Contact Zone, At the Intersections of Two Cultures.
I was fortunate to read a thought provoking essay by Mary Louise Pratt titled, Arts of the Contact Zone. She coined the phrase “contact zone” which she says;
“I use to refer to the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict…A contact perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other, It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized, or travelers and “travelees,” not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understanding and practices.”
She uses the example of how Europeans only had the communication from the conquistadores, the clergy, and colonizers written and verbal accounts to inform their understanding of Peru. It would have been nearly impossible to arrive at an understanding from the Andean, Peruvian, Inca culture, which spoke Quechua, and had no written language. Even without a language, or written text barrier, history is nearly always taught from the perspective of the victors, and the history of the conquest of Peru taught in Spain was certainly a typical example.
In 1613, 40 years after the final fall of the Inca empire, an Andean descendent of the royal Inca, schooled at a Spanish religious institute, attempted to change the Spanish understanding of what happened in Peru. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala wrote a letter to King Phillip III of Spain, titled New Chronicle, and Good Govermnent. Unfortunately it was unreadable at the time, written in a mixture of Quechua and ungrammatical broken Spanish.
That manuscript was discovered in 1908, by a Peruvianist, Richard Pietschmann, in the Danish Royal Archive in Copenhagen. Pietschmann prepared a paper on his find in 1912, a year after Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu. Pietschmann did not have much more luck than Guaman Poma. No one paid any attention to his paper or the “letter” until the late 1970’s, when Western scholars found ways of translating or transculturating it. So the letter was delivered…350 years too late.
The “letter” is 1200 pages long, not an easy read in any language. Guaman Poma argues the Spanish conquest should have been a peaceful encounter of equals with the potential for benefiting both nationalities except for the mindless greed of the Spanish for gold and silver. He writes, “You brought nothing of value to share with the Andeans. All day and at night in your dreams you were saying “Indies, Indies, gold, silver, gold, silver from Peru”.
In a line drawing from the New Chronicle, and Good Government, titled Conquista, Meeting of Spaniard and Inca, the Inca is shown offering the Spaniard a plate full of gold, and asks in Quechua, “You eat this gold?” The Spaniard answers in Spanish, “We eat this gold.”
Timing is one of the most important elements in history and life. It seems to me if King Phillip had received, translated, and understood the New Chronicle, and Good Goverment it probably would not have even nudged the course of history, but we will never know. I am imagining Guaman Poma waiting impatiently all the rest of his life for King Phillip’s answer to his letter. He did the best he could but it is a sad chapter in a sad story.
Ms. Pratt explains, “Miscomprehension, incomprehension, dead letters, unread masterpieces, absolute heterogeneity of meaning-these are some of the perils of writing in the contact zone. They all live among us today in the transnationalized metropolis of the United States and are becoming more widely visible, more pressing, and like Guaman Poma’s text, more decipherable to those who once would have ignored them in defense of a stable, centered sense of knowledge and reality.”
This is where we are today, my expat friends and associates, we are working, living and writing in the contact zone. We are guests in Peru, subject to Peruvian law, and custom. The shoe is on the other foot. Does it fit?
The Captain’s Blog is in a double contact zone. Since I started the Captain’s Blog, over 300 million other blogs have begun. There are 900,000 new blog posts per day. Just being on the internet does not mean anyone will find our little niche of Iquitos Peru. Sometimes I think I may as well write in Quechua. Talk about lost letters. Guaman Poma’s letter was remarkable, and it was lost for 350 years. That is what I am talking about. We have to be remarkable, not mediocre, or we are lost forever.
I need your help to spread the word. You are my most valuable resource. I can not tell you enough how much I appreciate your attention. Please tell your friends, and family what we are trying to do here in Iquitos Peru. We are the good guys. Thanks.
Contact Zone, The intersection Of Two Cultures
Bill Grimes, Dawn on the Amazon
Guaman Poma de Ayala, Felipe. El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno. Manuscript. Ed. John Murra and Rolena Adorno, Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1980
Pratt, Mary Louise. “Linguistic Utopias.” The Linguistics of Writing. Ed. Nigel Fabb et al. Manchester: Manchester P, 1987.