The South American Poet Embracing a Language of Maybes
Susy Delgado has helped reclaim Guarani, the best preserved native language of the Americas once considered dirty.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Susy Delgado isn’t just writing great poetry but also preserving an ancient language in the process.
Susy Delgado’s voice rises in soft staccato bursts, fluttering then falling, rolling quietly through question mark inflections in conversation with herself. The push and pull fits a poem combining Spanish and Guarani, the indigenous language of the rural and native Paraguayan people. She reads the first lines of her bilingual tome — Yvytu yma, or Viento viejo, translated “old wind” — which won the country’s national literature prize last year. Her words breeze through her own storied career, one that has taken the 68-year-old from the then-rural farmlands of nearby San Lorenzo to the concert halls of Buenos Aires and Madrid and London as a professional dancer, and finally ending up here, where she serves as an adviser to the minister of culture in the sweltering Paraguayan capital of Asunción.
Critics heaped praise on Delgado’s collection, released on the three-decade anniversary of her first published works. “The words of the poetic voice depart and return, they come and go … and bring lived moments to the places inhabited by them,” writes Lilibeth Zambrano, an expert in Paraguayan literature at the University of Los Andes in Venezuela who describes Delgado’s work as “the poetics of the silent.” The impact goes far beyond mere aesthetic, though. It’s tempting to dismiss Yvytu yma as a reflection on past innovations rather than innovative itself, the way authors often become myopic with age while leaving their best work to the past. Yet the collection remains transformative because it exemplifies the cultural reclamation and renewal of Guarani, a language spoken by 12 million people from Paraguay to Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. “She is one of the jewels for the Guarani language,” says Paraguayan author Javier Viveros.
Her story is one of revival. Although one of the greatest Paraguayan poets, Emiliano R. Fernandez, wrote in Guarani, it was treated like a lower-caste tongue under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989. Teachers shamed schoolchildren for using it, while political leaders disavowed it except to court the indigenous vote. At least four-fifths of Paraguayans still understand it, making it the most enduring native language in the Americas. But Guarani texts (typically religious) were scarce, later written into lullabies or songs. Delgado was essentially alone when she began writing Guarani literature in the ’80s. “The people always considered it a meaner literature,” she says. That a book of Guarani poetry could be awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura speaks to the success of the preservation process Delgado started so long ago. “It’s fundamental. It’s vital. Not just because it is my mother tongue, but it is one of the more vigorous, alive, strong languages,” she says.
Guarani has become more acceptable in recent years, with the help of writers like Delgado. While the Paraguayan constitution in 1992 aimed to put it on equal footing with Spanish, it wasn’t until the formation of the Ministry of Language Policy in 2011 that the government encouraged a renaissance. Now Guarani pops up in advertising, baby names and music lyrics. And other writers are writing in the language that, while perhaps high-pitched and harsh verbally, conveys strange and deep truths. “I can explain many things in less words. It’s really concentrated,” says Viveros, who made his name writing Spanish stories but switched to Guarani for a haiku collection. Guarani is preoccupied with maybes, uncertainty, where the word for tomorrow is not translated as “when the sun rises,” but rather, “if the sun rises.” And it puts a name to many peculiars. For example, Guarani has a word for the oldest, the middle and the youngest child. It is “a tongue of nuances,” Delgado says.
Delgado accidentally discovered her own proclivity for Guarani. Although she grew up speaking it on her grandparents’ farm, she and her peers always wrote in Spanish. Delgado pursued a dancing career through her early twenties, training with a master in Buenos Aires from 1971 to 1976, then heading overseas and ending up in Madrid to study sociology from 1978 to 1980. She returned to Paraguay, where she worked as a newspaper journalist but earned international acclaim in 1985 after finishing as a finalist for a Madrid-based Spanish poetry competition. An advertising agency in Asunción asked her to create a script for a radio ad in Guarani. “It was that day I discovered I could write in Guarani,” she says, which was shocking because “everybody said it was very hard to write!”
Like the metaphors in her poetry, in which she compares the fleeting and elusive nature of time with the wind, her memory of this period in her life is unreliable. “It happened so long ago, it’s like a dream,” she admits. But she does remember that she was reticent to publish at first. Her friends in the literary community had to convince her, which led to the creation of Algún Extraviado Temblor (Some Lost Tremor), published in 1986, and follow-up bilingual works including Tesarái Mboyve (Before the Forgetfulness) and Tataypípe (With the Fire).
Even amid her accolades, her work remains controversial. Critics here, as they do globally, grapple over whether authors should preserve language or adopt more colloquial terms. Delgado doesn’t merely write in Spanish and Guarani, but mixes in the local slang that combines the two, nicknamed “Jopara.” Her decision isn’t always applauded. “The high teachers and important writers of the Guarani language used to demonize the Jopara,” she says. “But this is really the way people talk here.” In this moment, she speaks forcefully in Spanish — leaving the ambiguity of Guarani behind.