Reviewed by Jeannine M. Pitas
From Lima to Porto Alegre, from La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires to Chile’s Atacama desert, Indian poet Abhay K.’s The Alphabets of Latin America takes us on a delightful journey through the Western Hemisphere’s past and present. From the Amazon to Zócalo, the 108 poems are arranged alphabetically, each title marking a person, place, or cultural phenomenon from around Latin America. Very clear about his position as an outsider, Abhay treats each subject with reverence and invites his English-speaking readers to share his delight in the journey.
In the tradition of such luminaries as Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz (who both receive entries in this small encyclopedia), Abhay is not only an acclaimed poet, but a career diplomat. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in his early twenties and has since served in Madagascar, Comoros, Russia, Nepal and Brazil, where he lived from 2016 to 2019. Brazil is the cornerstone of this book, from samba music in which “a beam of light / enters a dark alley”(102) to Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ the Redeemer, who “swoops over the city / admiring its exquisite beauty / trying to redeem it / of its sins, but helpless / […] returns every dawn / to the mountain / and turns into a statue, / his hands spread, wings folded / to keep his legend alive” (37).
Brasilia, planned and built between 1956 and 1960, is ingeniously evoked as a “piece of space cake,” “a landscape ectopia,” “a page from Harry Potter” and “a nail yet to be hammered” (18). Its principal architect Oscar Niemeyer is an avatar of Vishwakarma, the Hindu deity of architecture and engineering; the Candangos who did the construction are “remembered fondly / with a sculpture / resembling an alien couple / at the central square of the city” (21). Though I am an avid reader of Latin American literature, this book was the first time I encountered such a nuanced, evocative image of the capital city famously built from scratch.
Another standout feature of Abhay’s vision of Latin America is the insightful links he draws between its mythologies and those of his own culture. He describes the Argentine glaciar Perito Moreno thus: “Blocks of blue / ice floats on water / trapping a handful of sky / and poison / of the blue-throated god / Shiva” (93). In a poem written in the persona of acclaimed Brazilian poet Cecilia Mereiles, who had a lifelong fascination with India and taught herself both Hindi and Sanskrit, he declares “the streams / of the Amazon and the Ganges / unite and flow together, / Rio and Calcutta speak / to each other, Sao Paulo / and Bombay samba together” (32). He then concludes with a quotation from Mereiles herself: “and the afternoon wind comes and goes / between India and Brazil tirelessly.”
One concern I have about this book, however, is its relationship to politics. On the one hand, Abhay is careful not to romanticize Latin America; he aims to present the realities honestly. “The assassin’s bullets killed me / I stopped breathing / to give the breath of the world / a new lease of life,” states a poem written from the point of view of environmental activist, Chico Mendes, who was murdered in 1988 for his efforts to protect the Amazon and indigenous peoples (36). In an entry for Eduardo Galeano, the speaker addresses the famed Uruguayan writer of The Open Veins of Latin America by referring to the unhampered growth of the resource extraction industry: “new veins are being cut open every day / the number of workers in the vein opening industry / has multiplied, / unemployment rate has significantly dropped, / inflation has also come down, / isn’t it development?” (42).
Nevertheless, Abhay’s vision barely mentions the empire that was already casting its shadow over Latin America before the Spanish one had receded: the United States of America. There are no entries for Videla, Pinochet or other US-backed dictators of the twentieth century, no direct references to US invasions and regime changes. As a US American who has always been acutely conscious of my national identity while exploring Latin America as a tourist and scholar, I am compelled to question why the impact of US imperialism, though hinted at, is not more fully explored. Perhaps this seeming avoidance of politics is in itself a political act, a deliberate choice to de-center the United States from the narrative and elevate other stories. While he is not afraid to reveal the truth of evil, Abhay has decided to place much more emphasis on the good. Though this is an admirable choice, I wonder if Abhay’s avoidance of politics is a missed opportunity to remind English-speaking readers of Latin America’s fraught history whose repercussions are still felt today.
