic work…
—Precisely for this reason, I also consider them ‘oralitores’. Translating Neruda’s work, I know that he knew the Mapuche world. When he says of Lautaro, “elastic and blue was our father,” it’s clearly so. In another of his poems he says: “I rolled through the stars; my heart was unleashed on the wind.” That’s a native image.

—Santiago will be the guest of honor at the 47th Buenos Aires International Book Fair. A place originally inhabited by our ancestral peoples and which today is home to diverse cultures. How do you see it?
—Santiago is the capital to which people arrived who were shaping the sphere of what is called ‘the artistic’, and where you also find literature. But, how many of those who have stood out in Chilean literature are actually from Santiago? Neruda, Mistral, Rojas, Teillier, Arteche, etc. Santiago is full of the provinces. I have the impression that the capital has a different rhythm; I always avoid her. It’s like a river or estuary that wants to speed up its natural movement. I say this as a confirmation, not as criticism or resentment, but from observation. I’m not interested in arguing. What interests me is the search for dialogue, to make an art out of conversation.

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