Elisa Taber is a writer, translator, and anthropologist who divides her
time between Buenos Aires and Montreal. Discovering Elisa’s work, I was
captivated by her paradoxically sparse and lush prose style, unlike
anything I’d read in a long time. Elisa was born in Neuland Colony, a
remote Mennoite settlement in Paraguay. She returned in 2013 and 2016 to
conduct fieldwork. Her book An Archipelago in a Landlocked Country: A
Lyric Ethnography is the culmination of these experiences. Due out in
November from 11:11
Press, Archipelago is
a truly unique hybrid text, mixing ekphrasis, metonymy, and mythology.
Elisa was generous enough to provide Ligeia some insight into the
book’s creation. In our conversation below, we discuss the dichotomy of
utopia vs. dystopia, the intersection of disparate identities, and the
“wrongness” of translation.
I thought we could kick off our discussion with a bit of background. I
must confess, before reading Archipelago my knowledge of Paraguay was
extremely limited. I remember briefly learning about the Triple Alliance
War in a history class, but I think most Americans have a narrow
understanding of Latin America in general, despite us being in such
close proximity and our government having long meddled in South American
trade and politics. Your introduction to the book does a wonderful job
setting the scene before throwing us headlong into this world within a
world. Can you give us some more context about the Mennonite
colonization and the settling of Soviet refugees in the Nivaklé region
during the 20th century? What were the circumstances that led to your
being born in Neuland?
When there is too much to say I synthesize it into something cryptic. It
is a way of hiding in plain sight. But also form reflecting content.
Paraguay in general and the Gran Chaco in particular are places to hide.
The Mennonites call it both el infierno verde (Green Hell), a
dystopia, and un paraíso terrenal (earthly paradise), a utopia.
Bartomeu Melià said in an interview before he died, “The invented
Paraguay is a dreamt Paraguay. Nothing is more difficult than keeping a
dream awake.” Foreigners are led there by a hallucinatory colonialist
imaginary. Still, there is the Guaraní myth of the Tierra Sin Mal
(Land Without Evil).
The Mennonites purchased the land where the colonies now stand from
Carlos Casado, a Spanish businessman that owned the largest tanning
industry and port in Paraguay. Valentina Bonifacio filmed a group of men
killing a cow in Puerto Casado, I can still see its eye. Casado married
into the Argentine Peralta Ramos family, which my childhood friend
belongs to. Various threads tie me to Paraguay. The umbilical cord is
that I was born there. My father, a field biologist, was studying wild
boars in the Gran Chaco and my mother, an artist, was preparing a show
for the Museo del Barro depicting the Nivaklé. I grew up surrounded by
her drawings. We moved to Bolivia soon after.
The cryptic nature of Archipelago is what makes it so compelling for
me. There’s a mysterious, oblique quality to your writing that mirrors
the dense jungle foliage. Snippets appear through the trees, but the
full picture never materializes. It’s a striking effect, like a
kaleidoscope. The paradoxical tension you mentioned between nature’s
splendor and cruelty (utopia vs. dystopia) is certainly present
throughout the book as well. Humanity’s efforts to tame or exploit the
land seem futile. Structures decay and collapse, skin washed clean is
inevitably covered in dust. And yet we persist.
You made two trips conducting fieldwork amongst the settlements. What
was the experience of revisiting your birthplace as an adult like? Did
the idea for the book germinate before, during, or after your return?
I first returned to Paraguay when I was 12. Then I experienced the
fainting from heat exhaustion described in the first pages of
Archipelago. In that dazed state I spoke little and began observing
with the intent to write. I say I am the same person I became that year.
In an earlier version my age was included in the title and would change
every year, so the book aged with me.
El gateo de los nuestros (The Crawling of Our Own) by Miguel Chase
Sardi led me to return as an adult. A friend and I made Dictado
(Dictation), a zine, which included my first translations of the
Nivaklé’s erotic myths compiled by Chase Sardi. After college in New
York, I traveled to Buenos Aires, then Asunción and Neuland. I began
doing fieldwork without realizing it. I was 23. Everything feels like an
In Asunción, people who barely knew me as a child were kind. In Neuland,
less so. The woman I stayed with liked watching animals. I only asked
once about El gateo de los nuestros. The conversation was coarse. Soon
after the driver stopped the car. One of the passengers was a kind of
botanist. She picked a plant from the side of the road.
