On the 79th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Walt Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass. That such quintessentially American poetry would be published on a day commemorating the country’s birth suggests both homage and irony — perhaps intentional.
But when Pablo Landeo Muñoz published his novel Aqupampa (Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos) on the day of his native Peru’s independence, he meant it as an act of literary insurrection.
That’s because Landeo’s novel, which centers on the experience of Andean indigenous migrants living in Lima between 1970 and 2000, was written and published only in Quechua, and the author has been vehement in saying that it should never be translated into Spanish. To find out why, and to ask what role writers have in defining shared visions of country, identity and place, AQ exchanged emails with Landeo from his home in France. The interview has been translated from Spanish and edited lightly for clarity and length.
Americas Quarterly: This is a Quechua text, written in Paris, that you have specifically wished not to be translated into Spanish. Let’s discuss the work of the writer as a type of cartographer, and language as a tool in defining place.
Pablo Landeo Muñoz: The writer — consciously or not — is responsible for the creation of a map of discourse because he or she knits together a story, establishes coordinates, landmarks, and erects the slopes of fiction. The writer refines, illustrates and names the uncharted territories that run through his words, words that become monsters and siren songs, heroes and villains. Maps become visible regardless of the language they are drawn in. Aqupampa is, it seems, the most visible cartography of narrative in Quechua.
AQ: Does the decision to oppose a translation of the text into Spanish illuminate the existence of this uncharted world?
PLM: What changes in the novel is the perspective from which it is written and the language used. The style, the force and majesty of the Andes, migration and the violence experienced by the people that live there, all give this place its particular meaning. In Aqupampa, it is the Andean that speaks for himself, rather than any of his traditional representatives.
AQ: The novel describes the violence of the Sendero Luminoso, one of the most bloody guerrilla groups in Latin American history. What new map of Peru is being created by telling this particular story in Quechua?
PLM: In Aqupampa, we bear witness to the plight of a marginal urban world. In this world, we see the capacity for Andean migrants to enter into a hostile and unknown space, we see the will to preserve their traditions through connections with their ancestors and the practice of fundamental values, such as reciprocity. The changes that happen in the linguistic context are those that, without a doubt, have a transcendental impact on political life. The book questions the attitudes of the colonizers of the state, who use education to secure their objectives; it questions the old forms of making literature and literary criticism.
AQ: In the context of Peru, thinking again about the map and the upcoming independence bicentennial (in 2021), what does Aqupampa tell us, written as it is within a geography that is essentially inward looking?
PLM: For its revitalization and its development, Quechua must cease to be classified as a “subalternate” language and shed itself of translated versions, which serve as a type of prosthesis that limits the language from walking freely. I mean to say, Quechua needs to own its condition as an autonomous language and be used in all aspects of daily life. For that reason — and speaking now to my fellow Wawqi — I would allow myself to ask a question in Andean, in Serrano, in Quechua: Bicentenario pachapi, nuqanchik runakunaqa, imatam hayllisunchik? That is, for the Runa, for the Andeans, what will we be celebrating on the bicentennial of our independence?
AQ: For those of us who cannot read Quechua and who have to accept the deliberate omission of a Spanish translation, how can we approach Aqupampa as a literary work?
PLM: In Peru there are two types of people who are unable to read Quechua: those for whom Spanish is their first language and they don’t know Quechua to begin with, and those who are Andean-descendant and have Quechua as their first language and Spanish as their second. The second group read in Spanish but can’t do so in Quechua because the Peruvian education system is little interested in the cultural aspects of native language, if at all. Nevertheless, in this second group there are potential readers, those who must exercise their right to read, write and speak in their native tongue and, as such, rather than a “deliberate omission,” writing in Quechua without a translation to the Spanish for me is a historic decision. For both classes of readers, the novel is a challenge that exists, in addition to a change in attitude, a spirit of breaking with tradition. For that I would call on the reader with a spirit of rebellion to oppose the idea of Quechua as an eternal companion to Spanish, that can’t say a word, without its own autonomy.