What follows is a virtual roundtable discussion with six contributors to a newly published anthology I’ve edited called Poems from the Edge of Extinction (Chambers, 2019). The poets were asked these questions over email, though I would like the reader to imagine them sat around a table, similar to the setting for Plato’s Symposium.
The idea for Poems from the Edge of Extinction came out of the Endangered Poetry Project which was launched at the National Poetry Library in 2017 as part of Southbank Centre’s Poetry International festival. This ongoing project attempts to collect examples of poetry from all the world’s endangered languages as a matter of urgency. It is estimated that half of the world’s 7,000 languages will fall silent by the end of the century. Poems from the Edge of Extinction includes work from 50 poets whose language is identified as in some way vulnerable or endangered. This feature for MPT brings together six poets, one from each continent:
Recaredo Boturu (Equatorial Guinea) who writes in the Bubi language (his answers here are translated from Spanish by David Shook)
Joy Harjo (United States) whose poem in the anthology is written in the First Nation Creek language of Mvskoke
Nineb Lamassu (Iraq) who writes in Assyrian
Valzhyna Mort (Belarusia) whose poem in the anthology is written in Belarusian
Vaughan Rapatahana (New Zealand) who writes in Māori
Zubair Torwali (Pakistan) who collects poems written in Torwali
– Chris McCabe, September 2019
Chris McCabe: What pressures are your first language placed under?
Joy Harjo: Our tribal languages have suffered under the domination of the English language. My first language was not Mvskoke, nor was it my father’s language. His mother spoke and many of his family members spoke and still do. It’s difficult to maintain but there are efforts within our tribal nation to grow the language in the community, especially beginning with the young people.
Valzhyna Mort: If I tried to be brief, I’d say, it’s the pressure of Russian imperialism, both systematic and mental. Otherwise, there’s a lot to say. Belarusian language is the central issue of long Belarusian history – centuries of changing borders, changing colonial powers, changing the very name under which the country and language are known today. While the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania was a multilingual state, the Polish Kingdom led to the Polonization of middle and upper classes, and later, the Russian Empire carried out a full-blown, all-pervasive Russification. At the same time, Belarusian has its unique variety of dialects and its own pigeon – trasyanka – all of which are placed under pressures of their own. Today, we are a Russified culture, with an average person rather confused over our historical origins, with Belarusian language either looked down upon as the language of uneducated peasants (ethnical Belarusians lived mostly in rural parts of Belarus while the cities were Jewish) or worshipped as the embodiment of Belarusian suffering.
Practically speaking, one cannot survive as a solely Belarusian speaking person since workplaces, schools, hospitals, shops, restaurants, police require the knowledge of Russian. Schools are reluctant to provide education in Belarusian even though it’s guaranteed by our Constitution. In hospitals, speech therapists diagnose Belarusian-speaking children with a speech impediment, refusing to acknowledge that the child is speaking a different language. In any place of service, you can expect to be addressed in Russian even though you are clearly speaking in Belarusian. The majority of people live in a state of double-consciousness, eating up Soviet-era historical propaganda as the only truth, and speak of language in terms of ‘useful/not useful’ for one’s career.
Zubair Torwali: My first language, Torwali, is confronted with a number of pressures and challenges. Among these the foremost is its being neglected by the government in the public sector education. Because of this lack of literacy (writing and reading) Torwali is not common in the community. Due to this it loses its prestige and the people love to learn the dominant languages of education, Urdu and English. In some places people shift to other languages such as Pashto. Secondly, because of being entangled in a political marginalization, the Torwali people lag behind in social development. This causes depression in the community and consequently they lose self-confidence and as a result hold their unique identity and language as barriers in their development. Thirdly, people no longer celebrate their culture, which is an embedded part of identity and language, because of the new fanaticism in their religious beliefs. Any move for music and culture revitalization is resisted by the religious fanatics in the community. Fourth, in schools, colleges and other public institutions the Torwali people are usually looked down upon or thought different. This causes the students to leave their language and identity.
