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Book Reviews Letters From Latin America: December 4, 2022

LEO BOIX reviews of Temporary Archives: Poems by Women of Latin America, Ten Planets by Mexican Yuri Herrera, Voyager, Constellations of Memory by Chilean Nona Fernandez

LATIN AMERICA is a vast region of many cultures, peoples, histories and languages that defy all categorisations and resists simplifications.

Temporary Archives: Poems by Women of Latin America (bilingual), edited by Juana Adcock and Jessica Pujol Duran (Arc Publications, £14.39) brings together a generation of interesting 24 contemporary women poets from the region.

It includes poems originally written in Spanish, Portuguese, Zoque, Quechua and other indigenous languages, making this project an outstanding translation enterprise.

Many poets will be unknown to English readers despite having a wide readership in their own countries.

The title is taken from a line in Venezuelan Gladys Mendia poem: “the mosaic voice   the fragmented voice    the voice many voices    layers of voices shuddering  the quotation   the exotic  the ordinary  the exquisite   the uneasy voice the strong   voice  the complaining voice  our impure voice branded into so many voices   by biological necessity by adaptation by logic by trial by proposal   by enthusiasm without theories  with temporary archives.”

The poem encapsulates many of the themes and preoccupations of poets included in the anthology. From the female body, gender violence and the diversity of women’s voices and experiences to the linguistic innovations in Latin American poetry.

It is an impressive and ambitious project that deserves a wide readership.

Among my favourites is Guatemalan Rosa Chavez, who questions Hispanic America and colonialism in Abya Yala; Elvira Espejo from Bolivia, writes haiku-type poems in Quechua which are full of music, mythology and rhythm; Chilean Elvira Hernandez, offers her opus magnum The Chilean Flag on Chilean history, violence and nationalism.

Josely Vianna Baptista from Brazil, draws from the Concrete poetry movement born in her country in the ’50s and ’60s to create highly experimental and visually arresting poems. Maximiliano Sojo, a trans man from Venezuela writes about language, the patriarchal society and trans bodies.

The book is a must-read.   
Ten Planets, by Yuri Herrera (And Other Stories, £11.99), is a collection of short stories that take science fiction to a new level. Herrera, a prize-winning author of books such as Signs Preceding the End of the World (2015) and The Transmigration of Bodies (2016), creates a fantastic universe of different realities and possibilities that challenge not only traditional story-telling and sci-fi canons but also language itself.

Each story in this collection, beautifully translated by Lisa Dillman, explores life and the endless variations of time, space and gravity. In House Taken Over, a family lives in an intelligent house that slowly takes over their lives and eventually expels them from their home, drawing comparisons from Julio Cortazar’s story of the same title.

The Last Ones explores a future after Earth’s climate catastrophe with unexpected results. As the protagonist becomes the first human to cross the Atlantic on foot.

As Dillman explains in her translator’s note, Herrera’s writing is full of polysemous words, a world of ideas where meaning is never fixed. Ten Planets encapsulates Hererra’s mastery of language, his unique imagination where always something unexpected awaits you.

In Voyager: Constellations of Memory (Daunt Books, £9.99), Chilean Nona Fernandez looks up at the sky to establish connections between human existence and the cosmos.

This non-fiction, translated by Natasha Wimmer, searches for personal and historical answers in a post-dictatorship Chile. It is a moving narrative about the memories of an ageing mother, national forgetfulness, and the victims of Augusto Pinochet’s bloody regime.

In her meditation she connects the Atacama, as the place where many people were killed and “disappeared” under the dictatorship, and the reality of the desert that is, with its many large telescopes, the best environment in the world for star observation.

Fernandez mentions the Amnesty International petition to rename 26 stars with the names of Chileans executed in the infamous Caravan of Death that ended in the Atacama desert nearly half a century ago.

She becomes a godmother to one of the stars bearing the name of Mario Arguelles Toro and her interactions with Toro’s wife Violeta, is one of the book's most moving accounts: “Now Violeta is eighty, just as my mother will be in a few days. Violeta looks at me and tells me she’s tired. Sick and tired. A psychiatrist has recommended she let Mario go, leave the past behind; her body and mind can no longer sustain the umbilical cord that joins them. It’s too much for her, too heavy, in these dark waters that she’s had to throw herself into. Better to get her head above water and come up for air. Breathe.”

A powerful and necessary book by one of Chile’s most impressive writers.


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