Last week, Ángel Poyón asked me to translate a brief description of a recent piece, Kaxlanwäy (2019), for a social media post he was working on. I did just that, and since I enjoyed it so much, I asked him for permission and then put it up in a tweet. And since that was so much fun, I decided to do it again, this time featuring the work of Marilyn Boror Bor, a Kaqchikel artist working in Guatemala City. And so here we are, I’m now writing fun threads about contemporary Maya art.
This latest thread was a bit more extensive since I thought about it as a thread and I asked Marilyn to send me photos. She sent me a bunch and I managed to include quite a few. Check it out:
To learn more about Marilyn’s work, head over to the Twitter.* And yes, I’ll try to do a bunch more of these threads since the work that Maya artists are putting out is pretty sharp and deserves our attention. That, and in case you haven’t heard, some amazing contemporary Maya art will be making its way to the National Art Gallery of Canada this November, for the second Contemporary International Indigenous Art exhibition, Àbadakone | Continuous Fire | Feu continuel, which will feature more than 70 artists from all over the globe.
*I’m being facetious. Kind of. I’m fairly new at the Twitter.
A few months ago, I decided to reflect on my journey (personal, professional, and everything in between) and I ended up writing a guest blog post for the Professor Is In. The timing was just right: a book I co-authored with Paul M. Worley had just come out, things had settled at work (no strike, no new preps!), my dad had stabilized after a few gruelling years of disease and then a lung transplant, and overall, things, though busy, felt manageable.
The post I wrote didn’t come out right away, and so it stayed in the very back of my mind. It was not until it became public that I realized just how personal it was and I starting feeling overexposed, with a not insignificant desire to shut down and hide. But alas, there it was for the world to see, and comments, calls, and messages followed. The reception has been very positive and I am grateful to all those who have reached out. I won’t lie, I’m a little apprehensive as to how some colleagues may perceive it, but something I learned along this very windy road I’ve been on is that I have to shape my own narrative. I was getting pretty tired of having to explain myself and of having to put up with sneers at the mention of my non-TT career. I love my job, I have a great deal of respect for my colleagues, chair, and dean, and I like who I am where I am. I don’t expect the explanations or the sneering to go away, but things are clearer for me and I needed to say it aloud, for some reason.
This fall my school is actively thinking ways in which we faculty can engage in applied research more fully. This still leaves me out in the cold since that’s not the kind of research I do, but I appreciate that we’re talking about it. As I mentioned in that guest blog post, my chair has been nothing but supportive of my research—for instance, he found me help with the indexing of UnwritingMaya Literature and for that I am mega grateful. I confess, I don’t see myself taking on applied research. I’ve found my groove and, more importantly, I am deeply committed to the work I do and the people I work with. Perhaps I’m being closed-minded to the possibility of doing that kind of research, but so far, I just don’t see how I’d make it work. That, and taking on a new field/methodology/project would mean time away from current projects and from some pretty amazing people. With a heavy teaching load (5-5) it is hard to find the time to do the research I want to do given that it is not a job requirement; that means I have to be selective and very strategic about the work I choose to do.
In a few weeks I will be giving a brief talk on working at a
Canadian institution for an online Academic
Job Market Conference by Beyond the Professoriate. I’m not sure what I’ll
be talking about, but I hope I can at least let others know that it is possible
to veer off course (by circumstance or by choice) and still find a place where
you can do meaningful work. The trick for me has been a balancing act:
recognizing and respecting my priorities, and, if necessary, making sacrifices
but only the ones I choose to make. I am aware that I speak from a place of
privilege because I am able to make those choices, reflect, and course correct
without taking devastating financial, personal, or professional hits. But one
thing is certain: every decision (bad, good, and debatable) up to this point
has been mine and that feels pretty good. For now, I’ll keep on trucking,
thinking about things, writing, teaching, and staying quick on my feet for
whatever life hurls my way.
A Couple of PSAs
Almost a decade ago, my dad was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a rare, incurable disease. In 2017 he received a lung transplant at Toronto General Hospital. The process was long and difficult but worth every wait (at the ER, doctor’s office, PT clinic, on the transplant list, in traffic etc.), every phone call, every setback. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of becoming an organ donor, so if you’re in Canada or anywhere else with an organ donation program, make sure you register. In Canada, you can easily do so online: https://www.beadonor.ca/
As for the two coaching services I mentioned, I think we tend
to undervalue the importance of professional help, particularly in a career with
processes as isolating as ours. Back when I was in the midst of quitting my TT
job, the help of a coach from the University of Ottawa’s PD Institute was
instrumental. Though I had strong support systems and a good professional network,
the clarity that a third party brought to my experience was invaluable. Check out
the Professor Is In and Beyond the Professoriate for academic coaching. They
both have solid social media presences and are reputable (and no, I am not
making a cent for singing their praises):
The Professor Is In is a coaching service for academics navigating tenure, promotion, and everything in between. It’s POC, queer, and women friendly.
Beyond the Professoriate is a counselling/coaching service geared primarly towards graduate students and newly-minted PhDs.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
Durante la FILGUA 2019 que se celebra en julio en Guatemala, con mi colega Paul M. Worley tuvimos la oportunidad de presentar nuestro libro Unwriting Maya Literature. Para nosotros ha sido muy importante presentarlo en Guatemala porque podemos compartir con lectores, escritores y críticos lo que venimos trabajando desde ya hace varios años. Sin embargo, el libro está en inglés, se publica en EEUU y tiene un alto costo. Lo ideal sería poder contar con una traducción, pero eso cuesta tiempo y dinero y no contamos con esas posibilidades en estos momentos. Se nos ocurrió, entonces, realizar un ensayo corto en español para introducir los planteamientos principales del libro de libre y amplio acceso para iniciar el diálogo. En el ensayo discutimos brevemente nuestras posiciones, así como el asunto de publicar en inglés en Norteamérica sobre un tema que geográficamente se ubica en Guatemala y México. Compartimos por este medio el ensayo (por favor hacer clic en la liga para descargar el archivo PDF). Esperamos que esta pequeña introducción dé mucho que pensar e impulse nuevas ideas, intercambios y conexiones.
A few weeks ago, Paul and I were guests on Historias, a podcast from the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies (SECOLAS), where we had a chance to talk about our book, Unwriting Maya Literature, with the host, Steven Hyland. It was pretty fun though I was a nervous mess—and that was nothing compared to the day it was released when I seriously considered hiding under a rock for a few days. Eventually, I came around and made peace with my overly-critical inner monster who has severe bouts of imposter syndrome. And so I present to you Episode 53, available for your listening pleasure over at Historias: