On Access, Publication, and Dialogue: A Quick Recap on the Making of Des-escribir

Hilo sobre la publicación de Des-escribir en español (Twitter)

Recently I posted about a small publication, a short essay, on Twitter and on Facebook in Spanish, but had not yet addressed it in English. Part of it has to do with the fact that the essay is written in Spanish, for a Spanish-speaking audience specifically, but I think it merits some reflection in English given that this is ‘a practice well worth considering,’ as Luz Lepe Lira noted in a wonderful shout-out during a panel about the self-translation of Indigenous texts during the third Conferencia Internacional sobre Literatura Centroamericana Contemporánea (CILCAC).

Scroll down or click for TL;DR version.

The background

Earlier this year, our book, Unwriting Maya Literature: Ts’íib as Recorded Knowledge (2019) came out and we had the privilege of presenting it at LASA in May 2019 alongside Gloria Chacón’s Indigenous Cosmolectics (2018), Arturo Arias’ Recovering Lost Footprints vols. 1 and 2 (2017 and 2018), and Luz Lepe Lira’s Relatos de la diferencia y literatura indígena (2018). Shortly after our star-studded panel, which included commentary by Dr. Robert Warrior, Paul and I talked about what it meant to publish in English and to take Unwriting to Guatemala in July and present it at FILGUA (Feria Internacional del Libro en Guatemala), one of Central America’s largest and most respected international book fairs. The book would not be available for purchase, though we would have fliers with discount codes at the ready for those interested thanks to the awesome marketing team at UAP. However, we recognized that the reality was different: we would speak about the book but very few people would purchase it let alone read it given the language of publication, its steep price, and the difficulty of shipping given Guatemala’s non-existent postal service. In many ways, presenting it in Guatemala felt like an empty gesture. We talked about depositing a copy at the Biblioteca Nacional but this, again, would only address access to the physical text but not the language issue. We began asking ourselves: why can’t we just summarize the main ideas in Spanish? Why not offer something easily accessible that can spark dialogue and allow our friends and colleagues whose ideas we engage with to read themselves and us?

The digital text

And so, we began writing a summary, which opened up with a reflection and self-critique on what it means to write in English about Maya literature, which is often written or translated into Spanish, the language that was forced upon the original peoples of Abiyala. We weren’t sure how it would be received, but we thought it was important to put it out there. The final text is twelve pages long, including a bibliography, all under a Creative Commons license so that it can be easily accessed and distributed. As a publication, it likely does not count in the North American academic promotion system. The ideas that make up the summary are peer-reviewed, insofar they derive directly from Unwriting. The reflection part is an unglamorous exercise in self-flagellation that may seem unbecoming to some, but that has struck a chord with others. Des-escribir la literatura maya: una propuesta desde el ts’íib is available on various platforms, so please feel free to download it and share it.

The artisanal text

As we revised the text and thought of how best to put it online, we began toying with the idea of a hardcopy, something we could distribute among those artists, friends, and colleagues who helped us and who would otherwise not be able to read Unwriting in English. We immediately thought of reaching out to poet-maker-artist Manuel Tzoc Bucup. Alongside Chilean artist Rodrigo Arenas-Carter, Tzoc Bucup runs Ediciones La maleta ilegal, a small independent editorial project based in Guatemala City. We chatted with Tzoc Bucup and got the ball rolling. He and Arenas-Carter would do a small run of Des-escribir before FILGUA, not under the label La maleta ilegal but as its own thing. The result was a beautiful handcrafted volume that is everything we had hoped for. Tzoc Bucup decided on the colour Maya blue for the cover and headings, yellow for the inside cover, and he carefully thought of the cover design, bouncing around the idea of maíz. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we had to quickly look elsewhere for an appropriate cover design.

Photo of Des-escribir (artisanal edition).
Des-escribir la literatura maya: Una propuesta desde el ts’íib (2019).

