HAY CARTAGENA 2017: “Indigenous Literatures in the Americas” – Ingrid Bejerman

HAY CARTAGENA 2017: “Indigenous Literatures in the Americas” – Ingrid Bejerman

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote that “Canada is so far away, it almost doesn’t exist.” Borges was in Argentina, of course — but he might as well have been speaking for all of Latin America.

The truth is, for most of us south of the Mexico-US border, Canada is so inconsequential that it might as well not be there. The great white question mark: a liberal country at the northern edge of the first world where everyone has access to free healthcare, and everyone speaks two languages, English and French.  The country led by a young, hip, sexy prime minister who welcomes Syrian refugees with open arms.  The place the British want to move after Brexit, where Americans want to immigrate after Trump.

Or not. Clichés and misinformation abound about the Great White North, and the same can be said for Canada’s knowledge of Latin America, even for its NAFTA partner.  Ask the average Canadian to name the three countries in North America.  The answer, almost always, with a perplexed look: “Three?”

Since 2013, the Canada in the Americas Initiative (CITA) at McGill University has worked to strengthen the flow of knowledge between Canada and the other countries in the American hemisphere. Canada has long been absent from this conversation, allowing the agenda to be defined and driven by the United States.  A redefinition of the terms of this exchange is long overdue.

And what better place to begin than with the First Nations of the Americas — the indigenous peoples whose knowledges and lived experiences of this hemisphere predate our own colonial heritage by many thousands of years.

A key priority of CITA is to address the absence of sustained dialogue between the indigenous peoples of Canada and those of the countries of Latin America.  For example, while Canada, Mexico, Peru, and Colombia are each home to over 60 distinct indigenous languages, and while these communities often face similar challenges, there is no institutional forum for them to share their cultural wealth and insights with one another.

When I mentioned this to my former boss and friend Jaime Abello Banfi, director of the Fundación Gabriel García Márquez para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano (FNPI) where I worked as programme coordinator in a past life, he introduced me to Hay Festival Americas Director Cristina Fuentes LaRoche. Together, we established the Indigenous Literatures in the Americas track in partnership with the Hay Festival of Literature.  We aim to foster dialogue between Canadian and Latin American indigenous artists, scholars and intellectuals who are exploring the challenges and opportunities for indigenous expression in our hemisphere.

The past four years have felt like a voyage through different universes and knowledges and dimensions on our side of the world; cosmovisions, the sun and the moon and the stars, time standing still and space ceasing to exist.  The Hay took us to Xalapa, Medellín, Cartagena de Indias, Querétaro, and Arequipa, back and forth, time and again, and we spoke Spanish, English and French from the old world, and from the new, we heard Mohawk and Ojibwe and Innu from Canada, Náhuatl and Zapotec from Mexico, Wayuu/Goajiro and Kuna/Tule from Colombia, Quéchua and Aymara from Peru.

We heard original, powerful words through the voices of poets, translators, ethnolinguists, novelists, activists, who shared their views and visions from their ancestors and their way of life.  Words of hope and possibility, working to transcend the limitations of language, whether colonial or indigenous, ancient and new ways of finding common ground, bringing our hemisphere together, healing our planet.

It has been an honour and a privilege to be a part of this, and it is my sincere hope that the indigenous cosmovisions of the Americas continue to expand our minds and fill our hearts. The pre-American conversation is as vast and rich as all our written universes.

(Photo by Daniel Mordzinski)