How To Be A Good Savage | REVIEW

Review: How To Be A Good Savage by Mikeas Sánchez, translated by Wendy Call and Shook

Mikeas Sánchez, the first woman to publish a book of poetry in Zoque, makes her English debut with the help of translators Wendy Call and Shook in this collection of poems about the stories and lessons passed down through the generations, what it means to grow up and exist as a girl and eventually as a woman, and the way colonialism steals everything it can get its hands on from culture to land. Sánchez, Call, and Shook also team up to narrate the audiobook so listeners get to hear the poems in the poet’s own voice in both Zoque and Spanish before one of Call or Shook narrates it in English.

Each poem is presented in Zoque, then Spanish, then English. After listening to just the first poem I knew there was no other way to format this collection and still do the original work justice. I don’t speak Zoque, but I learned Spanish in university and grew up speaking English, so listening to each poem three times in this order was kind of a journey of uncovering the meaning for me. First, I’m listening to it performed by Sánchez herself in a language I don’t know a single word of, but I get the cadence and emotion the piece carries. Then I hear it in a language I’m fluent in ~professionally~ but not artistically, a language that is still technically an original for the poem since Sánchez wrote each poem in Zoque and Spanish. Finally, after trying to digest what Sánchez is saying in Spanish, I hear the poem in English, the language most clear to me but one that the poet doesn’t speak.

My personal linguistic experience in listening to this collection aside, even readers who only speak English or only speak Spanish would get value out of listening to the full trilingual version.

Some of the poems that stuck with me were “Jesus Christ Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers” about the forced assimilation to a colonizer’s religion and language;

My grandmother believed that you could only
talk to the wind in Zoque
but she kneeled before the saints
and prayed with more fervor than anyone
Jesus never listened to her

Mikeas Sánchez, “Jesus Christ Never Understood My Grandmother’s Prayers”

“Wewe” about how colonizers’ only way of “appreciating” a culture is to steal it for themselves;

Don’t be a bad girl, tell me how much that flower costs.
No, Mister, that’s impossible.
Is the human eye really allowed
to learn at first glance
how the heart works?

Mikeas Sánchez, “Wewe”

“Thinking With Our Hearts” in a similar vein but highlighting the environmental destruction of fracking;

My grandfather told me:
We Zoques are inheritors of the word,
but who cares about words now?
Most prefer to lie,
stealing the earth’s treasures.

Mikeas Sánchez, “Pensar con el corazón”

I’d like to revisit this with the text in front of me because I believe the note at the beginning explains that there are footnotes or translator’s notes throughout the collection to give context to certain cultural aspects? These notes are read through by Wendy Call at the end of the audiobook, but that doesn’t help much while you’re listening through it. I’d like to get myself a copy and follow along so I can absorb these better because this was a great collection.


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