The Gathering Voice

Time has seemed to stretch and bend around our days in Querétaro, as if you could fit a whole world and the moon between one second and the next.

I offer writing slates from home to the writers I meet. A piece of home, and a call to write. Some will instagram them for me, or send them by email. Others write a word or two immediately. I don’t consciously decide that they will all go to women. It seems to happen with a kind of inevitable gravity. Sometimes I choose these women, sometimes others do, and sometimes they choose themselves, stepping forward, their hands ready, to receive a slate and the call of its stone page.

A writing slate, with its wooden frame, looks surprisingly like a modern tablet: a dark screen, almost inky except for the sheen of moonlight playing across its stone surface. I notice how interesting it is to write in white, on a dusky surface. It feels right – drawing the light words out of the darkness. There’s something telescopic about it, astronomical.

In old black and white photographs of the factories where Welsh writing slate was produced, you can see the frontiers of literacy there before your eyes, because, if you look closely at the production lines, there are children working in their black aprons and flat caps. I imagine it’s very likely that many of them couldn’t read and write on the very slates they produced.

For me, these slates are kinds of frontiers then, between silence and speech, between illiteracy and literacy, between the written and spoken word. But, in Querétaro, I have all these categories, and the way I see them, questioned, until the meaning of the slates starts to blurr and reconfigure.

The first slate goes, not to a writer, but to someone who has had a vital role in indigenous radio, a spoken form.

Amalia Tello Torralba is first to write on a slate. A Mixteco speaker, she is here at the festival to talk about her work over fourty years on a radio station which broadcasts in indigenous languages including her own. When I give her the slate, she doesn’t hesitate. The fine slate pencil, as she presses it to the answering surface, emits its painful sound, which always sounds to me like a distant, lunar cry. As her hand moves with the writing, two words spread slowly, fine and bright from the dark sky of the slate, leaving traces there, a trail of comets perhaps, or the scribble of nightjars.

After this slow scratching at the face of the slate, she hesitates and questions herself:

“Have I put the apostrophe in the right place?” she asks aloud, in Spanish. “I’m more of a talker than a writer really, in Mixteco,” she says, looking to me and smiling, “I’ve written it as I think it should be, but I’m not that sure about this...” and she taps the apostrophe. I have a feeling of recognition, because although I speak it fluently, I’m often unsure of myself writing in Welsh; its some sense of lack of ownership of written Welsh, its literary structures especially, a laziness or weariness that comes over me when I try to write it, and a concern that I might not know exactly how to catch errors, like a stray apostrophe for instance.

Amalia speaks the words to me, as she points to them on the slate, and worries aloud whether it’s quite in the right place, that apostrophe. As she pronounces the words a second time, I notice there’s a sound like a click, and then a little stop, exactly where the apostrophe is, so I suspect she’s written it absolutely perfectly.

“What does it mean?” I ask her.

As I stand with Amalia, the festival photographer takes our picture. I worry that this is all a bit public. It’s a quiet gesture really, this giving of slate. I don’t want it to be a pantomime, but just to create a meaningful space where perhaps we can share words, now and after the festival. I want it to be a listening.

But she seems unphased by the camera, probably more used to it than I am.

The Beautiful word,” she says. “It means The beautiful word.”

And I feel the camera drop away into the darkness.

There could be no better place than Amalia’s Beautiful Word to start. And as I write this I think of how languages gather a kind of pressurised beauty from the effort of tugging them again and again out of the silence, particularly if they are under threat.

Yásnaya Elena Aguilar, to whom I give the second slate: linguist, theorist and speaker of Ayuujk, talks with luminous brilliance at one of her events, questioning both the category ‘indigenous’ and the category ‘literature’. Spoken stories and spoken forms aren’t calcified and static, she says, but often creative, innovative and elastic. There’s no reason to assume that written literature is more elaborate or sophisticated than works of spoken form. In particular, she refers to the way people eagerly await indigenous novels or poems, as if the height of virtuosity for writers universally was to inhabit these literary genres, rather than something more culturally specific in form, more unfamiliar and perhaps spoken.

As I hold the writing slate, I begin to see how culturally loaded it is for me, how it carries a whole set of values that set store in literacy and the written word, in education, progress, books. This slate, is made anew.

I wonder whether any of the people I give a slate to might choose, rather than to write on it, to break it? To paint it, to play it like a drum? To make a sculpture of it, or to give it back? Who am I to say that the best use of this bit of earth is to write all over it?

At Yásnaya’s Hay Festival event, I sit beside an impressive young student of writing, Jumko, who tells me the story of her Japanese and black Mexican identity. One of a cohort of terrific young Mexican writers who I had the privilege to teach in a writing workshop on Friday, and to whom I have also given slates. From all over Mexico, these students of writing and editing suggest some of the panorama of Mexican experience. At the event, she and I are both rapt listening to Yásnaya’s powerful voice. Jumko offers me a piece of a sweet disk, made of some kind of grain. It melts in my mouth deliciously, the perfect popcorn for this.

On my way back to my hotel, I pass a young indigenous woman, who sits on the pavement with her baby, selling similar sweets, and I am reminded of an essay by a writer from this city, Yolanda Seguro, in Tsunami, the same anthology of contemporary mexican feminism in which Yásnaya’s work is published. ‘So that I could write this text,’ says Seguro, ‘my grandmother worked her whole life making and selling chocolate.’ I buy some sweets from the woman, and eat them slowly, letter by letter.

Later on, at a reception, I talk with some more of the students I’d taught yesterday. All young women, again. They keep thanking me for sitting with them, so they mustn’t know how electrifying they are. I would infinitely prefer to sit with them than with public figures, influentials or dignatories. They talk with lively passion of writing, of the position of women in Mexico, of recent protests in Mexico city against the alleged rape of young women by police, of domestic violence and the epidemic of femicide, of hope and of anger. They glimmer with potential, like fireflies.

At the same reception, a woman whose voice is breaking with urgency gives a speech about Miroslava Breach, an investigative journalist whose work pursued the truth about human rights violations, drug trafficking and government corruption. Breach was killed in 2017, and the speech is delivered in front of a banner emblazoned with words in Spanish attributed to her: ‘They decided to shut me up with 8 bullets;’ it says; ‘what they didn’t expect, is that here I am, multiplying, and gathering voices.’

In just a few days, in the bustling squares and along the coloured reels of the city’s streets, through its bandstands and ornate churches, amid its smells of cornflour and coffee and the notes of its never-ending music which threads its beautiful doorways with sound, under the weary eyes of its street vendors and shoe shiners, and among the talk of its intellectuals and students, I have been taken apart by Querétaro. I’m unsure where these pieces of me will land when we finally touch down again, at home, on the other side of the Atlantic.

And the moon, as we speed through the shortening night on the flight home, is slowly reconfiguring again, turning like a slow cog, until it will seem, to most people, to be showing the wide, yawning face of a man.

But there’s one thing I’m sure of, that face in the moon, at home. It isn’t a man.

She’s a woman, up there with her long cry, multiplying and gathering voices.

Alys Conran is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2019/20, travelling to each Hay Festival edition. Her novels, Dignity and Pigeon, are out now. Find out more about Hay Festival Querétaro here.