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Understanding the ‘Double Gaze’ of Indigenous Poets

book coverIn “Indigenous Cosmolectics: Kab’awil and the Making of Maya and Zapotec Literatures,” UC San Diego Department of Literature associate professor Dr. Gloria E. Chacón argues that Indigenous creative writing — contemporary authors using Indigenous languages, oral traditions, and new representations of nation and self — is a key component to expressing cultural and political autonomy for Indigenous communities.

Ahead of the international symposium “Indigenous Writers and Their Critics (PDF)” held at UC San Diego Feb. 24-25, Chacón answers questions about her motivation for the book, what she hopes all will take away from actively participating in Indigenous poetry, and the Maya philosophy of kab’awil, or “double gaze.”

What was the starting point for you in writing the book? What questions were you interested in exploring?

In the book, I set out to respond to problems I saw in Latin American literary historiography.

One issue is that within the nation states of Mesoamerica, Indigenous peoples are not seen as producers of literature. National literatures in Latin America have been seen as part of a larger European-Spanish tradition.

Secondly, I wanted to demonstrate that Indigenous peoples continue grappling with colonialism. Latin American independence did not mean Indigenous people experienced a postcolonial state but, more importantly, this political entity should not be ground zero for discussing the genesis of literature among Indigenous nations, as the literature transcends current geopolitical borders.

I also wanted to demonstrate that struggle for knowledge-production and representation is not an abstraction or removed from the political, and I wanted to move beyond the usual analytical discourse available to scholars in Latin American literary studies, where mestizaje, hybridity and transculturation have been the dominant way of thinking of social, literary and cultural relations. Indeed, not long ago, eminent Latin American critics expressed skepticism over whether Indigenous literature even existed.

In what ways do you hope your work will contribute to teaching students, as well as the general public?

In some ways, this was an attempt for me as part of the Maya Ch’orti’ diaspora on my father’s side to theorize — in a succinct manner — the sublime and political resonances of Indigenous poetry.

I hope the public gets a better understanding and appreciation that the creation of poetry and stories have always had an important place in Indigenous communities, but that the residues of colonial thinking have kept Indigenous stories at the margin of intellectual conversations and dialogues.

I hope to inspire the public to go out of their way to listen to contemporary poetry in Indigenous languages. I think, no matter who you are, it is important to hear the sounds of languages that developed in this continent over millennia and that continue, albeit facing endangerment.

I hope my book serves a spark for newer generations to think of the place of knowledge-making and how central Indigenous people are to those conversations.

You use the term “a double gaze” when discussing translation. Could you explain more of that this means?

The reference to ‘double gaze’ is to the Maya [concept of] kab’awil. It is a compound word — ‘ka,’ which translates into ‘two’ — and ‘wil,’ the verb ‘to see.’

I use this concept as an example of what I call an Indigenous cosmolectics, or that enduring relationship Indigenous communities have with the cosmos and society. Many scholars define the concept as ‘two visions at the same time, to see in the darkness and in lightness, to see close and far, a “doble mirada / double gaze.”’

I found it applicable to the process of translation because the writers have to translate their own work and thus find themselves creating two versions simultaneously. Those texts, of course, generate other translations: therefore visions. 

I came across other concepts like kab’awil that unify multiple temporal visions that express complementary and contradictory elements. In terms of results, what is unique is the way the contemporary Maya and Zapotec texts straddle the past and the present.