“The translator did not smile when he saw me,” says the narrator in Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome. “He said something in my language but upon realizing that I had difficulty understanding, he chose to use the language that we would speak during our journey through the boreal forest: a language that was not strictly his nor mine, a third space, a second tongue in common.” Rivera Garza’s novel suggests that in the worlds and lived experiences it aims to describe—worlds not historically represented in the epic poem or novel—a third language is needed. This is a language operating and creating meaning not from literary or cultural centers, but from the borderland between languages and genres.
In this borderland, new writers, poets, and artists are making a home. In the pantheon of Western poetry, women writers of color and their lived experiences are not nearly as recognized nor represented as their white peers. This is why Rivera Garza, the visual artist Beatriz Cortez, and, most prominently, the Mexican poet María Baranda use forms like the epic poem, the fable, and the fairy tale to build subversive worlds. And it is these worlds that represent othered relationships to language, while actively resisting colonial forms and traditions that work to regulate and normalize what literature can represent.
And so, with Baranda, we encounter something new: a subversive epic poem. Seen in her latest collection, The New World Written—which features translations by poets Mark Statman, Paul Hoover, Aurelia Cortés Peyron, Joshua Edwards, María Richardson, Forrest Gander, Lara Crystal-Ornelas, Leticia Hernández-Linares, Stephen Kessler, and Lorna Shaughnessy—Baranda’s subversive epic poems push to escape the limits of rigid literary forms and genres. Finessed over a prolific career that spans more than 30 years, Baranda’s epic poems use the forms, fables, and mythologies inherited from Spanish-language poets like Luis de Góngora and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And they do so to chart decolonial cartographies, which transform her long poems—like the work of Cortez and of Rivera Garza—into a tool for resisting US-Eurocentric literary traditions and moving toward aesthetic liberation.
Baranda’s epic poems do so by troubling the sanctity of the book, the sanctity of the epic poem, as a container for Western knowledge and heroics. Instead of being a safe addition to the colonial archive and Western traditions of the epic poem, Baranda’s speakers—or, perhaps, Baranda herself—become text, complicating our literary expectations. In the excerpt from Arcadia (translated by Paul Hoover and Aurelia Cortés Peyron), Baranda writes:
From the clarity of a time gone, as if it were
a simple and accurate task, a membrane
to survive in the hollows, a drawing in the pores,
a going toward the shadow in order to cry: hold me
in only one place, kiss me to be able to speak
from the paper as if they were the genitals
of oblivion, the feet of new cartographies,
the seduced eyes in the ink and its pathways
evoked by the letter. I was text.
Invoking the intimacy of the confessional “I,” Baranda troubles how we anticipate the epic poem. Turning inward, she tears the long poem away from the mythological and the historical, bringing forth the personal and conflating the very body of the speaker with the text. No longer is the voice of the epic poem omniscient or universal. Instead, the speaker is specifically gendered, aged, and located in a particular place in time.
Baranda’s epic poems do not permit us to be passive readers. Instead, we are nudged out of our comfort, urged to reconsider the epic poem as a container for decolonial possibilities. The poems—which traverse multiple pages and are often entire book projects—insist on recalibrating our relationship to them, their various forms that fluctuate in scale, and the way we read through them, not just with our eyes but with our entire bodies.
The New World Written is not preserved in stasis by its English-language translation. Instead, it is alive in a kaleidoscopic flux, and, as its readers, so are we. We shift, stepping back from the work to crane our necks to see how it balloons into a living mural whose limits we lose sight of, as in the excerpt from Nightmare Running on a Meadow of Absolute Light translated by Hoover, wherein Baranda writes:
You briefly switch on a galaxy and touch your childhood sea.
The world is a dark road where night is the voice of what
you say. At the sound of water you think of celestial birds,
clouds, and a bit of sun in a story that begins without
Here, and throughout Baranda’s work, we are asked to consider the epic poem as a voice for not only sweeping mythologies, but also the stories that are told without words, stories the textual fails to contain.
Other times, these poems beckon us to the page, asking us to press them against our ears to deeply listen for the sonic vigor lurking beneath the black-and-white English print of the book. In an excerpt from A Hive of Seabirds (translated by Mark Statman), Baranda urges the reader to
Come here, come closer, don’t look anymore at the stone
by the skull, the hard shadow
crumpled and cold in the sea
basin and the sunken joy of one who suffers.
Be quiet here, at the edge of the forest
where the birds recite
their long accumulated solitude, so that you,
terrible heart of chisels,
in this dry land can curse them.
To liberate colonial subjects from their entanglement in imperial epistemic and aesthetic paradigms, according to Pedro Pablo Gómez and Walter D. Mignolo’s Esteticas Decoloniales (2012), is the ongoing project of decoloniality. They suggest that coloniality is the racial, cultural, and epistemic system upholding the domination and control of people and resources. Gómez and Mignolo explain that decoloniality comprises the counterprocesses through which the conquered resist domination to break free from colonial powers but also build new social structures and spaces outside the reach of coloniality.
By extension, a decolonial aesthetics is a process that disassembles the myth of Western art and its supremacy, so that colonial subjectivities can be liberated from the Eurocentric aesthetics that silence them. A decolonial aesthetics works to liberate aesthesis, epistemologies, and being. Whether voicing previously silenced words, sounds, or bodies, Baranda’s epics join in the long (and likely never-ending) decolonial march toward aesthetic liberation.
