Let's talk Latin America

On Love and Dying Languages: an interview with Juana Adcock

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 This article originally appeared in our first print magazine which discusses all things Latin America! We hope you become inspired to read and learn more about this fascinating region of the world.

Surrounded by spiky monkey puzzle trees and leafy palms, I met with poet and translator Juana Adcock in Walworth Garden before her talk at the London Spanish Book Fair. Daughter of an English father and a Mexican mother, Juana grew up in a tiny village in the West Midlands before moving, aged six, to Monterrey, Mexico. She started writing fiction when she was young, but after working as a translator, she realised she was more interested in the texture, sound and vocality of language. She moved to Glasgow to study for her Masters in Creative Writing, and never left. Her first collection, Manca (2014), explored the brutality of the Mexican drug war through surreal, humorous and violent imagery. It was chosen by Mexican critic Sergio González Rodríguez as one of the best poetry books of that year. Split (2019), her English-language debut, was the Poetry Book Society’s Winter 2019 selection. The eclectic collection enmeshes memories and personal experiences of love and relationships with reflections about feminism, migration, ecology and social justice, flitting from deserts and mines in Mexico to a ride on the S-Barn in Berlin. 

Reading any of Juana’s work, you will come into contact with her lifelong love affair with language. In Split, Juana uses words in Italian, Ancient Greek, Welsh, Spanish and Scots, amongst other languages. In one poem, Juana takes an 18th century text describing the hunting of the now-extinct sea cow, and drains it of all words apart from its piercing, violent verbs. In another, she uses specified medical language to describe kissing a lover’s body, exploring all the different pockets of language that exist. The collection opens with a conversation between a woman and a snake, proposing the question of how to transcend the barriers of otherness and communicate with a foreign entity. It is a reminder that all communication requires translation—conversations are an act of interpretation between one’s inner self and the outside world, between man and woman, between woman and snake, between the global North and the global South, and between all languages, dead, alive and invented.

HB: Do you feel like translating inspires your writing practice? 

AD: Yeah absolutely, you kind of train yourself into writing and speaking in different registers, and slipping in and out of all these different personalities and characters. It’s not even just the fiction or the poetry that does this, but also translating governmental papers or technical things or even marketing, you find out all these subtleties and all these different ways of using language. What strikes me the most is the way that language can literally kind of shape how we perceive reality, if not reality itself. Sometimes when I’m translating, poems will come to me, and those are some of my favourites because I feel like both practices are feeding into each other. 

HB: This is kind of a strange question, but I was reading about how the Ulysses got translated for the first time by a woman and words that had been translated as ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ were actually ‘unmarried women’ in the original. Do you ever feel like being a woman influences the way you translate?

AD: Yes, absolutely, and also having a different background than someone who grew up in the UK means that my reading of many kinds of texts is going to be different. I’m really interested in social justice and in making sure that marginalised communities are respected and heard and seen, and this inevitably, even when I don’t want it to, is going to have an effect on how I translate. I think the example you gave is really perfect, it just shows how language shapes our perception of things, and something that might seem quite innocuous actually has a profound ideological effect. 

HB: What is it like translating Scots languages? 

AD: I am continually fascinated by, and deeply in love with, the Scots languages. I have translated poetry from Scots, from Doric and Shetlandic. Translating into Spanish is really, really hard and really fun. It’s just a really fascinating challenge. It’s different with each author, but with one author, Alexander Hutchinson, who worked in Doric, he had this really over-the-top, maximalist, humorous, amazing way of piling things on top of each other and creating this amazing music. Translating that, I found myself wanting to invent a new kind of Spanish language. So I went back to my North-Eastern Mexican regional dialect, and I used lots of archaic words and mixed that with modern slang. 

HB: So when you say your North-Eastern dialect, what are the distinguishing features of that?

I can’t really say, its just a way of talking, like the way your aunties would talk, and the way they would maybe not pronounce certain syllables, or use certain turns of phrase, or the accent itself has a certain sing-songyness to it as well. The way old people speak is kind of like an archive of the language. There’s such a treasure in that, because it just makes you see how language evolves. Even me, I’ve been outside of Mexico for thirteen years, and my Spanish is antiquated, like, I go home and people are like, why are you talking like it’s the 1990s? (laughs)

HB: Do you feel like your music influences your poetry in any way?

AD: Yeah, so music really helps me to get out of my head and back into my body, and just feel more in a state of flow, which is perfect because with translating and writing you can often get lost in words and trying to figure things out logically. Recently when I was really stuck trying to write a poem and I had a deadline and I was really stressed and my brain was getting a bit saturated, I thought, oh well I’ll just write the accompanying music piece. I had it in my headphones and listened to it over and over, and through that I was able to complete the poem, and I think it was quite a successful one. 