Finding Xaq

A week before we came to a standstill with Des-escribir, I had visited visual artist Marilyn Boror Bor. We had been exchanging DMs for a few months, and shortly after I arrived in Guatemala we finally had the chance to meet and chat in person. Her work is challenging, dealing with issues of memory, language, and racism from the perspective of a Maya woman who now resides and works in the capital. One of her works, Diccionario de los objetos olvidados (2016), a brilliant take on culture, language, and loss, plays with muted colours, objects of significance to Maya people, and the idea of a visual Kaqchikel-Spanish dictionary. As soon as we found out we needed an image, I thought of Marilyn’s Diccionario. I approached her, though with apprehension, because I knew we didn’t have a whole lot of funds to purchase the rights to an image (it’s worth mentioning that Des-escribir is entirely self-published and self-funded), and because we are also aware of the importance of remunerating someone, particularly an artist, for her work. We came to an agreement and were incredibly honoured to be able to use Xaq, an entry of her Diccionario consisting of an image of a piece of charcoal and its definition/translation: tizne (soot) and tizón (charcoal or a charred log). The examples of how the word is used really spoke to us and to our project:

Los niños están dibujando en las paredes con tizón. Rik’in ri xaq yekib’anala’ taq wachib’äl ri ak’wäla’ chuwäch ri jay. La olla que se trajo la señora tenía mucho tizne. K’o xaq chi rij ri b’ojo’y xutelej pe ri ixöq.

The children are drawing on the walls using charcoal. The pot that the lady brought had too much soot.

Marilyn Boror Bor. “Xaq” in Diccionario de los objetos olvidados. (2016).
Photo of page 23 of Des-escribir (artisanal edition), featuring image of Xaq.

Des-escribir o el mini-libro

Des-escribir had a very limited run, which was done for two reasons: 1. the text is readily available online as a PDF and 2. as we told everyone, every single copy of the print version “ya tiene nombre.” Those who received copies were people who had helped us out, who wanted to read themselves/us in Unwriting, but more importantly, people who would not otherwise have access to the methodology we propose. Interestingly, despite a PDF on multiple platforms, people who can readily access the English version (i.e., North American academics) wanted their own physical copy of Des-escribir. “No,” we said time and time again. We even wondered if we were being too guarded and ungenerous, and more than once turned to each other to confirm that the mini-libro was meant only for the artists, writers, makers, and friends who saw us through and do not read/speak English. All hardcopies are in the hands of those wonderful friends and co-conspirators, as they should be. Looking back now, I can say that we were also trying to flip the script and maybe even spark a conversation around issues of access. Overall, I think Des-escribir has been a good discussion starter, though the feedback has mostly come in the form of social media re-shares, thank-yous, and even silences. When we set out to write it, we just wanted to make sure there was something in a language other than English that others could sink their teeth into and not feel as though they had no business with it. But it soon became a reflection/self-critique, because we really had to think about what we were doing and what it meant. We have far to go, however. We would love to offer an entire translation of the book, but that is beyond anything we can do at the moment. Moving forward we will be more mindful of what and how we do it, particularly as it concerns multiple language barriers, power dynamics, and hierarchies. And we hope others take up the challenge and issue new ones.

Photo of initial pages of Des-escribir, artisanal edition. Bibliographic information and introductory note.

Final thoughts

We recently received a beautiful note from Ángelica Serech, a wonderful textile artist from Comalapa, letting us know that she had gotten her copy of Des-escribir and read it multiple times. I am deeply humbled that such a simple action on our part is resonating strongly with those who would otherwise not be able to access our book. I am also very proud that Des-escribir’s bibliography is made up of nearly 65% Indigenous authors. This we discovered while we waited for a shuttle to FILGUA that never came. The best part is that including all those Indigenous voices was not intentional when we set out to write it, but it actually reflects the methodology we propose and the praxis we strive for (for more on changing general citational practices in North America in other fields, see the hashtags #CiteHer, #CitePOC, #CiteBlackWomen, and #CiteWoC on Twitter). And, as I’ve said before, the work is only beginning and we hope others take up the challenge. Neither one of us is housed at big research institution, has fancy grants, or a whole lot of time (or money) for the work we do, but we do have meaningful connections to the people and places we work with. This is not a complaint (though it may be when I am saddled with five classes this coming semester) but an observation that I hope encourages other (Latin American) Indigenous Studies scholars to really think about what it means to do what we do from where we do it. We hope this is the start of a long overdue dialogue that not only addresses our research but also our practices. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

A clarification or TL;DR

Unwriting Maya Literature: Ts’íib as Recorded Knowledge (2019) is a full-length study, available for purchase at the University of Arizona Press. Here’s a handy 30% off discount code: AZFLR.

Des-escribir la literatura maya: Una propuesta desde el ts’íib (2019) is a short essay in Spanish that is both a reflection/self-critique and a summary of the main ideas in Unwriting. There are two editions: a sold-out artisanal edition and an open-access PDF.

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