Tribute to One of the Greatest Indigenous Writers of The Early Modern Period: Johns Hopkins Conference on Author Guaman Poma

By Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, Assistant Director ACMRS

This year, 2016, marks the deaths of three of the most influential writers of the Early Modern period. William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest of all writers in the English language and one of the finest dramatists of all times; Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra, author of Don Quixote and the father of the modern novel, and the most universally acclaimed writer of Spanish Early Modern literature; and El Inca Garcilaso, the mestizo (Spanish and Inca) historian and translator of early 17th century Peru, whose seminal work, Los comentarios reales, serves as a model for narratives of Andean civilization and the Spanish Conquest and the resulting hybrid colonial society. But there is a fourth writer included in this illustrious group who, like El Inca Garcilaso, also told the story of Peru’s conquest and its colonial society, though from a very different point of view. That was Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, and while accounts of his death vary-some place it in 1615 and some in 1616, it is clear that Guaman Poma has not received the same amount of attention that the other three authors have received.

It is utterly impossible to compare these authors, as their cultural realms, goals, and literary production all responded to different civilizations, different historical exigencies and a different aesthetic. But whereas as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and El Inca Garcilaso have all been lauded in their respective spheres, and beyond them, Guaman Poma’s figure has been notably absent from this year’s commemorations. His writing expresses the conflicting feelings of a pre-Incan member of the indigenous nobility (Guaman Poma was a Yarovilca prince, and his nation had fought the Incas and then submitted to an alliance with them, when the Incas began their expansionist march throughout the Andes in the 15th century). Guaman Poma’s use of Spanish and Quechua expresses, as the fine Spanish researcher Rosario Navarro Gala describes, a breaking point of convergence, where the languages merge and fuse and in certain cases, do battle with each other. As Navarro Gala (University of Zaragoza) points out, rather than being viewed as mere orthographic errors, this dense linguistic tapestry provides us with a trajectory of linguistic and cultural change, which must be understood in terms of the multicultural nature (Spanish/Indigenous/African/immigrant/mestizo) of the Andes.

Sara Castro-Klaren, Professor of Latin American Culture and Literature at the Johns Hopkins University, and a highly respected authority on Colonial Studies (among other fields) organized a superb tribute to Guaman Poma and his work. The conference, held at Johns Hopkins on April 8-9, one which did not shy away from the contradictions manifested in the author’s oevre: Nueva coronica y buen gobierno. Scholars were invited from many institutions, including the illustrious keynote speaker, Gary Urton, of Harvard University. Urton is currently one of the world’s top authorities on the decipherment of the Andean quipus, the complex system of chord and knot recording used for over two thousand years in the Andes, and which the Incas perfected as a form of social and military census control. (The debate over the possible phonetic nature of the quipus continues). ACMRS was represented by Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, who spoke on the pre-Incan indigenous cosmology present in Guaman Poma’s work. It was an honor to participate alongside Catherine Allen, Regina Harrison, Rocio Quispe-Agnoli, Martin Carrion, Julio Ortega, Lisa de Leonardis, Veronica Salles-Reese, James Maffie, and Christian Fernandez. Sara Castro Klaren has, throughout her career, made outstanding contributions to the field of global colonial studies. This conference testifies to Professor Castro-Klaren’s ability to discern, and preserve, sources attract and provoke. Guaman Poma’s difficulty is one of his most interesting facets, and one that the modern reader can appreciate.