“The silence … is our most unyielding Creon”: Five questions for Sara Uribe & John Pluecker about Antígona González

Born in 1978 in Querétaro, Sara Uribe has lived in Tamaulipas since 1996. She graduated with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy; she received the Carmen Alardín Regional Poetry Prize in 2004, the Tijuana National Poetry Prize in 2005 and the Clemente López Trujillo Poetry Prize in 2005. She has been a grantee of the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (2006-2007) and of the Programa de Estímulos a la Creación y Desarrollo Artístico (2010 & 2013). She has published Lo que no imaginas (2005), Palabras más palabras menos (2006), Nunca quise detener el tiempo (2008), Goliat (2009) and Siam (2012). Her poems have appeared in periodicals and anthologies in Mexico, Peru, Spain, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.
John Pluecker is a writer, interpreter, translator and co-founder of the language justice and literary experimentation collaborative Antena. He has translated numerous books from the Spanish, including Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border (Duke University Press, 2012) and Feminism: Transmissions and Retransmissions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). His most recent chapbooks are Killing Current (Mouthfeel Press, 2012), Ioyaiene (Fresh Arts, 2014) and An Accompanying Text (She Works Flexible, 2015). In 2016, Noemi Press published his book of poetry and image, Ford Over.
David Buuck is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA. He is the founder of BARGE, the Bay Area Research Group in Enviro-aesthetics, and co-founder and editor of Tripwire, a journal of poetics. Recent publications include SITE CITE CITY (Futurepoem, 2015) and An Army of Lovers, co-written with Juliana Spahr (City Lights, 2013). A Swarming, A Wolfing is forthcoming from Roof Books this fall.

Sara Uribe’s Antígona González [1] (Sur+ Editions, 2012; English translation [2] by John Pluecker, Les Figues 2016) is a stunning book-length work addressing the mass violence and disappearances across northern Mexico, using Sophocles’ heroine Antigone as a figure through which a collective voice of (mostly feminist) resistance speaks out in both pain and protest. Using documentary materials, personal testimonies, and other source texts, Uribe constructs a telling that stands as one of the most powerful books I’ve read in years.

Uribe’s book is no mere adaptation of the Greek play, or a resetting of it in the contemporary Mexican context. Rather, Antigone here represents those throughout Mexico and Latin America who have had to confront the landscapes of grief and injustice caused by brutal regimes of murder and erasure. To be disappeared is not simply to be killed, but to deny to survivors and loved ones both the evidence required for legal justice as well as embodied rituals of grief and mourning. Who can bury their dead if they are not just disappeared, but (in the eyes of the state) not even legally dead? What is the language and forms of speech necessary to address such rifts and gaps? What might literature contribute to a collective project of protest, resistance, and refusal? Who are the Antigones of today, and what price their refusal of official silence and state violence?

Through her translator John Pluecker, I asked Sara Uribe a few questions about the project, as well as one of John regarding his translation. My thanks to Sara and John! 

Can you talk a bit about the project in general, and its relation to contemporary Mexican politics and/or poetry?