I did not take notes but began to read. I visited the Ethnographic
Museum Andrés Barbero. A beautiful building on a corner surrounded by
palm trees with blinds on the windows that keep the light and heat out.
I would buy a coke and baton chocolates at the corner store, then sit in
the library taking photographs of books that were out of print until my
I entered writing through translation and anthropology through writing.
I like the heat in Paraguay most of all. It is stupid to say given the
climate crisis. But it does something to me. Keeps me still in a chair
long enough to finish a book. Makes a lethargy that makes observation
socially acceptable. I imagined this book during that first visit as a
Archipelago is really three books. That they aren’t made to be read
in any particular order is not only formally inventive but also
liberating. No two people will read it the same way. How did you land on
structuring the book as a nonlinear triptych? What effect do you hope
the fragmentary nature of the text will have on readers?
Yes, Archipelago is composed of three parts: an ekphrastic travelogue
based on thirty-second films shot in Asunción, Filadelfia, and Neuland;
a short story collection inspired by metonymically translated Nivaklé
myths; and a novella that mythologizes the life of a third generation
Originally, I constructed my lyric ethnography as a hypertext only meant
to exist digitally, not in print. Once I invited readers to enter my
room one at a time and, partly out of curiosity, recorded the text each
one “produced.” I am glad to hear a similar experience is possible with
By hypertext I mean simply a multi-sequentially read text. By ekphrasis,
the substitution of a moving image with a text. By metonymy, the
substitution of an absent whole with an associated part.
In reference to the first section, I linked paragraphs in the travelogue
to the thirty-second films that inspired them. I granted the reader
three options: watch the videos, read the descriptions, or follow links
from the descriptions to the corresponding videos and vice versa.
I filmed objects, landscapes, and animals because there is a silence to
things with a concrete presence in the external world. By filming them
for intervals of thirty seconds, instead of photographing them, I made
my presence in the space they occupy, visible to the viewer.
In the present of a film the camera shakes in my hand, an animal peers
at me until it grows distracted, or I choose the perspective from which
to observe an object. I did not film people because I wanted to describe
them from memory, so they became characters, not caricatures of
In reference to the second, I included the translated stories in the
collection. Typography distinguished yet merged multiple versions, the
parts, that gesture toward the source, the whole. I granted the reader
three options: read the literary translation, read the literary and
literal translation, or read both in addition to the footnotes.
I wanted to transform the objects, landscapes, and houses I filmed into
homes and possessions by linking them to their owners. I did not film
the people I spoke to or recorded our conversations. Instead I created
my own speculative fictions based on the myths they retold.
I also took detailed notes of gestures performed by people in Cayim ô
Clim. Actions render identity describable but also, because they are
silent, like things, they show what I do not understand and cannot say.
In reference to the third, it remains unchanged. The preceding material
dictated who the character of the novella was and what occurred to her.
I believe fiction has the potential to be just. It creates a cyclical
logic by which actions foreshadow repercussions, making the latter
Fiction resembles myth in that both aid people in confronting their
origin and death. However, the first is literary because it exists in
the realm of imagination, while the latter is literal in that the
narrated actions and their outcomes are perceived as real.
The transformations by which deviant characters are castigated through a
physical transformation in the Nivaklé myths exemplify the generative
potential of fiction.
In the book as artifact, the digital and polyphonic multi-sequential
reading structure has been extracted to leave only my narratives which
attempt to render three other kinds of realities—Nivaklé, Paraguayan,
and Mennonite ways of being made over—and my own.
I created such a convoluted reading process to include the texts and
films in my narrative, substitute the intrinsic linearity of the latter
with a multilinearity which only obtains unity in the reader, and to
endow the latter with the task of producing rather than consuming the
I was influenced by Barthes’ theory of the text as a hyphology, hyphos
being the tissue of a spider’s web. As such a text is a network of
signifieds without hierarchy, within which the reader traverses the path
of their choice and produces a unified but ephemeral narrative.
