All entries for Wednesday 07 September 2005
September 07, 2005
An interesting incident today. An elderly gentleman, Victor, was showing us around Monte Alban, some ruins on top of a mountain near Oaxaca. There were some strange exchanges. He told us that the indigenous tribes had not used pottery initially at Monte Alban and he asked if we could guess how they made soup. We didn't know and he said, 'Everyone thinks that the Indian cannot think and the Indian has a small brain, but he can think.' I was a little taken aback. I think that perhaps Victor was used to people having a low opinion of teh indigenous peoples of Mexico and he certainly did not look as if he believed what he said. Anyway, he explained that the indigenous peoples used gourds and hot stones to make soup.
I asked what he thought about why people were so unfair to the indigenous people and he turned to me at last and said, 'The white man always thinks that he is better than other races. Don't you think? He always thinks he is better.' I found this incident very distressing and I felt a powerful guilt over the terrible legacy of white Europeans.
Due to the generosity of Academi, the Welsh Academy, I am able to travel Mexico during September this year in order to complete my first poetry collection The Secret . The collection is a culmination of the work of three years and the section to be completed during this trip is a kind of prologue which sets up the premise of the book.
In my research project, 'The Crinoline Tree', I investigate different strategies used by Welsh women poets in their interrogations of identity. One strategy is to retreat into a specific culture or a specific marginality and the other is to estrange oneself from that culture or marginality. Both of these strategies are used in The Secret and it surprises me how much my research and my poetry feed into one another. The first half of the book retreats into Wales through considering Welsh literature, culture etc and it considers Wales' relations with Western culture. The second half of the book relates Welsh culture to that of Mexico.
It is a very difficult task to write about another country and one's experiences of it. I was wondering today why I wanted to go to Mexico in the first place. The answer that presented itself suggested that to estrange oneself from one's culture or in the case of being Welsh, from a specific marginality, can be useful. Julia Kristeva talks about this in relation to her ironist in Strangers to Ourselves . I am also reminded of the residents of Baucis in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities because their city does not touch any part of the ground, but they scan the ground with telescopes as if searching for themselves.
I must be specific about what I mean here because I do not want it to be thought that I am using Mexico for purposes of transcendence in the same way that a man will use the image of a woman to present an idea or thought. Alice Jardine's Gynesis thinks about how women are used in this way in detail. But to return to my line of thought, it is true to say that in writing about Mexico, I am exploring my own culture and marginality, yet this is not as cold as it may first appear to be. It is about empathy to some extent. It is also about recognising differences and similarities.
Also, I am not without political purpose in writing about Mexico. I remember reading an article by Susan Sontag in which she said that the first job of the writer is not to be an ally of lies and misinformation. It is true to say that by highlighting a country's difficulties and struggles, it may be of some help. However, when I read what other writers have written about Mexico, I am often disappointed – the shifty Mexicans of The Power and the Glory , the violence of All the Pretty Horses , the racial stereotypes of Under the Volcano . I think one purpose of my writing might be to combat Orientalism and think about how such countries are the same as our own rather that exoticising them into an alien species.
These are some thoughts that I have as I begin my journey in Mexico.