HB: So you wrote Manca while you were living in Scotland. How did it feel being there and reading about all the violence in Mexico?

AD: Well, I felt a tremendous sense of impotence, and some amount of guilt as well, for being somewhere that was safe and relaxed and nice, while all my friends and family were immersed in this completely different reality. I felt compelled to read the news as much as possible. I had friends who had guns pointed to their heads, who had family members killed, and it was just a really, really terrible time. Places I used to go to had massacres in them, buildings were burnt down with people in them, it was just a complete transformation of the city where I’m from, which I always remembered as being quite peaceful. So I felt compelled to read about it, and in order to be able to comprehend what I was reading I needed to process it in some way. I started this writing practice of filling myself with news in the morning, and walking to my writing studio and just writing without stopping for pages and pages. 

HB: Were there any news stories in particular that really stuck with you?

AD: One of them was about a child soldier who had been recruited, I think he was twelve, and he was in charge of beheading people. Of course the rule of law still doesn’t really exist in Mexico, so there was no protection for the child. He was instantly really demonised, obviously because he’d done some horrible things, but his name was not protected and he was filmed giving an interview and this was on Youtube freely.

HB: Did you find writing Manca therapeutic in a way?

AD: Yes, because it allowed me to feel a little bit more empowered, even though there was nothing I could do. Even though nothing I would write would change anything, it allowed me to at least on the page be able to reimagine things. 

HB: Did you find yourself getting desensitised by the images in any way?

AD: No. I feel like probably people living in Mexico were getting quite desensitised. Chatting to them, they’d be like, oh yeah, they’re killing people left right and centre, but you know, whatever, you just get on with it. Of course, that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re living in that close proximity, but because I was so far away and I was using this in my writing I felt like I became more sensitive to it. 

HB: Why did you feel like it was important to use humour in that collection?

AD: I think the humour came from partly talking to my friends and the way they used humour to cope with what they were dealing with, and partly just to reimagine things as surreal. It was never making fun of the victims, one of the most comical poems was actually making fun of the president, imagining him holding a funeral for his leg if his leg had been cut off, and the big state procession that would entail. A lot of it was making fun of the absurdity of the drug war itself, and the absurdity of the state discourse around it. 


                                                                                             Illustration by Charlotte Custot


HB: Split begins with a conversation between a woman and a snake. How come?

AD: Well, essentially because I was doing this writing retreat in Italy. I was expecting to be with other artists but everyone cancelled last minute, so then I found myself in the middle of nowhere in the mountains in Italy, going a bit mental. I was on the balcony and I thought it was just a spool of rope just sitting there, but then we saw each other and the snake shot back into the scraggly mountains and I ran back into the house absolutely terrified. It was such a strange thing that we were both so scared of each other. I don’t know, maybe because I’d been alone for so long, I wanted to talk to the snake!

HB: Was there any reference to Adam and Eve?

AD: Obviously, you can’t really get away from the book of Genesis, but I wasn’t interested in that really. I was more interested in exploring the nature of desire and fear and their relationship with each other. I was also exploring encountering the other and being scared of the other and then finding a way to communicate with this entity that seems like a threat. My plan was to look at Mexican myths because there’s lots of myths about snakes in Mexican indigenous cultures, but I only got so far as one, and it was the myth of Coatlicue. The book is quite eclectic, there are lots of different voices and registers and styles going on. But they’re all somehow speaking about the divisions we might have in terms of the way we speak, and about feminism in some way, and our connection to the other, whoever that other may be.

HB: What about the fence dividing Tijuana and San Diego interests you? 

AD: Last time I went it was this kind of double fence mesh wire, so that people on either side can’t even touch each other between the wire, it’s about a metre and a half apart or something. That whole structure runs through the city, and down into the sand, into the beach, and then it gets to a point where it can’t continue because it’s the sea, and it just peters out. It looked so absolutely ridiculous, like, oh right, okay, man against nature, victory, putting a wall through the sea. Children were playing on one side, and you could see actually, if you were paddling in the sea, there would be a soldier on the hill with an AK47 on the American side, just ready to shoot a kid if they paddled round the fence, which would be really easy to do.  I don’t know, it just seemed so absurd and so strange. I don’t know what its like now but you used to be able to get a special ID card visa so that you could cross to go and do your shopping or whatever. The colloquial term for crossing the border was cruzar la linea (cross the line.) It’s such an understatement considering there’s this whole gigantic apparatus around it. 

H: That’s funny as well because that phrase in English has a different meaning completely. You’re crossing the line, you know? 

AD: Yeah definitely, I hadn’t thought about that, it’s true. 

HB: (Fox appears) Oh wow, look! It’s so close to us. Do you wanna have a chat with the fox?

AD: (laughs) I probably will. 

Photo credits: Helen Brown