This theory resembles Geertz’s definition of culture as the web of
significance a person has spun and the task of the anthropologist as an
interpretive one in search of meaning.
I can’t help but lead theory back to practice. Ñandutí is a Paraguayan
unweaving technique. A spider web pattern is created by unraveling
threads from a fabric. I imitate this practice by attempting to attune
readers to absent presences.
You balance abstraction and concreteness in a remarkable way. Every
fragment is dense with images and ideas and action, while your prose is
spare, controlled, objective. This book is hard to classify because
it’s both fictional and not, but I think “lyric ethnography” is the
perfect description. I understand you’re working on a PhD which
involves both anthropology and poetry. How has your scholarly work
influenced your creative writing and vice versa?
Michael Snow says in Almost Cover to Cover, “My paintings are done by
a filmmaker, sculpture by a musician, films by a sculptor, sculpture by
a filmmaker, films by a musician, music by a sculptor . . . sometimes
they all work together.”
My fiction is done by an anthropologist and fieldwork, a poet. I am a
Spanish speaker writing in English and vice versa. I am a foreigner.
Every time I begin to do something “well,” whatever that means, I switch
disciplines. It is a pattern, not intentional. If I stopped, I would not
know who I am.
Translation lies between anthropology and literature. Translate culture
or language, they are inseparable, no?
Everything feels possible in fiction. Anthropology narrows the scope. A
lyric instinct instills care. When writing and reading, I ask: What if
that line described you?
Anthropology turns reading into research. Leading me from the publishing
world to the library. I photograph books and transform them into PDFs. I
read on a screen and summarize or copy lines in a notebook.
I replace words with symbols which I add to a growing dictionary. I am
drawn to encryption, a form that only holds meaning for the
author—conceiving authorship communally and the reader as the producer
of the text.
Discomfort is an important part of my method. A chair, a table, and a
text I struggle to enter.
It is also an important part of ethnographic translation,
self-translation, macaronic writing, or exophonic writing practices.
There is something “wrong” in the choice and order of the words. They
only hold part of the intended meaning.
As a writer and reader, I seek discomfort and incoherence as signs of
different, rather than bad, ways of poeticizing or narrativizing the
I’m really struck by your comments about the “wrongness” of
translation. There seems to be a certain resistance to works in
translation—especially in America. This idea that translations are
inherently corrupt. It’s a shame because eschewing works in translation
ignores such an abundance of remarkable international literature, films,
music, etc. A sort of cultural malnutrition that results in a narrow
worldview. What attracts you to translation, whether it be literal or
literary? Why do you think people continue to be distrustful/skeptical
of works in translation?
I am interested in the histories of disadvantaged literatures. Slug,
the pamphlet series I edit with a friend, Tom Melick, grew out of
dwelling on the depreciation of that word. A pamphlet is small,
untrustworthy, poorly printed, a waste.
Exophonic writing, macaronic writing, and literature in translation
enable peripheral literatures and languages to affect the core. I think
that is why works in translation are distrusted. For example, perhaps in
the same way that Jopara—a neo-language that merges Spanish and
Guaraní—colonizes and conquers Guaraní, Portunhol Selvagem—a
Spanish, Portuguese, and Jopara hybrid—decolonizes Spanish and
To translate is to render the source text into the target language. What
is at stake is neither the intent of the author nor the interpretation
of the translator. It is whether the intrinsic quality of the sum of the
parts is made experientially available to the reader. The essence is
akin to an aphorism. It cannot be rephrased. It is only apprehended in
the act of reading.
The task at hand is to work at the microscopic level of word choice,
finding an equivalent in the target vocabulary is a creative exercise.
This close reading and rewriting practice consists of recreating the
aphoristic effect while under its spell.
The figure I call the writer turned translator turned ethnographer
employs the method and theory of ethnographic practice to reveal and
push the limits of untranslatability between languages, chirographic and
oral literary traditions, and different cosmologies.
The epistemology that underlies the reading and translation practices of
the writer/translator/ethnographer is based on the ability to recognize
and render an ontological poetics, a text’s potential to transform. A
felt thought or thought feeling encrypted in those words in that order,
it cannot be restated but shows the reader how to attune to other kinds
I am attracted to works in translation and the practice of translation
for the same reason people distrust them, especially in the translation
of verbally organized and inherited Amerindian poetry. They make the
reader recognize and question their assumptions regarding literature,
the canon, and authorship.
