From voice to letter ideazapato Books on oral tradition
ideazapato is a Mexican publishing house that publishes short stories passed on by oral tradition, from different regions of the world. Storytellers and researchers collaborate in the team, alongside designs based on the marginal and traditional printing tradition of the 16th and 20th centuries.
José Manuel Mateo is at the head of the publishing house, phD in Literature by the UNAM, and the graphic project is run by Andrés Mario Ramírez Cuevas, designer and illustrator. Both also work as university professors. We interviewed them and asked them about their books and the oral tradition in Mexico.
Límulus: In your blog we see Andrés Mario and José Manuel have been working together for many years and that before creating ideazapato, you’d both been involved in the publishing world. What motivated you to establish a publishing house focused on the publication of short stories of oral tradition?
ideazapato: There were more circumstances than motivations, by this I mean, work, friendship and coincidence added up before we set out to publish under one same publishing name the books we had worked under our own risk. Firstly, Andrés and I prepared “En este cuento” and “El viaje del cordero…;” between the first and the second, at least two years passed. Intending to publish them, we first went to see many publishers and showed them the mockups we had prepared; two of the editors we went to were friends of ours (and still are); other we simply knew because they published children’s books and weren’t (nor are) our friends. Truth is, both doubted our books would be to the liking of the public or the readers; our friends also gave us their opinion on the extension and formats we had chosen. We reconsidered both books and made adjustments to various details based on the opinions. As I reflected on the work done, I realized that we had the beginning of a colection, not just two independent titles. It was then that I proposed Andrés we work on three more titles to round up the idea of the collection, which had to, first and foremost, combine the work methods and the interests of two fields: that of illustrated books and the research that popular and traditional literature encompasses. Those worlds were somehow already in our first two books because the texts had sprung from a previous experience: I had worked for a couple of years on a project about traditional Hispanic and popular narrative lyrical poetry From the New Spain (the project was coordinated by Mariana Masera and Enrique Flores and was held in the UNAM). I think in our books we also incorporate the fact that we’ve worked on various publications to disseminate science.
L: The category “oral tradition” is very broad, starting with he premise that narrations are communicated orally, many distinctions can be made (stories that pertain to particular periods of time, cultures, situations, that are not only used for entertainment but as a mean to preserve the cultural identity or as admonition, etc.) What is “oral tradition” to ideazapato?
i: To us, oral tradition is a form of circulation of literary statements formed and transmitted in various contexts: in the family, in the community, in school… wherever it is collectives assemble. Almost always, oral tradition gets by without the figure of the author; what I mean to say is: these literary statements do not acquire importance because of the personality they’re associated with but for the significance and the sense that the communities imbue them, which is why the figure of the author is not relevant, since there is a broad and continuous collaboration that surpasses, and at the same time, links individualities. It is about lyrical or narrative formations that can appear, remain in a sort of latent life and then resurrect, be it in the same context or another.
L: Mexico is a country that is particularly rich in oral tradition. Would you be able to trace a genealogic tree or Mexican oral tradition? What would be its branches? Would you begin from a single trunk?
i: The Mexican oral tradition is linked with the Hispanic tradition, with everything that’s been told in the Spanish language; however, to the extent that the land has belonged for more than thousands of years to the cultures that have emerged in the American continent, the poems and stories that move around orally also articulate motives, characters and situations of the indigenous people, including different words than Spanish. We also have to take into account that the oral tradition itself in Spanish is already embedded with narrative and poetic materials from other parts of the world, even with the local cultural combinations of the Iberian peninsula, where immigrations and original settlements from African and the Middle East took place, as well as Celtics, Germanic, and of course, Roman. What I mean is that the oral tradition greatly surpasses the national realm and the artificial borders that we are used to.
L: But, ideazapato has published stories from other countries, other cultures. What did you learn from comparing the stories of the Mexican territory with other countries? Are there tangible differences between one and the other?
i: As a matter of fact, ours is not so much a theoretical job as much a one where we read and test the different possibilities for each book. The stories we’ve published from other countries were attractive because of the story itself, because of its anecdote, its characters, the way it unraveled, its humor, and most of all, because there are no happy endings more like contradictory ones, paradoxical or disturbing, which, in our case always lead us to contemplate questions on life and the relations people establish with groups. Now, it is true that theme and structure similarities and coincidences between poems and stories from different parts of the world can be established; the difficult part – as Stephen Reckert puts it – is to establish if that is due to relatively permanent universal archetypes, to the constant cultural exchanges and transfers, or more so, to the layers that have been accumulated historically, both in physical evidence as well as in the memory of the people. Oral tradition is a very complex field that we only approach with the desire to share with others what we like, what excites or surprises us. You’ll find mermaids in Homer and in the stories told today in the shores of lake Zirahuén, because divinities and aquatic feminine entities are found in many cultures. I don’t think we need to establish a necessary chronological precedence or a direct influence; there’s history indeed, and the narrative and poetic ability to comprehend everywhere in the world.
