Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Claire Joysmith is a woman on an 18-year mission. It’s taken her that long to publish an anthology of Mexican-American literature, particularly poetry written by Chicana women authors, called Cantar de Espejos: Poesia Testimonial Chicana de Mujeres. She recently presented the book at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park April 4 after stops at the Centro Cultural in Tijuana and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) campus. Indeed, her mini-book tour (from which she made no royalty income since she doesn’t get any money from the book) did so well that most of the copies she had with her sold out at UCSD and only a few were left over for the Centro.
Contrary to what you might think from her name, her Anglo appearance and her flawless American-accented English, Joysmith is actually a native-born Mexican, the daughter of immigrants from Great Britain. “I’m a first-generation Mexican, though I don’t look it,” she said. “I identify as Tepostista, from a small village outside Mexico City where I live. It becomes an alternate way of identity-building, especially in the state of Morelos, a major area of violence, where looking like a gringa can be dangerous. I have narco neighbors. We say hello and are polite to each other.”
For years Joysmith has made her living as a professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico City (UNAM), and her idea behind Cantar de Espejos was to introduce Mexican readers to the best writing, especially poetry, by Mexican-American women. That meant that their poems, originally written in English — albeit sometimes the mash-up “Spanglish” dialect that incorporates a lot of Spanish words, idioms and sentence structures — needed to be translated into Spanish. That was Joysmith’s job, though she admitted she made the controversial decision to leave English words in some of the poems to preserve the bilingual mash-up aspects of the originals.
“This is the first anthology of Chicana poetry in Spanish to be published anywhere, in Latin America or in Spain,” Joysmith said. Though she would want to introduce Mexican readers to Chicana prose as well, she added, “I began by translating poetry because of its immediacy. Poetry goes back to our roots in every way. The 23 poets [represented in Cantar de Espejos] are a testament to our lives and their rich and oral poetic experiences, and heritage of mestizaje” (a word referring to the interracial blending of Spanish and Native people that produced most modern Mexicans). A few of the poems in Cantar de Espejos are presented in both English and Spanish, but the principal audience for the book is Spanish-speaking; Joysmith’s introduction is in Spanish and most of the poems appear only in her Spanish translations.
“This volume is meant as building a bridge” between Mexican and Mexican-American cultures, Joysmith explained. “I decided to look for poems representative of Chicana literature and poetry, and poems that would speak to Mexicanos and Mexicanas. They kind of fell together. Some got left out, some got brought in.” Joysmith said that her criterion for whether or not to include a piece was, “If I were reading Chicana literature and poetry for the first time, how would I feel if I read this?”
Her first big problem was securing the rights to republish the poems from their American authors and publishers. “Permissions to reproduce and translate U.S.-published material are very costly,” Joysmith noted. “I had to e-mail people saying there’s no money, this is Mexico, this is UNAM, can you waive the fee?” Her third step — after selecting the works she wanted and negotiating for the rights — was actually doing the translations. The fourth step — and, it turned out, the most difficult — was getting the book published.
“I found a small independent press,” she recalled, “and Yolanda Lopez was willing to illustrate, and then the press closed down during the economic crisis. Then I tried to get a U.S. publisher, and they all said they couldn’t do it. It was too expensive. So it sat in the drawer for over 15 years. … In 2011 I finally found a home for the book at the Centro del Mesoamerica Norte. It’s the only place in Mexico City where you can find a good collection of Chicano/a writing.”
Joysmith said that part of the problem getting the book published was that her translations, particularly her attempt to reproduce the linguistic clashes and mash-ups of the original texts even while turning them from (mostly) English to (mostly) Spanish, kept confounding Mexican copy editors. At the small press that first accepted the book and then went out of business, she recalled, her copy editor was “very much a purist. He gave me back the manuscript full of red markings. He must have had a dictionary in one hand and a red pen in the other. He marked up not only the translations but the originals as well for ‘misuse’ of Spanish.”
Understandably upset that the copy editor had missed the whole point of her work, Joysmith wrote a response that “practically became an exegesis of Spanish writing in purple ink. I explained all the cultural-literary identity markers. I also pointed out that already published work cannot be changed — and he still wouldn’t work with it.”
Even when the Centro del Mesoamerica Norte agreed to publish the book, Joysmith’s struggle to preserve the binational and bicultural integrity of the material continued. “I found myself working with a team,” she said, “and some of them asked me why Chicanos use Spanish in this part and not in others. The next question they had was, ‘Wouldn’t this be confusing for the reader? Why do you, as a translator, leave this word in English when there’s an acceptable word in Spanish?’”
Fortunately, Joysmith found allies at the Centro, a group of women that were enthusiastic about the book and paved the way for it to be published as Joysmith and the original authors would have wanted. “The cover was done by a Mexican designer,” she recalled. “I gave her the books I had on Chicano/a art, and they inspired not only the cover but the nice drawings inside. Working with these women, I found they were open to new experiences and visions. It was so interesting that we’d got beyond all these barriers and all the explanations in the text. But the computers and their spell-correction features went berserk.”
Cantar de Espejos contains 56 poems by 23 authors; 12 poems were originally in Spanish, while the other 44 were translated by five other women as well as Joysmith. In her own translations, she said, she drew on Chicano/a literary theory and in particular the concept of “bilingualism.” “When a Chicano/a text is translated from English to Spanish, it begins to speak in a different voice with intriguing realism,” she explained, adding that the two languages “coexist into a new life” even though, in her versions of the poems, Spanish is the main language and “the Chicano/a markers of difference disappear.”
Much of Joysmith’s appearance consisted of readings of some of the poems in her collection. Instead of reading all of them herself, she called on various guests — including Abel Macias, who introduced her on behalf of the Centro and joked about his bad “pocho Spanish.” Joysmith explained that for some of the poems in the book, including Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s “Vivir en the borderlands quiere decir que,” she had used different typefaces for some of the lines to reproduce some of the linguistic mash-up effects of the original.
Joysmith said that for a book that took 18 years to produce, Cantas de Espejos has been surprisingly successful. “This is the second printing,” she said. “For a book of Chicana poetry, that’s amazing. It has been really well received by different audiences, not only in Mexico City. In Durango, the reading room was packed by an audience mostly of high school students, youngsters who asked the most revealing questions. I asked them why they were so interested in reading about Chicanas, and one man said this book grounded for them what their relatives in the U.S. were experiencing.”