I wonder: How the aphoristic essence of a text withstands multiple
mediations? Whether the transcription of orality using electronic media
can invoke a secondary orality by testing the limits writing imposes on
language? And how a translated poem or narrative from an oral tradition
problematizes the terms literature and authorship?
The term literature can be refuted because it reduces verbally organized
materials to a variant further developed by writing cultures. The term
authorship can shift from an individual to a communal definition because
these poems do not belong to those that recite them, they only author a
version, not unlike a translator, but to the millenary indigenous
cultures the reciters belong to.
Besides its blending of nationalities, identities, and histories,
Archipelago deals with intergenerational tensions, particularly in
Book III, “La Paz del Chaco Street.” So much trauma is passed down
from one generation to the next. This section seems all too relevant for
an American like me, as rampant socio-economic disparities and unchecked
fascistic violence have boiled into much civil unrest here. The psychic
gap demarcating the old and the young in this country (and probably
throughout much of the world) feels wider than ever before, exacerbated
even further by the pandemic and the accompanying isolation of countless
people. Can literature serve as a bridge between generations? Perhaps as
a means of contextualizing the experience of different age groups,
cultures, genders, races, etc.? What do you consider to be the artist’s
role during times of social strife?
Archipelago ends with Concepción’s birth. Her lineage is matriarchal.
Neuland was originally called Frauendorf, the women’s village, as all
one hundred forty-seven of the adult inhabitants were female.
I spent most of my time in Paraguay alone or among women artists a
generation older than me.
There is an underlying threat of violence throughout my lyric
ethnography which I felt while doing fieldwork. In my fiction, and both
the history and present of this place, groups of women, regardless of
age, create spaces where this fear subsides.
In “La Paz del Chaco Street,” the name of a street in Neuland and a play
on the Chaco War, there are three generations of Dyck women: Agatha,
Karin, and Verena.
In the end I say, “The third generation would not live like the second
but the first.” The first and third are settlers, they build homes in
“uninhabitable” spaces. The second opts out of life.
The writer’s role in times of social strife is inextricable from plot,
lived or imagined.
In “Notas sobre lo gótico en el Río de la Plata” (Notes on the Gothic
in the Río de la Plata) Cortázar posits that all children are gothic by
nature, they live in a permanent state of what Coleridge calls the
suspension of disbelief. I add that reading and writing fiction prolongs
In “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” Masha Gessen says, “humans seem to
have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the
By suspending disbelief, I do not escape but accept reality and imagine
a future, glimpse past the worst.
Yes, Gessen is absolutely right. Too many people living in denial
these days. It’s a defense mechanism, I think. If more of us learned to
accept reality and suspend disbelief as you mentioned, some real,
positive change might be enacted. What a time to be alive.
I wanted to wrap up my questions by asking, what part of the process
most surprised you while writing Archipelago? What do you hope readers
will take away from the book?
What I allowed myself surprised me. The three genre shifts informed by
theory are abrupt and unplanned. I was so close to the text I could not
see it deforming. The unwieldiness of the hypertextual structure
contrasts the fetishism, in an ethnographic sense, of the translated
words. Editing means unweaving. The finished book comes apart. The
parts—three sections subdivided into chapters—are meant to be read
I believe in innocence, strangeness, and discipline. Estética y ética
estética by Juan Ramón Jiménez, El gateo de los nuestros by Miguel
Chase Sardi, Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido, Poeta en Nueva
York by Federico García Lorca, Eisejuaz by Sara Gallardo, and
Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles attuned me to those qualities. Those
books accompany me. I hope Archipelago becomes an absent presence to
Elisa Taber is a PhD candidate at McGill University exploring the
ontological poetics of Amerindian literature. Her stories, essays, and
translations are troubled into being, even when that trouble is a kind
of joy. They appeared or are forthcoming in journals including
#Colleex, OnCurating, and Minor Literature(s). She is co-editor
of Slug and editor of an Amerindian poetry series for Words without
Borders. Elisa lives between Buenos Aires and Montreal.