A related concern I have when reading these poems is that of stereotyping. In the undergraduate Spanish classes I teach, we almost always read Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel Como agua para chocolate (Like water for chocolate) or watch Alfonso Arau’s 1992 film version. I assign it knowing that my students will enjoy the Mexican Revolution-era tale of a young woman who resists suffocating family tradition through her tremendous culinary talents. Interestingly, Esquivel’s novel was poorly received by critics but became a Mexican bestseller; the film also met great commercial success. The question I ask my students is whether such a story – which features family, food, illicit love, and revolutionaries on horseback – serves to challenge common stereotypes about Latin America or to reinforce them. While students have different opinions, most acknowledge that there is a danger of reinforcement.
That is a danger I likewise see in Abhay’s book. The vast majority of poems refer to the most iconic figures from Latin America: Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Frida Kahlo, and others who during the twentieth century became the global face of Hispanophone and Lusophone Western Hemisphere. While their stories are told creatively and bring new perspectives to the table, I wonder to what extent the selection of topics might serve to strengthen images that English-speaking readers already hold rather than challenging them with new ones.
In her much-viewed TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie astutely observes that the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. By its very structure, Abhay’s book does not let its readers fall into the trap of a single story. At the same time, I believe that the book could benefit from an even greater selection of subjects. I’d like to see some entries on people and places less well-known, such as Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, a renegade Mexican infrarealista poet who wrote while walking city streets and was known for disrupting Octavio Paz’s literary events, or Alberto Fuguet, who challenged the magical realist aesthetic and called for less “Macondo” (the setting of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) and more “McOndo” (the urbanized, globalized Latin America of today). While Abhay is indeed careful to reveal the impact of globalization on the environment and economy, I would like to see more of its impact on culture.
Another region that is suggested but not fully developed is the impact of Latin American culture on the poetic speaker’s own subjectivity. When we travel, we inevitably leave marks while being marked personally by what we experience. I would like to see more moments when the speaker reveals the impact of Latin America on his own being. He does this powerfully in a poignant poem dedicated to Che Guevara, another passionate traveler whose motorcycle trip from Argentina to the Amazon would change not only his life, but the world. Imagining himself meeting the iconic revolutionary as a young man, Abhay declares, “on the way to Machu Picchu / we would see the same / exquisite beauty and crushing poverty / that you saw riding your motorcycle / we would write the same poem, / though I would not kill / I would forgive them as Gandhi did / I would wield a pen, not a gun” (35).
In simplest terms, The Alphabets of Latin America is a joyous, passionate love letter to the Western Hemisphere and a celebration of the abundance of diverse cultures to be found there. Dostoevsky famously stated that beauty will save the world; indeed, it is what reminds us that we live in a world worth saving. In a time of ecological crisis, political division, and civil unrest across so many parts of the world, we are all in grave need of beauty. Abhay K. has offered us a truly beautiful book.
K., Abhay. The Alphabets of Latin America. New Delhi: Bloomsbury India, 2020
Abhay K. is the author of ten poetry books including Monsoon (Sahitya Akademi, India, 2022) The Magic of Madagascar (L’Harmattan Paris, 2021), The Alphabets of Latin America (Bloomsbury India, 2020), and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (HarperCollins India, 2022), The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems (2020), The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems (2019), New Brazilian Poems (Ibis Libris, Brazil, 2019) and CAPITALS (Bloomsbury India, 2017). His poems have appeared in over 100 literary magazines including Poetry Salzburg Review, Asia Literary Review among others. His poem 'Earth Anthem' has been translated into over 150 languages. He received SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2018. His translations of Kalidasa's Meghaduta (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit, have won KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21.
Jeannine M. Pitas is the author of Things Seen and Unseen, a book of poems published by Mosaic Press in 2019, and the translator of work by many Latin American poets, most recently Carnation and Tenebrae Candle by Marosa di Giorgio (Cardboard House 2020) and We Do Not Live In Vain by Selva Casal (Veliz Books 2020). She lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Dubuque.