At the beginning of 2011, theater actor and director Sandra Muñoz commissioned me to write a monologue with the idea of bringing it to the stage. Both of us, Sandra and I, lived in Tamaulipas in the northern part of Mexico, a state ravaged by the violence and fear that have devastated the region as a consequence of the war against organized crime declared in 2006 by Felipe Calderón and continued de facto by Enrique Peña Nieto. 2009 through 2011 were the years of the rawest and most visible violence in Tamaulipas. In line with Muñoz’s request, the work is built on three premises: a) to remake Sophocles’s Antigone, b) to set the work in a Tamaulipecan Thebes and c) to delve into this need to recover the disappeared body. The book was written in the specific context of the discovery of  the mass graves of San Fernando in April 2011, a site in which 196 bodies were found buried clandestinely, people who were presumibly executed by the narco (drug traffickers). In 2010 just a year prior, two Mexican poets each published iconic poems referencing  the tragic effects of Calderón’s war. The first was Los muertos [The Dead [3]] by María Rivera, a necrocartography that uses lists and anaphora to map out an index of the territories where bodies are missing, a geographical memorial of the origin of the absences, an enunciation of names, ages and tortures: an outline of the physiognomy of horror. The second was La reclamante [The Claimant[4]] by Cristina Rivera Garza, a poem that assembles the work of several authors to articulate a vituperative, painful monologue grounded in the words of Luz María Dávila—the mother of two students assasinated by an armed commando in Villas de Salvárcar, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua in 2010. Dávila used these words to confront and upbraid Calderón for the criminalization of her children and his non-existent efforts to find those responsible for the crime. On one hand, the poem is lyrical and enunciated through a first person voice, and on the other it is a documentary poem whose authorship is communal. When I began to write Antígona González, these were the clearest reference points for me in terms of contemporary Mexican poetry or of a kind of writing that would confront and resist in the face of the war. Indubitably, I drew from them, and I followed along the pathways they set out as I inserted myself into the poetic discourse on the violence in Mexico.

The book mixes lyrical poems with journalistic accounts, language from other Antigones (such as Griselda Gambaro’s amazing Antígona Furiosa[5]), and other sources, to construct a dramatic monologue that can be read as a book-length poem. At the same time, it doesn’t come across as a simple dramatic script or journalistic/documentary collage as much as a chorus of voices embodied in Antígona’s lamentations. How did the book come together formally?

The first part of the writing process was not researching the Antigone of theory, but rather an investigation of the very real Antigones of Tamaulipas, Mexico and Latin America. In order to create the contours of Antígona and Tadeo González as lyrical subjects and their own family history and the absence-grief that unites them, I began by reading interviews with family members of the disappeared, investigations and legal proceedings related to cases, as well as testimonies from individuals who decided to undertake the loving and just search for their own family members. During this phase, I found a variety of materials that interrupted and modified my own treatment of the topic, in addition to my strategies for writing and the actual structure of the book. Some of them came to the page in textual form, as is the case of tweets about violent deaths in Mexico from the project Menos días aquí[6] [“Fewer Days Here”] and the questions drawn from the poem “Death”[7] by Harold Pinter. These latter questions were arranged with fragments from the testimonies of victims, which taken together work in the text as a kind of evocation of a Greek chorus. Others are incorporated in a more subtle way, as is the case of the blog by Colombian activist Antígona, aka Diana Gómez, whose father Jaime Gómez was kidnapped and later found dead in 2006. Diana Gómez adopts the name Antígona as she writes long letters to her father on the blog in order to relieve her own grief. Everything in these missives is profoundly personal and at the same time profoundly political. I used these documents to sustain Antígona González’s confessional tone in relation to her brother, while also furthering her own political questioning of the war. The Antigones of theory were the last ones to arrive: after ten months, with a first draft completed and following the first production of the theatrical work and generous comments from Cristina Rivera Garza, I set out on a process of re-writing that would last six more months and which entailed the appropriation not only of testimonies and journalistic articles, but also theoretical sources revolving around Sophocles’s myth. Reading Antígona, una tragedia latinoamericana[8] by Rómulo E. Pianacci was eye-opening: the writing that I had undertaken had unwittingly joined in a long line of Antigones located in Latin American territory, in which the Greek Thebes became a background for the wars, dictatorships and conflicts found in the contexts where they were generated. Several of them had been forged through appropriation, re-writing, and recycling as writing strategies. The fragments of these aforementioned Antigones assembled into Antígona González make clear the mechanism of repetition, the insertion of Tamaulipecan and Mexican tragedy into the context of all the other Latin American tragedies revolving around forced disappearance. In this way, the textual assembly of different documentary sources was added gradually to the text over time—in layers, it could be said—but with the final intention of building at least three avenues of meaning: 1) The history of Antígona and Tadeo González as a representation of the thousands of stories of the families of the disappeared in Mexico (for that reason it re-positions and includes the actual words of the victims) 2) The relationship between this Tamulipecan Antigone and the long line of Antigones in Latin America, and 3) The construction of a poetics in which a lyrical and sterile “I” would not take precedence.