Vaughan Rapatahana: Up until relatively recently, our language was placed under tremendous pressures to even survive: indeed there was a determined effort to suppress it by the agents of British dominion. Te reo Māori was finally accorded the status of an official New Zealand language late in the 20th century and there has certainly been some strong revival, whereby Māori have taken it upon themselves to foster and retain the tongue. Sadly, however, te reo Māori continues to fight for air in the country’s stifling monolingual non-Māori populace and is still – even now – not unilaterally taught and is not compulsory in Kiwi schools. There is continued ignorance-arrogance by some Pākehā, who still want to suppress the language, even as it slowly garners more tolerance and acceptance.
Nineb Lamassu: My language finds itself under different pressures and these differences are geographically based: thus, the challenges in Iraq are different to those in Turkey, Syria and Iran. In Iraq Assyrian is the native language, yet the consecutive pan-nationalist governments of Iraq – right of the founding of the modern state of Iraq – have supressed my language and subjected its speakers to acute Arabisation and Kurdification policies: this has resulted in the endangerment of my language.
Although Assyrian is the oldest spoken language in Iraq, it is not considered as an official language of the country, along with Arabic and Kurdish. The current constitution considers the language as officially in areas where the Assyrians form a majority; however, due to continuous persecution faced by the Assyrians, throughout the modern history of the country, especially after 2003, there is not one single area in which the Assyrians form a majority. Therefore, there are no allocated funds and institutions aimed to reverse the endangerment of my language.
Recaredo Boturu: I speak Bubi, but it’s probably most accurate to say that my first language is Castilian, which, being a living, active language, rises to meet every possible challenger. Equatorial Guinea is part of the Francophone world, so French is our second language; because we are members of the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, Portuguese is our third official language; and since the discovery of oil the Americans have imposed English on the business world. Despite all of this, Castilian remains the language of communication between Equatorial Guineans and expatriates. Of course Bubi, like Fang and Annobonese, faces immense pressures, and is largely relegated to home life.
CM: Are there ways of speaking and writing poetry which are unique to your culture?
VM: Poetry in itself is a unique language, in every culture. That’s the most important thing to say here. Every language is unique in its own way. I don’t like to fetishize various aspects of separate languages.
RB: The fingerprints of the oral culture of our peoples can be seen in our poetry and in our other forms of writing.
VR: Until the European arrival in the late 18th century, our reo or language was oral. It was only after they commenced the colonisation process that a written form came into being. Accordingly, we have a very long-standing tradition of oral song-poetry or mōteatea, which has several sub-genres within it. Mōteatea were very important means of communication and conveying culture, and remain so today.
NL: Assyrian poetry, until a century ago and to date, is predominantly oral. During the middle to late 1800s, Assyrian poetry was reduced to writing. Therefore we have we have a very rich oral poetry and equally rich written poetry. There are different forms in oral Assyrian poetry, though they all tend to be heptameter, such as: 1. Rawe: a rhyming triplet which is usually risqué and sung during weddings, festivals and social gatherings; 2. Lelyana: a triplet which is performed by women only during weddings; 3. Diwani: poetry of unlimited lines that’s subject is usually the valour of the people and their resistance to oppression; 4. Shuqyatha: poems of unlimited length that are purely satirical. These are but a few and the rich oral literature includes many other forms.
ZT: There are a number of events related to music and poetry which I can say are unique to my culture. Poetry is meant to be sung. It has never been for reading. This is why all our poets are singers, too. In the past about 70 percent of all the poets were women. Now this has decreased, but still in the villages there are many woman poets. People sing the popular folk genre Zo on occasions like marriage ceremonies, informal gatherings of young people, during collective communal work and rituals, and many men sing it when they walk in the forests for gathering or going to the highland pastures. Many elderly women and men say Zos when they talk to other people. They aptly use Zos that have very exact connotations to the contexts they talk in. They also say Zos as proverbs.
JH: Language is considered a living being. We have certain oratorical forms that are sheer poetry. They are not written down. They rival any piece of written literature. To be literate has been equated with having, acquiring or using a written language. This just isn’t so. Most of the worlds literature is within oral traditions.
CM: What place does the poet occupy in your culture?
RB: I’m not sure how to answer that. I don’t know what place the poet occupies. What I will say is that in my culture the poet continues to be the eternally mad tightrope walker, teetering over a sea of words.