They ask us to move past the limits of letters and toward the meaning that seeps out from beneath.
The haunting beauty of Baranda’s poems, and their translations into English, comes from their ability to strategically collapse and rebuild colonial and decolonial modes. At first glance, the poems are synchronized with the Western epic. Poems like “To Tell” cite the 18th-century Spanish poet Luis de Góngora as an epigraph. This contextualizes Baranda’s use of the fable form alongside Góngora’s La Fábula de Polifemo y Galatea, a long poem that works to renew and expand the worlds of Greek and Roman mythologies, earning Góngora the title of “The Spanish Homer.” Meanwhile, other long poems, like Nightmare Running on a Meadow of Absolute Light, braid found language into themselves from Mexican colonial intellectual Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s poem “First Dreams.”
The forms Baranda employs are recognizable at first. She includes mythic characters like Zeus or Thetis, sprawling meditations, and incantatory rhythms, which work to burrow deep into our memory, reminding us of the way these poems desire to be read aloud or even sung. Then, however, we let our guard down.
Once we allow ourselves to become fully immersed in the text—giving in to the poems’ insistence that we listen and obey their stage directions—the poems detail how they have used the epic form as a disguise to critically intervene. The epic poem becomes how we remap our relationships to topics that include colonial notions of sexuality, the written word’s capacity to make and destroy entire worlds, and even our Western fetishization of particular senses, like the visual.
English translations of Homer and Dante, or the epic poems by Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman, for example, reinforce the idea in dominant US-Eurocentric literature that epic poetry is a medium fit for dominant narratives. This form employs slippery yet sustained images and representation of historical moods, and the works are culture machines designed to render some histories supreme while erasing others.
Although not an epic poem, Cristina Rivera Garza’s book The Taiga Syndrome, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, works to rebuild the novel from the inside out. And, like Baranda’s poetry, Rivera Garza’s goal is to liberate other possibilities for the novel’s received forms.
The Taiga Syndrome is a dreamlike mystery novel, wherein a former detective and her translator travel to a bitterly cold boreal forest in search of runaway lovers. It is written in lyrical prose, which operates disjointedly, scrambling spatial and temporal logic. In so doing, the novel insists that we linger longer on the colonial categories that control genre and language.
In both The Taiga Syndrome and The New World Written, the meditative narration and descriptions explicitly bring the reader’s attention to the way language and genre are constructed, and how that attention slips from one distinct world to another. The music of “beautiful” forms does not give these texts meaning, but the noise of slippages.
Like Rivera Garza, Baranda is also concerned with the efficacy of inherited language and forms. In Arcadia, she writes:
Zones of soggy heart open to the fig tree
and its fresh fruits for the deepest consolation.
Zones that leave palms deposed at the border of a moment
as if it were a casual whistle announcing what is not always
and what is not here,
in the forge of language, at an imperfect time.
Corridors for the wolves,
A time of salt together with the children.
Someone walks among the ruins of a lost city
and in its sweet darkness determines the site,
the new sentence where oblivion explodes.
Fallen parts from a language of another territory,
in the open song of the flower in the morning
near the owl’s feathers.
Green oscillations of the light before your eyes.
It was easier to die than to leave time
in Homer’s drinking cup.
Rivera Garza and Baranda ask us to listen. They ask us to move past the limits of letters and toward the meaning that seeps out from beneath. What we find is a third language that these writers and their translators work to unearth, a language that creates not only other options of being and ways of understanding the world, but also other natures.
In critically interrogating a present and past marred by restrictive genres and forms, Rivera Garza and Baranda encourage their readers to imagine the possibilities of a liberated future. Beatriz Cortez, a visual artist, scholar of Central American literature, and self-described nomad from El Salvador, uses her installation practice to physically build worlds—or ways to transport to worlds—that, like these two texts, ask us to imagine worlds not constrained by US-Eurocentric forms or relationships to language. In an interview with SCI-Arc in 2020, Cortez says:
Making art as a nomad means imagining other futures where categories and ideas of nationalism and national identities are not so relevant—and other worlds are possible … outside of not only that small provincial space of liberalism, but also of the era of the humans. Imagining other eras where humans are not is a way to dismantle the humanism that is linked to liberalism, enlightenment, and to Eurocentric thinking—and to see the world from other perspectives.
In Cortez’s installation Memory Insertion Capsule (2017), indigenous Mayan architecture, building techniques native to Southern California, and other symbols of home (like the camping tent often used by refugees attempting to reach the West) are melded together in the construction of a space travel capsule. By invoking the speculative, Cortez invites viewers to step into the capsule and travel to worlds not burdened by US-Eurocentrism. In the capsule interior, which is decorated like a suburban home, viewers can peer into a metallic visor that challenges them with archival footage highlighting the imperial and extractive relationship of the United States with Central America. As viewers, we are forced to stare directly at and recognize the harm of colonial relationships to people, language, and resources, while also being in transit to speculative futures, where other methods, relationships, or worlds are a possibility.
In this way, we can imagine The New World Written and The Taiga Syndrome not as static texts but as subversive space and time capsules of their own. Baranda and Rivera Garza enact their own kind of memory implantation on us as readers, stirring our appetites for other worlds, perhaps more liberated than our own.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.