Leo Boix discusses bilingualism, British Latinx poetry, and race in Latin America
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Leo – your creative life has worked across two languages: Spanish and English. In another interview, you’ve said that, in your practice, Spanish is the language of the ‘heart’, and English ‘more of the mind’. I’d like you tell me about moments in your creative life when the opposite has been true.
At the time of that interview, my technical ability to communicate emotion in poetry came very easily in Spanish, and less so in English. But since starting to write in English ‘full-time’, this has changed. That said, I often use Spanish or Spanglish words in my poetry to signal my linguistic duality – to make the language complexity that is very real to my life in England more explicit. I write literary reviews in English, political articles in Spanish; I translate poetry from Spanish into English. And although I mostly speak Spanish at home with my partner, the artist Pablo Bronstein – who was born in Argentina but came here to the UK with his family when he was four – my poetic life happens increasingly in an English landscape with a consciously Latin American/Latinx bent. I am aware that my poetry might appear odd, but that’s a result of my lived experience – my experience as a poet living within and between two of the multiple languages spoken in the UK.
I am currently working on my debut English collection, out in 2021 with Chatto & Windus, which will focus on this idea of writing and living between two languages, cultures, and traditions. What I’m trying to say is: this duality is as British as any other.
There is, rightly, a growing literary consciousness around British Latinx writing – and perhaps particularly poetry. What has caused that?
It is true that, in the last few years, there has been a growing number of Latinx writers publishing in the UK, which is of course a direct result of our standing up and making ourselves heard. This has in turn resulted in a greater awareness and interest in the Latinx experience from those outside it. Within the poetry world, the activist and director of The Complete Works Nathalie Teitler has been instrumental in mentoring, promoting and publishing British Latinx poets. She has been a pioneer and a visionary. In 2017, Nathalie and I established ‘Invisible Presence’, an Arts Council England national scheme to nurture and promote the work of ten young British Latinx voices,. That project, which included the publication of an anthology and a series of live events at The Roundhouse, led two years later to the launch of Un Nuevo Sol, the first major anthology of work by UK-based writers of Latin-American heritage. It’s amazing that it took so long for this to happen, despite the presence of many writers and poets and literary groups. British Latinx is the fastest growing and eighth-largest ethnic group in London, with more and more second- and third-generation members, and yet it has taken this long for our presence to begin to change the UK literary. The move from the margins is fragile, however, and needs constant work.
You’ve been active as a poetry educator, and in community-based initiatives (like SLAP and ‘Invisible Presence’) that are fostering British Latinx writing. This is part of a wider question around diversity, inclusion and representation, but what more needs to be done within publishing, reviewing and reading cultures for Latin American and Latinx writers?
We need more acceptance from the British poetry establishment that there is a diversity of languages within the British experience – and that this is not to the detriment of the English language, but, on the contrary, enriches the poetry scene.
Unfortunately, in this country, there is very poor awareness of and ability with foreign languages, as a result of lacking government priorities. And this has resulted in many people in Britain finding foreign-language words shocking and unacceptable within English-language contexts. I find that lack of ambition and understanding – and challenge – very sad. This is not the case in other countries, where more people can speak more languages than just the one with which they were born. We definitely need more British Latinx mentors and schemes working with young writers and poets, and we also need more grassroots work in schools and community centres (around the country) nurturing and promoting young Latinx voices.
But, at once, resistance within the exclusively English-language poetry world needs to be addressed. It’s not only that we as British Latinx need to be more vocal, but also that British non-Latinx need to be interested in the fact that there are many British people, friends and neighbours, who have grown up with a Latin language background, and that this doesn’t make them any less British. The British experience cannot be seen exclusively as a monolingual and monocultural experience.
Your column in the Morning Star, ‘Letters from Latin America’, is a wonderful thing. In some ways, Latin American lit and the Star are obvious bedfellows. But it’s also quite remarkable to have that sort of dedicated, industrious focus on a region’s literature in a UK newspaper. Could you speak a little about how that came to be?
The Morning Star is the only UK national newspaper with a monthly dedicated column to Latin American/ Latinx literature and poetry. It’s not a coincidence that the Star would take an interest in Latin America: it has historically stood against the cultural, political and economic dominance of the United States in Latin America and elsewhere, and for left-wing social movements in Latin America during and after the dictatorships that marred so many of its countries. Many Latin Americans that came to the UK in the last decades did so escaping the violence of repressive regimes supported by the US. Still more came escaping the unfathomable poverty of Latin America, often the result of factors that the Morning Star challenges.