L: What conditions need to exist for a story to subsequently go on in an oral fashion?
i: I think this answer can only be responded in a retrospective manner, that is, I don’t think conditions can be established for a story to remain in the memory of people and in the cultural history of a group. Rather, we can study those literary statements that have reached us or that spring from us and ensure we establish the itinerary they have followed. This, of course, is the work literary scholars do with oral tradition and popular literature, which is why we seek advice from them and use their investigation to edit our books.
L: One of the characteristics of oral storytelling is that a story is not always told the same way or using the same words. Therefore, how do we decide which is the version that will remain in the text?
i: We start from the premise that there is no original or definitive version; maybe not even a version that is better than the other. What we experience with the versions is a tendency, a kind of anemic coincidence that makes us choose. Now, what we can distinguish are the versions of oral tradition and the popular forms of the folkloric and popularizing creations, that is, the verbal mechanisms that certain authors form by taking up popular elements and structures, not with the idea of maintaining them however, but more to adapt them without attaining to the historical trends that said elements and structures have followed. Many of those mechanisms belong to the collection of legends where, in reality, there is little tradition and much authorial writing. Tradition more or less keeps the core of the meaning and associations that, regardless of who tells it or sings it, result in variations of the same story or the same meaning, which don’t rely on the person telling it, but more the cultural meanings that occur in a group. Oftentimes, What occurs in fokloric creations is a standardized criterion of the popular, of adequacy of structures and issues to a literary model that positively values originality and the clear divisions between genres. In tradition, every contribution tends to strengthen the story or the collective poem, not strengthen the personality or the style of the innovator. Certainly, it occurs that poems and story of certain authors have managed to creep in the popular repertoire precisely because they’ve managed to resemble the collective discourse; little by little, their names fade and their creations begin to go around, from word of mouth or hand to hand, because tradition also goes around written on paper and printed.
L: In one of the book presentations for the book by Mrgit Frenk, “Entre la voz y el silencio: La lectura en tiempos de Cervantes,” we asked Frenk what would be the answer to the problem of the variating poems (namely, how to publish a book where all the version could be appreciated without give more hierarchy to one) and he answer that the right tool for that is the internet. Have you considered using that media?
i: I think that Margit Frenk’s intention is to offer a greater repertoire through the internet, larger than the one she had already published in two occasions. The New corpus of ancient lyrical Hispanic poetry gathers versions that have been organized under a principle that allows for an almost infinite poetic richness. From the compiled versions, about 2700 were chosen that work as a base text from which variants are recorded, the latter are name as such because they appear in various sources or because they show discrepancies regarding the base text, regarding the variant that serves as reference. Such strategy evidently helps condense in a reasonable number of pages an enormous number of poems (in the New corpus, only the word or fragment that varies is indicated regarding each base text), the necessary pages would multiply exponentially and publishing a work of such dimensions would be unaffordable. That problem is solved on the internet and it also provides scholars with the possibility to fully read the complete variant. I think one wins, in that sense, what one looses in synthesis, which is, from my point of view, another of Margit Frenk’s work virtues. Not only does he offer a research result but a way of thinking traditional lyrical poetry based on his remarkable achievements of synthesis and organization.
For us, publishing books on the internet or making electronic books (whichever concrete form of denomination we choose, as long as it refers to literary mechanisms that depend on the flow of electrons or electromagnetic devices) is not yet an option because, precisely, we still want to practice our ability to choose. As publishers, we are not forced to report the totality, but to present the product of our choice simply as it is: as an alternative that tries to take up the role of a host. On the other hand, it is clear that the printed book is at a stage that only seems to be terminal. Maybe we’ll endure what the miniaturists that painted portraits: we will dwindle as they did when photography came along. In that process, two things occurred: the miniaturist disappeared completely, he became an artist or turned photographer with an accumulated experience that the photographers born from that technology did not have; in the end, what will maintain us as publishers is our life and cognitive experience, not the technological medium that bullies us. And it is important to note that digital publishing is only more ecological in appearance as some pretend; just take a look at the computer and mobile phone garbage disposals, the visual rubbish that fills the screens and the conceptual as well as physical noise these devices produce. In any case, maybe we’ll make digital books when technology is mature enough. To this day, with the available tools, there’s people who’ve produced notable works, but we’re still in the process of imagining what we can do.
L: José Manuel, what’s your favorite book of Ideazapato and why?
i: Allow me to paraphrase Efraín Huerta briefly, and not because it’s his centenary, but because there is a case in point:
I don’t have a favorite book by ideazapato, because
(variables: all || love).
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