Happy Indigenous People’s Day! To mark the occasion we put together a list of some of our favorite writers working in languages we rarely encounter. While not all of these languages are “indigenous” per se, all are outliers in an international literary scene dominated by a few major players (English, French, Spanish…).
Fortunately, this past year has brought us some new, monumental works to add to the list, including the first book of Mongolian poetry to be published in the United States and the first novel to be translated into English from Lingala. Without further ado, here are eleven writers you should check out today.
1. Poet Margaret Noodin writes and translates her own poetry from Anishinaabemowin (also called Ojibwe), the language of the Anishinaabe people. Today, just over 90,000 people in southern Canada and the northern United States speak Anishinaabemowin as a native language, despite the fact that the great state of Michigan gets its name from the Anishinaabemowin word “mshigem” meaning “great lake.” Listen to Noodin’s rhythmic song-poem “Umpaowastewin” then check out her book Weweni.
2. John Smelcer is the only remaining member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska to read and write in Ahtna. Sharing roots with Navajo, Ahtna is an extremely endangered language, with only 30 remaining native speakers worldwide. These three poems written and translated by Smelcer from the Ahtna are clever and will linger in your mind long after you’ve read them.
3. Phoneme Media published an incredible anthology, Like a New Sun: New Indigenous Mexican Poetry, edited by Isthumus Zapotec poet Víctor Terán and translator David Shook. The book collects the poetry of six contemporary Mexican poets, translated from (among other languages) Nahuatl, Tsotsil, and Isthmus Zapotec, three of the over fifty indigenous languages spoken by more than 6 million Mexicans today.
4. Two poems and a few more poems by Mikeas Sánchez, translated from the Zoque by David Shook. Zoque is an indigenous language of Mexico’s state of Chiapas and the native language of roughly 70,000 people.
5. This past year marked the publication of the first novel to be translated into English from Lingala, a Bantu language spoken by more than ten million people, mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. The novel is Mr. Fix-It by young Congolese author Richard Ali A Mutu and translated by Bienvenu Sene Mongaba and Sara Sene. The book follows Ebamba, a young unemployed man in his twenties living in Kinshasa, who “must navigate the ever widening distance between tradition and modernity.”
6. Groundbreaking Tanzanian poet Euphrase Kezilahabi introduced the concept of free verse to Swahili poetry. Read “Welcome Inside,” translated by Annmarie Drury, which begins courageously: “The traditional poets are playing now at sleeping . . .” Kezilahabe continues to grapple with the difficult and disappointing reality of postcolonial Tanzania in Stray Truths, a book of poetry translated by Drury.
7. South African poet Moses Mtileni describes the inescapable distress of leaving and returning home in “I Have Gone Away Many Times.” Mtileni writes in and self-translates from Xitsonga (or Tsonga), a Bantu language with roughly 3.6 million speakers. An official language of South Africa, Xitsonga is also spoken in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland.
8. Reading these three poems by Haitian poet Paul Laraque, you can feel the poet’s fierce use of language as he confronts—both directly and indirectly—decades of political oppression. (Laraque spent 25 years living in exile in New York City during the course of the Duvalier dictatorship.) Translated from the Haitian Creole by Rosemary Manno and Jack Hirschman, these poems are charged with a captivating energy.
9. For a bold defense of nonconformity, read “Against Tradition” by Uyghur poet Osmanjan Muhemmed Pas’an, translated by Joshua L. Freeman. The Uyghurs are a Muslim community living primarily in the Xinjiang province of China. The Chinese government has continually attempted to suppress the Uyghur cultural presence in the region. (We published a folio of Uyghur poets in Two Lines 17: Some Kind of Beautiful Signal. And, more recently, Jeffrey Yang wrote an essay about Uyghur poetry in Two Lines 24, titled “On Thirst.”)
10. Uyghurland, the Farthest Exile is the first ever book of Uyghur poetry to be published in English translation. It is a vibrant poetry collection by Ahmatjan Osman, translated by Jeffrey Yang with the author. This is the first book of Uyghur poetry to be published in English translation.
11. Tseveendorjin Oidov‘s The End of the Dark Era, translated by Simon Wickhamsmith, is the first book of Mongolian poetry to be published in the United States. Listen to the book’s translator in conversation with Scott Esposito this past May and learn about his search for Mongolia’s forgotten manuscripts.