NL: Traditionally the poets were the bards of the village. These bards were generally people of wisdom and experience, they used to travel around the villages and they would be hosted with great respect. This is still the case, more or less, but the tradition is dying with the language. In terms of poets whose poetry is written and published, they are generally respected and perceived as a true reflection of the people; however, because the language is endangered, there are very few able to read written poetry: Assyrian poetry, therefore, remains oral and aural even when written.
ZT: A poet in our culture was usually thought an Ashiq (lover). He was, however, not given high status in society, but recently because of our endeavours poets have got high positions. Some excellent poet-singers have been held as celebrities. Women poets are less liked and a woman cannot sing her poetry among men, nor can she sing it in her own voice.
JH: We do not have a word for ‘poet’. The songwriters and speakers are really the poets. Yet, there are many Mvskoke poets who write in English. Some of us venture to write some in Mvskoke. Our people have a great respect for anyone who can use words skillfully and speak well.
VR: An exalted place, most especially when writing and performing ngā mōtaetea. Indeed, there are several nationwide competitions pertaining to mōteatea. Performance is an intrinsic aspect of such work. As to Māori writing poems in English, there have been several fine, recent series of anthologies collecting their work, as edited by Robert Sullivan and Reina Whaitiri, Anton Blank, and Witi Ihimaeara respectively, which showcase the significance of such poetry.
VM: A minor place for the majority of people since the majority of people don’t read poetry, and a major place for the minority of people who do read it.
CM: Do you think it’s important that your poetry is translated into ‘major’ languages?
VR: Only as secondary to being written in and published and performed in te reo Māori initially. ‘Incommensurability’ (Wittgenstein) is the term describing the fact that languages can never be adequately translated and te reo Māori is no different: any ‘translation’ into English, for example, misses out the many and varied nuances of Māori lexis – and vice-versa, for that matter. In an ideal world everyone (in Aotearoa NZ anyway) should be learning te reo Māori.
VM: I don’t think it’s about ‘major’ languages opening their arms to ‘minor’ ones. When we read about other people, their fears, their traumas, their desires, we feel less alone as we face our own fears, traumas and desires, and we feel less selfish about our victimhoods. Any kind of ‘cultural centre’ turns into a cultural solitary confinement very quickly if it goes on pretending that it’s surrounded by silence.
ZT: Since my long association with the Torwali folklore and its poetry, and being a student of literature in my formal studies, I found the Torwali poetry equal in themes and metaphor to much greater poetry of Urdu, Pashto or English. The local metaphor use in the Torwali language is very unique pertaining to the skies, sun, moon, nature, local ecology, fauna and flora, the Torwali country, history and mythology. I think there is a great need of translating this poetry into major languages such as English and Urdu.
RB: I think that it is important that others be able to witness another way to tell stories, by reading other forms, whether imagined or based on real life, so that they can understand the importance of moving outside their comfort zone, and so that they can realize that there are many worlds and literatures as there are colours.
JH: I don’t know how important that is – though it is appreciated because we live in a multilingual world. We always did. We do so now. English was essentially a trade language, and it enables us to make a bridge of words between very different, even conflicting worlds.
NL: Yes! Not just my poetry and that of other poets writing in my language, but the poetry of any given language. Poetry, and literature in general, provides us with rare vistas through which we are introduced to other cultures. This broadens our horizons and can enrich us by introducing us to the experiences of poets of another language. This process should not be restricted to living and thriving languages, endangered languages too have a lot to say. Personally I feel it is important to translate my poetry into as many languages as possible because it gives voice to the voiceless; a voice in the wilderness – if you may – crying to bring his people’s suffering to the international fore.
CM: What unique words do you have for the flora and fauna of your country?
NL: The habitat of the Assyrians is rich in flora and their main livelihood, especially in the mountainous regions, is based on fauna – mainly sheep. Therefore, the Assyrians have a rich lexicon in terms of flora and fauna; however, we are slowly losing this, since the language is endangered and there are no state policies nor a will to reverse this. To demonstrate the richness of this lexicon: there are at least ten terms for the different types of sheep excrements and what they are used for, there are at least five different terms for the different types of milk-thistle and another four or five terms for the different stages and products of this milk-thistle.