The book begins with the pressing question of “counting the dead” (“contar muertos”), and throughout confronts the issue of the body—the missing body, the violated body, the mutilated body, the disappeared body—and that often unanswered question of when/where/how the body becomes the corpse, becomes “counted.” Does justice require the body, the body count? Does justice require more than reconciling the body with survivors’ rites and rights? How can literary texts speak to or make demands of the law, on behalf of the dead, survivors, justice?

Justice, at least that executed by the authorities and founded on laws, requires evidence. Both living and deceased bodies always constitute legal evidence of something. It is precisely because of the former that those who obstruct or violate the law decide to make the bodies disappear: to do away with the evidence. The protocols for disappearance throughout the history of Mexico and Latin America are traceable both to the hands of criminal groups as well as to the state itself. The concealment of bodies is common practice, above all in the context of armed conflict and dictatorships, but the job of burying the bodies is not just physical, as they are also erased at the level of discourse, that is to say, in language itself. Justice and memory require an accounting, a process of naming. What is not named vanishes, what is not exposed publicly is diluted, is rendered invisible. It is very easy to become misled by the official pronouncements that say that everything is getting better in the country, that the state of security is improving, that the number of dead is less and less; it is easy because fear is their greatest ally. To be conscious of the number of deaths related to the violence in the country, of the number of kidnappings and forced disappearances is not a comfortable enterprise; it is a painful and urgent task. Justice and memory require the naming of those who are absent, that we find out their names and find their bodies. Of course, what is also needed is for those responsible, the guilty parties, to be identified, captured and processed: not only the hands that carried out the orders, but also those individuals in their positions of power—whether criminal or within the state—who made the decisions to take lives from behind the protective screen of an impunity that is larger than all of us. I don’t know if literary texts can demand something concretely of the law—that is to say, a demand that is not only abstract, but tangible. I also do not know whether, if it were able to do so, whether such a demand would obtain an effective response. What I do know is that literary texts, language, can summon us to be in pain together, to cry with another person about their loved ones’ lost lives or disappeared bodies, to accompany them in their search and in their demand for justice, to come to terms with the fact that the missing bodies and the violent deaths of our country have something to do with us, that we cannot remain indifferent, as if nothing were happening.

I appreciate how Sophocles’ play is more of a jumping-off point for this book than a fetishized ‘source text.’ It is not merely a re-writing of the play into a new context (as allegory), but takes the figure of Antigone as a way of thinking through certain contemporary issues in Mexico, specifically regarding the disappeared and murdered. Antigone, of course, wishes to bury the dead, to privilege filial binds over that of the law, the king, the state. How does the desire to locate the missing, to name the body, to bury the dead, factor into your Antígona? How might we relate those desires, or those duties, to the silence, indifference, and oppression of the Mexican state?

Antígona González was written while the war against the narco was reaching its climax. In Tamaulipas, the violence and fear destroyed everything in its wake. The silence, product of the fear, was, and still is, our most unyielding Creon. The specific event that sparked the writing of Antígona González was the discovery, on April 6, 2011, of mass graves in San Fernando. The morning the news was made public I found myself in a theater; I was there to assist with an awards ceremony and the music group was playing happy norteño songs. The event was carried out in absolute normalcy, without any issues, with absolutely no mention whatsoever of what had occurred. From my seat and then later after leaving the premises, I could not shake a feeling of frustration that was overwhelming to me: how was it possible for us to act as if nothing was happening? How could we have the speeches, the applause, the music and the flowers without anyone having mentioned the bodies? The bodies buried below ground, silenced, invisible. All of us at some point succumb to fear and silence, because the barbarity surpasses us. But afterwards came the need to say something, the urgency of speech: something is happening here. In this land, bodies disappear, bodies are taken away, tortured, hidden. There is no justice here. We are being killed and no one here is doing anything. Fear and silence have left us isolated, and it is the word, language, which re-positions us in the public sphere, thus the need to name the voices of the bereaved, to gather them together, to accompany them and to allow others to accompany them, the need for community. That is why Antígona González speaks, why Sandra Muñoz speaks, why each reader speaks, why each one of the fragments and testimonies that make up the text speak. It is about resistence in the face of the war and in the face of the silence, in the face of the lack of protections and vulnerability in which we find ourselves before crime and before the state.

