"There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it."
Jan Morris, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
At the Picanteria, a traditional Peruvian restaurant hidden away down an Arequipan back street, five of us fall into conversation and a miniature European union. A Danish writer, a Swedish novelist, two physicists – one Spanish, one French – and me. After a brief discussion about the shrimp, we get on to black holes. We three writers want a crash course, in layman’s terms, and the Spanish physicist, who is here because he has written a book, but claims not to be a writer, is doing a grand job.
The Dane has her own theories about waves created by particularly charismatic people. The scientists are impeccably polite in disabusing her. It is a novel idea, not grounded in fact.
The Frenchman, however, is at pains not to deny the ‘magic’, or whatever she wants to call it, all the things that lie beyond the bounds of what we know. He and the Spaniard talk animatedly about space and time, and the possibility of infinite dimensions. ‘Don’t get him on to dimensions,’ the Frenchman jokes, ‘that’s what he’s working on.’
Christophe is modest, so it is left to his colleague to tell us that ‘someone you might have heard of’ supervised his doctorate. ‘Stephen…’
‘Hawking?’ I guess. ‘Never heard of him.’
We laugh, and the puddings arrive. A regional speciality, queso helado. Sprinkled with cinnamon, ‘cheese ice cream’ is much nicer than it sounds. Our wine glasses are refilled.
Over our shoulders, the guest of honour – eighty-two-year-old local boy and Nobel Laureate, Arequipa’s big cheese – is deep in conversation with the festival’s directora. All around us, at long banqueting tables, animated conversation ensues. I wonder at this cornucopia of talent, these writers and thinkers and incredible innovators from all over the world, gathered together in this smallish city in southern Peru.
I think the Dane is as right to speculate as the Spaniard is to search for facts. Infinite dimensions are here within the room. In this company, imagining the world is easy.
The drive into a city from its airport is often instructive. Arequipa is known as ‘the white city’ for the milky colour of its most significant buildings’ stone, but out in the barrios it bursts into technicolour. A densely packed checkerboard of city centre streets laid out by the colonists on a tight grid system of fifty-something blocks suddenly loosens. Roads snake where they need to go, winding toward the volcano that dominates the vista.
There is no doubt we are in the global south. Painted adverts adorn hasty concrete walls. Sidestreets reveal cement mixers and helmeted construction workers and urban allotments. Horns honk. Yellow Beetle taxis, packed buses, elaborately stickered minivans. Overhead cables droop and loop over calles. Elderly ladies crouch on street corners in wide brimmed hats, selling cigarettes out of suitcases; young men serve coffee in polystyrene cups out of urns on wheels; kids in colour-coded tracksuits are disgorged from school buses. Every fifty metres or so, a local policeman or woman leans against a shop-front in a lime-green tabard, lazily observing the whole tumultuous scene.
Air alternates between the thick black gush of leaded petrol and the heady clean thrill of not-quite-enough oxygen. One way or another, Arequipa catches you in the throat.
The white stone edifice of the cathedral dominates the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square. Twin towers and Greco-Roman colonnades conjure a mix of Acropolis and old Wembley Stadium, a piece of Europe on this South American plateau.
Rising behind it, high into the altostratus of the troposphere is the majesty of Misti, the mountain the Inca called Lord.
Its avalanches, periodic volcanic rumblings and sheer forbidding height encouraged the indigenous people of the Arequipa region to worship the landscape with which they struggled to live in harmony. The Spanish of course came and planted the cross.
From the balcony of my hotel, which overlooks the plaza, I watch a man in a leather jacket rise from a bench at the edge of a manicured lawn. He genuflects toward the city’s trinity of towers, the cathedral’s pair and the silent looming mountain. Later, a street preacher holds a small audience captive in the square, a well-thumbed Bible waving wildly beneath his baseball cap.
The temptation, of course, with colonial histories, is that we set worlds in opposition to each other. The discourse of struggle, risings to right the wrongs of the past, may be comprehensible, logical even, but does little to prevent bloodshed. Now, Christianity has deep roots here too, and perhaps there is something logical about the way the cathedral’s cross-topped towers point toward a mountain called Lord.
At Hay’s Latin American iterations, the talks are called charlas. I attend one on minority languages. I met the chair, Ingrid Bejerman, last night; she will be interviewing me tomorrow. I also have a handful of books in my bag that my publisher has asked me to pass to Miren Agur Meabe, a writer from Bilbao whose book A Glass Eye has been translated into English from Basque by someone living in Chicago, and is published by Parthian in Cardigan. The books were printed, I understand, in Bulgaria. Now I’m handing them over in Peru. This is the world in which we live.
Bejerman, a Brazilian living in Canada, begins the session by admitting she speaks four colonial languages – Portuguese, Spanish, English and French – but wants the session to reflect the realities of the languages represented. As well as Miren’s experience of writing in Basque, we hear from Cherie Dimaline, who writes in Métis, a language native to Canada, and Oscar Catacora, who writes in Aymara, the second most widely spoken native language of Peru. Oscar’s film, Wiñaypacha (2017) has, appropriately enough, been nominated for an Academy Award.
We listen attentively to the writers speak of their peoples’ struggles for linguistic rights and to explanations about the nuances of language choices, for communication and recognition, for heart and hearth. Some of the questions that follow are, for somebody from Wales, depressingly familiar. ‘Why,’ asked a white Peruvian youth of his Aymara-speaking compatriot, ‘do you not just give up your language in the name of progress?’
Catacora deals with the question patiently, sensitively, in the manner of one used to having to justify his own consciousness, ancestry, culture and existence. Afterwards, Cherie Dimaline confided that the translation she was receiving through her headset was a little slow, and this took the sting out of the forthright response she would have shared given a few seconds more notice of what was being said. Calmed by the pace of the translation, instead she gave a moving explication of a people’s connection to the land.
For the Métis of Georgia Bay in Canada, land holds the keys to existence, and the rituals and ceremonies that date back to a time Europeans arrogantly think of as ‘prehistory’. There are also hieroglyphic records that connect Cherie and her people with their ancestors, despite that the last living fluent speaker of her dialect – her great aunt – recently died.
A language dies out somewhere every fourteen days. And some people still think that’s progress.
A couple of times I make to applaud Cherie’s passionate advocacy for indigenous people’s rights, as she movingly relates some of the actions of previous Canadian governments. As recently as the 1990s, indigenous children were being taken from their parents and forced into ‘residential schools’ where many children died.
Later in the evening I bump into her at a cocktail party in a fabulous old building that now houses a bank. I am keen to share with her my intention to send my daughters to Welsh-medium school. She is moved by my enthusiasm, and listens as I tell her that I don’t actually speak Cymraeg, but want my children to speak the language of their land. A different context, but her words have shored something up within me.
At her naming ceremony, a rite of passage for generations, Cherie was surprised when the community elder conducting proceedings pronounced her name in English. But it was, he said, not a negative reflection. In fact, it was a kind of baptism into a role as bridge builder. The name? She Listens To Her People.
She listened to me, too.
A Brief Note to Jan Morris:
Don’t worry. We know.