“My ancestors fought with arms... I fight with words”—Interviews with four indigenous-minority poets—— curated by Ming Di

Joseph Rock (1884-1962) discovered the non-mainstream culture in Yunnan, the most diversified region in China, for the US National Geographic magazine in 1922. He ended up spending a total of twenty-five years there and became a Naxi specialist. Anthropologist Fei Xiaotong (1910-2005) proposed, in 1979-1980, to use the term “Tibetan-Yi Corridor” for a larger area from northwest China to southwest China, covering eastern Tibet, southern Qinghai-Gansu plateaus, Sichuan province, and Yunnan province, based on the prehistoric human migration routes: Qiang and Tibetan people traveled southbound and Yi people traveled northbound, along the valleys of the six rivers, evolving into new ethnic groups and new languages including Naxi.

And over Li Chiang, the snow range is turquoise
Rock’s world that he saved us for memory
a thin trace in high air

—Ezra Pound

I’m interviewing four poets today from this multi-ethnic-cutltural-linguistic corridor who speak Naxi, Lahu, Yi, and Qiang among many other languages in this region including the official Han Chinese. I will do a group interview with poets speaking various dialects of Tibetan for a future issue of Tupelo Quarterly

1. Do you know where your ancestors migrated from to the current location? How has this affected your life and your writing?

Nimei Nami:Naxi people originated from the ancient Qiang people in Northwest China. My ancestors migrated from the Qinghai-Gansu plateaus to Lijiang, Yunnan province. They have absorbed the cultural essence of the Han, Tibetan, Bai and other ethnic groups during the migrations. Dongba classical literature is an encyclopedia, which not only covers religion, folklore, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine, but also contains creation myths, epics, and ballads. Such a tradition has certainly enriched my life and nourished my writing.

Lal Vet:According to our creation epic “Mupa Mipa”, Lahu people originated from the ancient Qiang people. My ancestors used to live a nomadic life in the Qinghai Lake area and gradually moved south to the Lancang River due to competition for resources and also to avoid wars. At present, there are more than 40,000 Lahu people living in Lancang which is the only Lahu Autonomous County in the whole country. Some Lahu people are scattered around in China and southeast Asia. My mother is a local Lahu and my father is Han Chinese. I was born and raised in Lancang. I’ve cherished my identity as a Lahu since childhood, which adds a certain natural simplicity and mystery to my writing.

Lama Itzot: My family migrated five generations ago from Ningnan to Huili because of a war with other clans. My ancestors fought with arms (weapons) to protect their lives and freedom. Today I fight with words to maintain my freedom.

Chengxu Erdan: Most of the Qiang people living in the Aba region of Sichuan migrated from the Qinghai-Gansu plateaus and upstream Yellow River areas. The ancient Qiang nationality has evolved into many ethnic tribes during the migrations. As a descendant of the Qiang people, I feel proud.

2. What was the first language you learned to speak as a child? Or how and when you learned to speak your tribal language and official Chinese?

Nimei: My mother tongue is Naxi because my parents are both Naxi. I grew up speaking Naxi and learned to speak Chinese in kindergarten.

Lal: I learned to speak the Lanchang dialect as a child, unable to have proficiency in Lahu due to the strong influence of Han Chinese in this region.

Lama:The first language I learned to speak is the Northern dialect of Yi, that is Nuosu Yi. I’ve acquired it naturally because most people in our village including my parents speak this language. But I didn’t learn to write the Yi language until I went to school where I also learned to speak Mandarin Chinese. I started to learn written Chinese at age 10.

Chengxu: I was born and raised in the Qiang land between Han and Tibetan people. My parents are multilingual. My first language was naturally my mother tongue, Qiang. I was able to speak Chinese at age 3 or 4.

3. Were there other nationalities in the same region where you grew up? If so, did you understand the other languages?

Nimei: I grew up on a college campus where my parents were teaching. It’s a mixed place with Naxi, Bai, Tibetan, Yi, Lisu, and Pumi. I only know a little bit of Bai which is full of Chinese words. The other ethnic languages are difficult to understand.

Lal: There are people from Wa, Dai, Hani and other ethnic minority groups in our county. And of course Han people. I understand Han Chinese but not other minority languages.

Lama: I grew up in a mixed region of Yi-Han people. This kind of mixed living was due to the policy and placement of Yi slaves in the early 1950s. We could understand each other most of the time.

Chengxu: We are surrounded by Tibetan, Hui and Han ethnic groups. I can understand and communicate in simple Tibetan.

4. What language(s) do you usually speak now? Or when do you speak Han Chinese and when do you speak your ethnic mother tongue?

Nimei: I speak Naxi at home but Chinese at work and on social occasions.

Lal: I speak the Lanchang dialect of Chinese.

Lama:I speak with Yi people in Yi and with other people in Chinese.

Chengxu: Most people here speak Chinese with accents to communicate with each other. If gathering within the group, we would speak our native tongues. I work in the city but when I visit my parents and my home village, I speak Qiang.

