When Juan Sanchez, assistant professor of modern languages and literatures at UNC Asheville, discovered he’d won the National Prize in Literature in his native country of Colombia, he knew it wasn’t only his voice that was being recognized. It was the voices of all those he had worked with over his years of studying indigenous cultures and activism—and it was the voice of water.
“I think that the happiest moments of my childhood happened in Cartagena, Colombia, in the ocean, so most of my creative writing, my short stories and my novels and my poetry, has been always related with water,” said Sanchez, whose book of poems is told from the perspective of water. The title, Altamar, translates to “high sea,” and also is the last name of his great grandfather, deepening his personal connection to the subject. “But also I think that it’s not something that I chose, it’s something that has been developing because of my activism.”
Sanchez’s work involving the activism of various indigenous peoples has taken him around the world—including a recent trip to the Sacred Stone Camp of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota with fellow faculty members Trey Adcock and Gill Jackson. Like the Standing Rock Sioux, many of the indigenous peoples Sanchez has worked with were focused on clean water. Along the way he met tribal elders like Mona Polacca of the Havasupai Tribe; poets like Anastasia Candre of the Okaina and Uitoto tribes Kuwada; activists like Rayen Kvyeh of the Mapuche Nation, and many others.
With their voices echoing in his mind, Sanchez sat down on the shore of Lake Superior and began to write.
“I don’t know if I decided, I just had to do it,” Sanchez said. “And for two weeks I was just writing a long poem. And that long poem was the summary of all that work that I have been doing around water for years. When you feel and dream and think about something for a long time, you develop a special relationship with that.
“So all those words that I have received at certain points from different elders and friends and poetry, were present in that moment when I was writing that poem,” Sanchez continued. “There is a chorus in the rhythm of the poem, and it is, ‘I am the forgetfulness, I am the memory.’ It’s the water who is speaking. So that poem, for me, is not me, it’s the voice of water.”
Altamar will be published by the University of Antioquia, which issued the National Prize for Literature as part of the 34th National Awards of Culture in Colombia. In addition to writing, Sanchez is teaching Spanish classes at UNC Asheville, as well as a course on the culture expressions of “Abya-Yala,” which is a word adopted by indigenous cultures to rename the Americas—a name that arose with colonialism. He’s also organized a creative writing faculty reading at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17 in Karpen Hall, Laurel Forum. Sanchez; Jeremias Zunguze, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies; and several others will read from their works in Spanish and Portuguese.
“Now that I’m here, I’m just facilitating different approaches, different methodologies, and bringing new authors, filmmakers, painters and perspectives about art,” Sanchez said. “I just feel honored to be able to do it, to be here, but I’m also conscious and careful because of all these beautiful complex nations and communities.”