Literary Landscapes is a monthly column by Indra Wussow, a writer, translator and director of the Sylt Foundation.
This month’s Literary Landscapes is written by a guest contributor, Venezuelan writer Nelson Rivera. We know so little about the hardships many of our colleagues face during difficult political times in their home countries. I am happy that I could secure Rivera’s guest contribution on the amazing resistance and perseverance of writers in times of deep despair.
Contrary to all expectations, writers in Venezuela haven’t ceased to produce. Quite the opposite: They work at an astounding pace in every area and have increased their efforts to get works published. Readings in plazas and public spaces have become more frequent. There is a renaissance of literary workshops happening. Book fairs – miracles of organisation and persistence – continue to exist despite the reigning poverty. Discussions, tributes and forums are summoned to analyse the Venezuelan demise and its repercussions for the cultural institutions of the State. Museums, libraries, publishers and institutes that existed to promote cultural activity are paralysed today, eaten away by corruption, clientelism and an absence of ideas.
This literary output is not an isolated phenomenon. It happens in all creative disciplines. There are movie forums, theatre listings filled with low-cost productions, classical music concerts and recitals, exhibitions in galleries and at academic centres, cultural festivals, comedy shows and spectacles for children during the weekends. All of it is set up without any support from the State. How is it possible? In a country haunted by hunger, illness and disease outbreaks, overflowing with delinquency and with an environment of generalised ruin, when not even the public transportation functions?
This all occurs within a widespread fundament that hones the resistance of the majority of Venezuelan society. I do not mean the struggle for mere survival. Venezuelan families do not only double their efforts to keep afloat: They also preserve the intangible and fundamental resource of dignity. They do not surrender. They bear testimony and voice protest. They organise themselves and sympathise with one another. They celebrate creation and start new projects. They get out of bed each day, wash, do as much as they can to go out to study or work, even if the day before they have barely eaten. There is an energy, a disposition, willpower against sinking in the ocean of adversities.
A substantial segment of Venezuelan writers, especially the youth, have emigrated, mostly to countries where their Spanish mother tongue prevails: Latin America and Spain. A smaller number have taken on the challenge of establishing themselves within the space of other languages. The painful experience of departure, the uneasy arrival at a new place, adapting to a new reality, has not led writers to displace Venezuela as a topic. Their home country remains deeply rooted in their minds. Indeed, it is the most haunting source and fortunately not the only one. It is inherent in most recent poetry and narrative texts. Meanwhile, the topic of exile has appeared in Venezuelan literature in every possible modality: as a story or an allegory, eloquently or as a backdrop whisper.
In the meantime, the day-to-day difficulties of journalists, writers, teachers, editors and translators who remain in Venezuela, are worsening to an extreme that was unthinkable before. They have been denied the right to rest. To survive, writers often take on five jobs simultaneously due to the conditions of informality and underemployment. A first-rate university professor gets a monthly salary that doesn’t even allow him to acquire a book. It doesn’t give him access to a basic grocery basket for four people, which costs twelve times his income. Thereby, the struggle for life has become indistinguishable from the struggle for the written word. Writing has become self-affirmation; an instrument to avoid succumbing to the ruins, to the voracity for total power.
None of this has happened in vain though, at least not among the writers. Inevitably, the conscience for the country – an appropriation that is emotional and critical at the same time – has expanded in every possible sense. Venezuelan names and their resonance, small episodes of reality, visions of the collapse, lucid images that push through amid a reality that becomes more and more precarious, and the revindication of memories and landscapes, are some of the present topics in Venezuelan writing today. I don’t mean that the literary output in its massive form only practices literary realism. I mean that the Venezuelan crisis has found a place, an identity in all creative outputs and in plenty of writings. Writing does not shy away from directness and faces adversity. Often it addresses adversity without euphemisms. Facts have no veil: they lie openly on the table, examined and unravelled.
It seems to me that this change can be observed in how, among writers, a powerful patriotism unfolds and spreads. Venezuela has boosted its literary stature: it is more than an inevitable theme or context, it is a transverse axis, knot, centrality. And this has happened because democracy has been made vulnerable in all its extremes. The issue is graver and more threatening: the very sustainability of the nation is in danger. Its entity. Its materiality. The State has been abandoned, almost in its totality. Power feeds and supports the capacities of only those institutions that serve their needs: jails, courtrooms, informants, repressive and armed structures, torture centres.
Writers and journalists persist. There is civilian and republican heroism in this persistence. While some produce works that respond to the urgency of the immediate, others construct texts of significant depth and more ample horizons. If I had to look at it impartially, I would say this: Despite persecution, writers are not defeated, nor silenced, nor invisibilised. The regime failed to give itself legitimacy. Its awards never acquired meaning; its scholarships were handed out among themselves; its catalogues became irrelevant listings of friends to their power. And while this was happening, most Venezuelan authors kept on writing: to be true to themselves in a country in limbo. They write to make sense of the situation, their words being their torch to continue.
Nelson Rivera was born in Mariara, Venezuela in 1958. He has performed, simultaneously, within the areas of cultural journalism and communications consulting. Since 1995, he has directed Papel Literario (Literary Paper), the oldest cultural supplement currently active in Hispanic America. He is the author of El Cíclope Totalitario (The Totalitarian Cyclops, Random House Mondadori, 2009), a collection of essays on wars and genocides.
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