Blessed Journey, an Interview with Poet and Translator Liliana Valenzuela
by Millicent Borges Accardi
A juggernaut and acclaimed translator of literary works by Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Denise Chávez, Nina Marie Martínez, Ana Castillo, Dagoberto Gilb, Richard Rodríguez, Cristina García, Gloria Anzaldúa, and many others, Liliana Valenzuela is also a talented poet in her own right. Born in Mexico City, Valenzuela is the author of Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino, a recent chapbook of poetry, as well essays and poetry publications in The Edinburgh Review, Indiana Review, Tigertail, and other journals.
A lively performer, Valenzuela was recently engaged to record the audiobook for La casa en Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros for Random House.Valenzuela is past Director of the American Translators Association, as well as a CantoMundo fellow. Across many genres, she has translated literary works, art and photography books, museum catalogs, and web sites. She received a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and Folklore from the University of Texas at Austin, where she now lives with her family.
This summer, she kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Poets’ Quarterly and here are her responses. I have been honored to know Liliana through the poetry fellowship CantoMundo.
Who are your favorite writers?
Nezahualcoyotl the pre-Columbian poet king, Federico García Lorca, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Rosario Castellanos, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Octavio Paz, Sandra Cisneros, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, Coral Bracho, Martín Espada, and many others.
What is your favorite quote?
“To live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else.” I love that sense of wonder, of being perennially astounded by everything in the world, whether good or bad, that literally takes your breath away. And then to attempt to write about it in a way that conveys that astonishment.
Your chapbook “Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino” translates into English as Blessed Journey. How has poetry been a blessed journey for you?
This slender collection is part of a larger manuscript. This section contains poems about looking out at the world, literally as traveling to other countries like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cuba, Mexico, and figuratively as encountering the other, finding similarities and differences in others we perceive as different, or who perceive us as different. And then the crossing of sensual and spiritual boundaries as well. Also, I didn’t want the title and the subtitle to be an exact translation, but rather an extension, a complement of sorts.
So many women have issues with their sense of belonging, do you feel women’s voices have been silenced? Discouraged? Marginalized? Particularly Hispanic women?
Growing up they definitely were. Coming of age in Mexico City in the 70’s, all I read in literature classes were male writers, with a few exceptions. It wasn’t until I was in college in Austin that I took a class called “Experimental Women Writers” that I felt the light bulb turn on, and felt that my experience was also a legitimate writing topic, and that the style was wide open.
Also, as a light-skinned Mexican, I had always felt as an outsider in my own country, and in a way I had to come to the United States to blend in. But as soon as I opened my mouth, people would ask me where I was from, so I’ve never really belonged anywhere. But I like that there are so many immigrants here and you can reinvent yourself. And I had to come here to have the courage to write about things that I would’ve perhaps not dared to had I stayed. Writing in English some of the time gave me an additional safe distance from which to write.
What questions of identity do immigrant women share? Are these issues different for first generation versus second or third?
As an immigrant poet I share questions of place, family, religion, patriarchy, food, nostalgia, adaptation to the new culture with other immigrant women. But as a whole, I’m not as traditional, being an artist. In my culture we’re very amoeba-like, always sticking close to one another, and to write you need space, some distance from which to observe things. Second and third generation women are a lot more Americanized, and sometimes they have a nostalgia for a lost country of origin many have never been to. I know where I come from, which doesn’t mean I could go back and live there. I’ve become a different person now.
What role does family and culture play in poetry written by women?
It’s big. Just like identity and place is for all non mainstream poets. We have to start out by naming ourselves into history or her-story, after being silenced and suppressed for so many centuries. We have to describe, portray, tell stories through our poetry. And hopefully we do it slant, like Emily Dickinson admonished. And perhaps after telling our truth, we have the choice to become more fragmented and abstract.
The poet, Richard Blanco, said of your book, “Word by word, line by line, it entrances with its crisp rhythms echoing in the heart and transfixes with its luminous images, vibrating on the page. Spare and full of light, each poem is like a tiny x-ray of the soul, capturing so much of what is not seen by the naked eye underneath.” Do you feel as if poets are essentially witnesses to life?
We are, we observe, we take note, we feel and report. But, there is more to it than that. All those experiences and mental notes come in the form of music, of rhythm, of wild associations that happen to tell the truth, our own truth. There is room in poetry to speak about anything at all in human experience.
You’re a charter member of the Latino/a poetry fellowship CantoMundo, can you describe your experience? What you have gained and taken away from being part of CantoMundo?
I like that…charter member…It has meant a lot to me, finding Latino poets with similar life journeys, yet each unique, each from our many Latinidades, as no two are alike. I love seeing and hearing the myriad voices, with some common threads. And no need to explain why two languages are often necessary to fully express ourselves. We’re coming into our own, and I’m humbled to be a part of this inaugural cohort. And studying with the master poets has given me new tools, a renewed sense of commitment and possibility. It’s also important to help bring on the new generations.
What is your /heritage? Background?
No one really knows. The only great-grandfather I have knowledge of came from Asturias, Spain. My great-aunt Josefina in Mexico used to say he had land and riches, but when I visited Asturias 100 years after his immigration to Mexico, the family there claimed he left with the clothes on his back. The families kept correspondence for generations and we maintain it still, now through email.
My father’s family came from Tabasco, but no one knows where they came from originally. Legend has it that there were three Valenzuela brothers who got kicked out of Spain and they ended up in northern Mexico, southern Mexico (Tabasco) and South America.
Culturally, I’m all mestiza, the blending of Spanish and Indigenous. And I also claim Mayan heritage as evident in my nose.
What project are you working on right now? If it is poetry-based, can you share an excerpt with us?
I’m translating a few of Sandra Cisneros’ new poems. And I’m working on my own poems, exploring new paths, cracking open languages, nothing concrete yet.
You have translated MANY great writers from Spanish to English? Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Cristina García, Denise Chávez. What affect has this had on your own writing?
It’s the other way around, from English into Spanish. You always translate into your mother tongue, especially with literature. I’ve translated mostly fiction and non-fiction, so that keeps a healthy distance from poetry. I can work all day translating a novel, yet go home to write a poem, as the forms are so different. Yet authors like Cisneros and García have such poetic language that their cadences do imbue my writing and help develop my sensibility. It’s a way of inhabiting another writer’s world for months at a time, and I’ve been fortunate to work with first-rate writers, so I always come away enriched.
How do women writers find their own space and establish a sense of belonging?
It was hardest when I was raising young children, with not a lot of available time nor a support system. I really had to be stubborn about it. Now that they’re grown, and I’ve learned to focus and make good use of even of small chunks of time, it’s easier. I’m also a member of the CantoMundo workshop, as well as Macondo Writers workshop, so it’s wonderful to be in such company. All those writers and activists are such an inspiration to me.
Was there a topic you would like to address that I did not mention?
The issue of being a bi-literate, bilingual writer. It’s a lot of terrain to cover, two large literary traditions, and at times it makes you crazy, going back and forth, but I think there’s a lot to be gained from the clash and cross-pollination of English and Spanish that is birthing a new form of expression.
Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So (forthcoming). She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming. The Voice Behind the Words, a collection of interviews with Portuguese-American writers is due out in 2014. Follow her @TopangaHippie on Twitter.