[for John:]

You write in your translator’s notes: “Translation is a flexible and temporary alliance across great distance, great difference.” I know this is a question for many translators not limited to this particular book, but how did you build such alliances in the case of this text? How do you approach translation when there is so much national and poetic background and context that may or may not ‘come through’ for an English-speaking and/or USAmerican readership?

I was born in Houston Texas and I live here now an overnight bus ride from Sara Uribe’s current home in Tamaulipas. This feels close. Recently, I’ve been obsessed with the thought that Texas only exists as a kind of phantom appendage of Mexico, and that the state (and its history) is only to be found on the other side of the militarized and walled border. Maybe I could say it another way: the only way to discover what Texas is (or what it has been and might be) is to look for it across the current borderline. That is to say, Texas is constituted by its neighbors in Chihuahua and Coahuila and Nuevo León and Tamaulipas (who know Texas all too well), though people in Texas are often unconscious of their own neighbors (while simultaneously fueling their misfortune). This may also be true of the nation state to which the lands of Texas now belong, but I prefer to speak from this smaller location (or even better, from this region sliced by an international border), rather than to attempt to speak from a nation (or about a nation) to which I feel even less of an attachment. I lived for some years in Northern Mexico, and I’ve lived between Texas and Northern Mexico for many more. So there is an alliance between Sara and I that is based on a proximity of bodies, an alliance based on convivencia (shared living together) and dialogue. An alliance across difference, as I said in my note in the book. On a textual level though, the alliance is made of words and work. I engaged in a similar process of assembly of the text as Sara Uribe: digging through archives and searching for PDF’s online to find the citations necessary to build her text. So in that way, I see the alliance as being formed out of geographicaly proximity, convivencia and the very material process of constructing a communally-authored text in English out of her communally-authored text in Spanish.

And yes, there is much national, international and poetic background and context that perhaps will not come through for some English-speaking and/or USAmerican readers. I don’t see translation or the reading of translation as the end of the process of dialogue, but rather as an invitation to readers to engage in further investigation. In the end, I go back to something Lawrence Venuti said—and I paraphrase—about translation being a process that is predicated on irreparable loss, while simultaneously being the source of an exorbitant gain. So much of the context and history are not found in the words of the book; it is assumed that a Spanish-speaking reader arrives to the book with some knowledge of what is happening in Mexico currently. Some non-Spanish speakers will also have some knowledge, of course. For a non-Spanish-speaking speaker who doesn’t know much about the contemporary situation of war and violence in Mexico, one small thing the book might provide is some sense of the weight of the horror and the magnitude of Mexico’s continuing loss. But to push beyond that, this imagined non-Spanish-speaking reader would need to put in some work. I see the book and its translation as a call to do just that work.


[1] http://surplusediciones.org/index.php/catalogo/book/antigona_gonzalez

[2] http://lesfigues.com/book/antigona-gonzalez/

[3] English translation by Jen Hofer & Román Luján @ http://jacket2.org/commentary/speak-or-speak-what-cannot-be-spoken

[4] English translation by Jen Hofer @ http://www.dusie.org/riveragarza_hofer.pdf

[5] http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/content/information-foreigners-0

[6] http://menosdiasaqui.blogspot.com

[7] http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml

[8] http://www.hnet.uci.edu/gestos/piandesc.html

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