5. What language(s) do you use for writing? How many books have you published? (And in what language?)

Nimei: I write poetry in Chinese. I can also write Dongba scripts, but not poetry in Dongba. My first collection of poetry is forthcoming in a few months.

Lal: I write in Chinese. We don’t have a writing system but only a Latin alphabet created by Western missionaries. China has also created a new Romanized spelling system to write Lahu language.

Lama: I write poetry in both Yi and Chinese, although I write academic papers in Chinese only. I have published two collections of poetry, Revive a Sun (2015) and Selected Bilingual Poems by Lama Itzot ( 2019).

Chengxu: I use Chinese for my literary writing. In the 1990s, Qiang people created a Qiang writing system with the Latin alphabet. But it’s not popularized, nor is it included in the list of formal minority languages, somehow. I have published seven books in Chinese, two of which are poetry collections, Rain of Nine Villages and Snow of Yellow Dragons and Qiang Rouge Floating Up.

6. If you are a bilingual poet, do you translate yourself or do you write creatively in two languages?

Nimei: I’m a bilingual writer and I tend to translate myself from one language to another.

Lama: As a bilingual poet, trained in both Yi and Chinese, I write poetry in Yi and Chinese separately. I like the creative process.

Chengxu: I write primarily in Chinese. However, I conceive poetry in Qiang. I like my poems to be more grounded to my ethnic culture.

7. Do you prefer to write in your ethnic language or in the official Chinese? If your ethnic language has no writing system, how do you annotate the pronunciation when you recite a poem? Do you use Pinyin (based on Larin letters) or Chinese characters?

Nimei: I prefer to write in Chinese. Traditional Dongba writing system is very complicated. But we have a separate phonetic system that I can use to annotate the sound below each line of my poems for recitation in Naxi.

Lal: I can only write poetry in Chinese. When I recite my Chinese poems in Lahu language, I write the phonetics of Lahu. Occasionally I use Chinese words for the Lahu sound.

Lama: I don’t have preferences. A poem may come to me in one or the other language and I’m able to write in both languages.

Chengxu: We have created our own written characters. But there are many dialectal differences in pronunciations among the Qiang people in different regions. I speak all the dialects of Qiang because I’m a cultural worker for the Qiang Autonomous County. I can read my poems aloud in my native tongue. I translate my poems into IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet.)

8. Do you emphasize your ethnic identity or ethnic cultures in your writing?

Nimei: I always tend to write about my hometown and my Naxi culture subconsciously.

Lal: It’s only in recent years that I started to write about my ethnic culture. I don’t emphasize my Lahu identity. I’m half Lahu from my mother’s side. I feel inferior and uneasy. But there is natural ethnic expression and emotion in my writing through continuous and in-depth understanding of the history and culture of the Lahu people.

Lama: There are different phases in my writing career, reflecting the different levels of my awareness and different levels of my efforts in portraying my cultural identity.

Chengxu: Generally speaking, I don’t highlight my national identity. A writer should write about any subject matter of any ethnicity. But subconsciously we all write about what we are most familiar with. This is a very natural ethnic-complex with local features.

9. Which poets and writers do you like most or have influenced your writing?

Nimei: I like Su Shi, Li Qingzhao, Nalan Xingde, Tsangyang Gyatso, Leo Tolstoy, Tsvetaeva, Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, and Calvino.

Lal: I like Tagore, Pessoa, Wang Xiaoni, and Tibetan writers A Lai and Tsering Norbu.

Lama: When I first started writing, I was influenced by poets such as Ginsberg, Rimbaud, Neruda, Yeats, Rilke, and Rumi. As I read more, with widened perspectives, I try to learn from the authors of different countries and different cultures.

Chengxu: I like T.S. Eliot and Mao Dun.

(The interviews were conducted in Chinese on 6-29-2023 and translated into English on 6-30-2023 by Ming Di)

Nimei Nami 妮美纳蜜 (Chinese name Yang Yinghong), b.1974, of Naxinationality 纳西族 from Lijiang (i.e. Li Chiang in the poem by Ezra Pound), Yunnan province. She works for a water affairs company and runs her own restaurant.

Lal Vet 腊维 (Chinese name Zhang Jie), b. 1986, of Lahu nationality 拉祜族 from Lancang County, Yunnan Province. She works as a civil servant in Lanchang Lahu Autonomous County.

Lama Itzot 拉玛伊佐 (Chinese name Zhang Haibin), b. 1987, of Yi nationality 彝族 from Huili, Yi Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan province. He is a postdoctoral fellow of Yi Studies at the School of Minority Languages and Literatures at Minzu University.

Chengxu Erdan 成绪尔聃 (Chinese name Zhang Chengxu), b. 1972, of Qiang nationality 羌族 from Qiang Autonomous County, Aba Prefecture of Sichuan province. He is a cultural worker for the Qiang Autonomous County.