Has your literary relationship to Argentina changed (waned?) over the years?
In many ways, yes. I published two poetry collections in Spanish with an independent Argentinean publishing house several years ago, but since have always been on the move towards writing in English. Now, I do so almost exclusively, and tend to publish my poetry mostly in English-speaking literary journals and magazines. In any case, I see this as a very fluid relationship – one that may change in future. I keep close contact with Argentinean and Latin American poets and writers, who I often translate into English for British audiences. I hope similarly that my new collection in English will reach Argentina and Latin American audiences, perhaps in translation.
I’d like to talk about Black Lives Matter, and racism and anti-racism in Latinx literature. I’ve read some extraordinary literature from black and Indigenous Latinx and Latin American writers recently – Geovani Martins’s The Sun on My Head, translated by Julia Sanches, springs to mind – but there remains a paucity. Is a growing right-wing populism further marginalising black and Indigenous Latinx and Latin American writers? And, conversely, how vital is literature as a means of resistance to this populism?
Yes, it does exist. But a lot more needs to be done to bring black Latin American writers to the fore. When Un Nuevo Sol was published a few months ago, the editors included as many varied voices as they could find in the UK, but acknowledged that more needed to be done to foster Afro-Latinx poets here.
In Latin America, the debate on race and racism includes issues around African-heritage voices in countries with deep histories of slavery – Brazil being probably the most prominent example, as the last country in the world to abolish the slave trade. But the debate around race in most other Latin American countries, many of which have had negligible relationships to that particular form of slavery, centres on the complex and often difficult relationships between Indigenous peoples and the descendants of European colonialists. This relationship is too complex for the space we have here, but it arises social, cultural and literary imperatives different to those in Britain.
Does the Latin American literary world have a problem with race?
Generally, yes – mostly due to related socio-economic inequalities, and a disproportionate lack of possibilities in terms of publishing resources. Yet in the last few years there have been some moves to rectify this, with the publication of books by indigenous and Afro-Latinx poets and writers such as Junot Diaz, Paulino Lins, Rayen Kvyeh, Luz Argentina Chiriboga, Willie Perdomo, Elizabeth Acevedo, Mayra Santos Febres, Rita Indiana and Manuel Zapata Olivella.
It is important to remember that Latin America is a vast continent made up of many countries, where the majority of the population are pueblos originarios, and where languages such as Quechua, Guaraní, Aymara and Wayuu still thrive. There are vibrant literary scenes happening there, and we should not assume that we can paint all of Latin America with the same brush. A high-end literary agency in Mexico City is an entirely different world to a small community publishing house in Asunción.
Finally: a couple of weeks ago, Arts Council England committed to adding ‘Latinx’ to diversity and equal opportunities monitoring forms. How important is that?
This is huge. We have been fighting for this for years. I remember working for a community newspaper in London for the Latin American diaspora in the late 90s, and back then we were campaigning to be recognised in official forms. But it seemed such a long way off. It is of great importance because, from now on, it obliges all cultural institutions in the UK to account for the Latinx experience and to make further attempts at including us. We should – we must – remember that there are many of us out there.
Leo Boix is a Latinx bilingual poet, translator and educator born in Argentina who lives and works in the UK. Boix has published two poetry collections in Spanish and has been included in many anthologies, such as Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe), Why Poetry (Verve Poetry Press), Islands Are But Mountains: Contemporary Poetry from Great Britain (Platypus Press), The Best New British and Irish Poets Anthology 2019-2020 (Eyewear Publishing) and Un Nuevo Sol: British Latinx Writers (flipped eye) . His poems have appeared in POETRY, PN Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, The Manchester Review, The White Review, Letras Libres, Ambit, Magma Poetry, The Rialto, The Morning Star, SouthBank Poetry, Prism International, The Laurel Review, and elsewhere. Boix is a fellow of The Complete Works Program and co-director of Invisible Presence, an Arts Council England national scheme to nurture new voices of Latinx writers in the UK. He is a board member of Magma Poetry, co-editor of its Resistencia issue showcasing the best Latin American and Latinx writing, and an advisory board member of the Poetry Translation Centre in London. Boix is the recipient of the Keats-Shelley Prize 2019. His debut English collection will be out in 2021 with Chatto & Windus (Penguin/Random House).
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.