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Feature Liliana Valenzuela is the author of Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino (Mouthfeel Press, 2013) and several artisan chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Edinburgh Review, Indiana Review, Tigertail, Huizache, Borderlands, Drunken Boat, and other publications. She has received writing awards and recognition from Luz Bilingual Publishing, Austin International Poetry Festival, Drunken Boat, Indiana Review, Austin Poetry Society, and the Chicano/Latino Literary Award, and has held residencies at Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and Vermont Studio Center.
An acclaimed translator of U.S. Latinx writers Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Denise Chávez, Dagoberto Gilb, Cristina García, and others, Valenzuela was a guest of honor at the Congreso de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española in Córdoba, Argentina, in 2018. An inaugural CantoMundo fellow and a long-time Macondo Writers Workshop member, she writes poetry, essays, journalism, and is currently working on a memoir. She is the former editor of ¡Ahora Sí!, the Spanish publication of the Austin American-Statesman and is now a staff translator for Aparicio Publishing. A native of Mexico City, Valenzuela lives and works in Austin, Texas.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry?
LV: My great aunt Josefina in Mexico City was a practitioner of the art of “declamación,” where people learned poems by heart and recited them to a live audience, in this case, us family. I remember how the room fell silent and she commanded that space with her verses, and held us, spellbound.
CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
LV: In my senior year in college I took a course on Experimental Women Writers at UT Austin and it blew my mind. I did not know women could write like this and could be so daring. I bought copies of Writing the Natural Way and The Artist’s Way and spent the whole summer after my B.A. graduation in Anthropology writing. Poetry is what came most naturally to me.
CH: How did you begin your journey as a literary translator?
LV: When I had my first child, I was looking for something I could do from home. Translation work started arriving, and I found that it was easy for me, as I’ve always had an affinity for languages. I speak Spanish, Danish, English, and some French. And, almost immediately, I realized I wanted to translate literature. I reached out to Sandra Cisneros, whom I had befriended when she lived in Austin in the late 80s, and the rest is herstory!
CH: How has your work as a translator influenced your work as a poet?
LV: Translation makes you a very close reader of literature and finely attuned to the rhythms and cadences of language. And, from the start, I was writing my own poetry and short stories in both languages, translating myself back and forth. So, translation was there from the beginning. And it continues to be a big part of what I do. My latest collection is fully bilingual. I translated myself from English to Spanish, and four different translators translated my work from Spanish into English: the late Angela McEwan and Fred Fornoff; and G.C. Racz and Arturo Salinas.
CH: Both titles of your poetry books identify them as codices. Would you tell us a little about the role of the codex in your work?
LV: I’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Aztec codices, and ancient manuscripts in general. I’m drawn to that primordial instinct of our ancestors to leave a written record of their creation stories, myths, historical records, and even basic accounting. This is my own codex, my testimony of an immigrant’s life in the late xx and early xxi centuries.
CH: Tell us a little about Codex of Love. How did the poems of this book come about? How does it relate to your earlier book, Codex of Journeys?
LV: These were actually a single codex, a single manuscript. The opportunity arose to publish Codex of Journeys first as a chapbook, so I went for it. And this year I published Codex of Love, which includes 5 books or sections. Codex of Journeys is really the 6th section. These codices belong together. Codex of Love is the poet looking within, and Codex of Journeys is the poet looking out to the world.
CH: You were for some years editor of ¡Ahora Si! What has your journalistic experience brought to your writing?
LV: It was a tremendous education in writing fast and on a deadline, and in being connected to community. I am deeply honored that people let me into their lives and homes and trusted me with their stories, those unsung heroes who are building Austin’s prosperity. I also got to interview fantastic human beings, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucía, and the Colombian pop star Juanes, among many others, which was incredibly inspiring.
CH: How has participation in CantoMundo and the Macondo Writers Workshop figured in your development as a writer? What would be your advice to a novice writer who’s looking for writing community?
LV: When I was starting out, there was no real community where I could just be myself, that satisfied all my needs. That changed first with Macondo, where I found artists and thinkers of all backgrounds seeking social change, and then in CantoMundo, where I found poets of our many latinidades, different ways of being and singing your latinx song, in your own voice. My advice is to keep trying until you find the right fit. And the more you give, the more you receive. We are only as strong as our bonds with fellow writers and, ultimately, our audiences.
CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? How have residencies, such as those you’ve held at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and the Vermont Studio Center, contributed to your reaching your goals?
LV: Besides attending workshops at Macondo and CantoMundo, I contribute to the Hablemos Escritoras Podcast (https://www.hablemosescritoras.com/), where I keep educating myself about women writers from the Spanish-speaking world. I’ve contributed book reviews, interviews with literary translators and writers who are also literary translators, like myself. Residencies are also a priceless opportunity to sit back, reflect on your path, and let stories germinate. Or pour out of your heart writing something you’ve longed to write. This summer I was at the Tasajillo Residency out in Kyle, Texas, in a cabin in the Hill Country, where I translated some short stories by Kimberly King Parsons, from her collection Black Light. That time out in nature during this pandemic was heavenly.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
LV: Tiawanaku: Poems from the Mother Coqa by Judith Santopietro, translated by Ilana Luna (Orca Books, https://orcalibros.com/en/books/)