JH: I don’t know how to answer this, Chris, as I don’t know what is meant by ‘unique’. We have words like everyone. And as I said before, I am not fluent. Not even near. And I know more Navajo and Hawaiian language than my own because of where I have lived. We consider plants as worthy of respect.
RB: Besides our children, our fauna and flora are the greatest thing we have, and they fill me with pride.
VM: Belarus is a land of linen, woods, cornflowers, wormwood, white storks and the Belavezha bison. Each one is emblematic in its own way to the point of cliche. Belarusian linen fabrics always remind me of ancient Egyptians who wore linen in life and in death. The transformation of this plant into a textile that takes the shape of a human body is a beautiful reminder of human need to give form to the world and be one with this form.
VR: There are possibly innumerable kupu or words that do exactly this: Aotearoa New Zealand has several distinct species of flora and fauna endemic to the country, so these words existed to describe them – kauri, kiwi, moa, rimu, tōtara, mānuka, tūī, huia – the list goes on and on and on… and describes trees, birds, plants, mountains etcetera. All these words are unique, as are what they describe existentially.
ZT: We use many words for the fauna and flora. There is, however, no single word to equate the ones in English. For each kind of flora and fauna we have different words. For instance, for forests we use ‘ban’, for grass and foliage we use, ‘gaya’, for herbs and shrubs we use ‘jheel’, etc.
CM: It has been proven that there’s a link between languages of a region being allowed to thrive and thriving biodiversity in that place. Based on your language and region do you think this is true?
RB: Both languages and biodiversity must be cared for and protected in order to prosper, and that’s a task that belongs to us all.
ZT: Yes. The local language has its own names and knowledge of the biodiversity in the indigenous place. The people are very much linked to the fauna and flora around them. When the language is allowed to thrive people want to preserve the particular biodiversity, as their language has names and knowledge for it. When the biodiversity diminishes, the words and indigenous knowledge related to that will end.
VR: 100% tika (true.) In fact, there has been recent legislation to connote New Zealand physical features such as rivers as legal living beings i.e. they have been accorded the status as equivalent to humans and thus attain and retain the exact same rights and privileges as humans do. The 2017 Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River) Settlement Act of is an example of this and our country is one of the first in the world to make this accordance legally binding. My co-author, Joanne Christine Marras Tate, instigated a paper entitled Māori Ways of Speaking: Code-Switching in Parliamentary Discourse, Māori and River Identity, and the Power of Kaitiakitanga for Conservation which was presented at the COCE Conference in Vancouver in July 2019. More, she has put together a vivid short film depicting the Whanganui River as a visceral living entity in which I recite one of my poems on this very theme: Nature and Language qua Culture are inseparable. If one thrives, then so does the other. Again, our language is intrinsically tied to a living environment and describes the latter in ways other languages cannot and do not.
JH: We were forcibly removed from our lands in the southeastern part of the U.S.. So much of our language still clings to places there. We carried the language with us, however, and it changes, just as everyone changes. It makes sense that diversity is necessary for a healthy bio system. This is true for human cultural systems.
VM: The question of biodiversity is very interesting in the Belarusian context since immediately it brings up Chernobyl. Yes, Chernobyl is located in Ukraine but 70 percent of the total radioactive fallout descended on Belarus, causing irreparable damage to 1/4 of the country. Since the official information shared with people then was lies watered down with silencing, until now, there’s no language to talk about Chernobyl, no available formulations that could take a school child through the consequences of a nuclear catastrophe with clarity and depth. The fantastical stories we shared as children: of gigantic strawberries and apples of unimaginable sweetness, of deformed, two-headed hedgehogs and deer.
NL: Yes indeed there is a link especially in terms of ecosystems. This is overtly seen in terms of medicinal plants: as the older speakers are passing away the terms and identification and usage of these medicinal plants are dying with them. For example, in one of the remote Assyrian villages in northern Iraq I managed to document no less than 100 such medical plants because I was fortunate enough to find an elderly person who knew all these plants. Last year this elderly person passed away and this year I visited the village and no one knew these plants and what they were used for.