The Spanish Riveter: On the Current State of Basque Literature by Jon Kortazar, translated by Andrew McDougall

In one of the last poems he wrote, Gabriel Aresti (1933–1975) declared that his Basqueness was defined by four boundaries and reflected some of his firmest convictions:

‘Ene euskalduntasunaren mugak hauk

Dira: Ifarrean: Justizia.

Hegoan: Libertatea.

Oestean: gizoank bizitza noble bat edukitzea […]

Lestean: mutikoek (eta neskatxek) estudiatzeagatik alokairu sufizient bat irabaztea’ 

‘These are the boundaries of my Basqueness:

To the north: Justice

To the south: Freedom

To the west: that a man may have 

a dignified life […]

To the east: that he earns enough for his children to study’

To describe the current state of the Basque literary system, we could use a similar mechanism and show the four cardinal points of the system.

To the north: institutionalisation

It is often said that the Basque literary system is in a very good place, sometimes that it has rarely been better. This is due, without doubt, to the institutionalisation of the literary system. Or rather, to a body of laws that protect the language and determine its teaching in educational centres. The Basic Law for the Normalisation of the Basque Language in the Basque autonomous community (1982) and the Foral Law for Basque in Navarre (1986) gave legal backing to the presence of Basque and its literature in education. This brought about, first of all, the strengthening of the unified Basque language and the chance for Basque literary texts, and writers, to be present in classrooms. In turn, this paved the way for the professionalisation of a wide network of publishers, thanks to the production of textbooks, which ensured they would not suffer losses. Hence, the publishers who have dedicated themselves solely to literary publishing have struggled more in crisis years than those who have maintained a range of textbooks.

To the south: the creators

One of the strongest aspects of the Basque literary system is the visibility of authors, who maintain a presence (be it small or large) through the publication of their works, through their appearances in the press, which is sympathetic to Basque-language publications, and with their participation in education and book clubs.

Some writers have been able to make a living from their craft, often through collaborations involving the press, scriptwriting and contributing to education. The situation for authors is probably best represented by the fact that four (or five) generations of writers can coexist on the literary scene – these days we can read work by authors born in the 1940s to those born in the 1990s. This continuity of creation can be seen as one of the pillars of the system’s current health, which hasn’t suffered, as in previous eras, a traumatic rupture. This continuity also offers young authors a literary tradition with which they can identify, or from which they can break free. 

However, a doubt emerges with regard to the number of readers in the literary system. There are some 10,000 regular readers and around 40,000 occasional readers of Basque literature, which represents a weakness in the system.

To the west: renewal

The stability of the literary system (those four generations), has brought about a persistence in the canon, as has occurred in other Spanish literatures, by virtue of which authors who began to publish in the eighties and nineties remain indisputable axes of Basque writing. We see the same thing with publishers: those who started out in those decades are still around. It is said that historic events are reflected by changes in the literary system. And there is no doubt that the twenty-first century has seen some major events: the attack on the Twin Towers (2001), the financial crises of 2008 and 2009, ETA’s cessation of activity (2011) and its dissolution (2018). These are historical landmarks that could have produced changes in the Basque literary canon. But the truth is the real literary renewal has been thanks to the work of women writers and feminist writers. Literature written by women has had a huge impact in the last decade, and we should consider it a landmark that the Premio Euskadi for literature in Basque has been won by women in all but one of the last five years: in 2018, it was won by Eider Rodríguez (1977–), in 2019 by Irati Elorrieta (1979–), in 2020 by Karmele Jaio (1970–) and in 2022 by Uxue Apaolaza (1981–). It’s a turning of the tide in Basque letters, indicated also by Miren Agur Meabe winning Spain’s National Prize for Poetry in 2021.

To the east: internationalisation

It is understandable that authors want their work to become known outside the Basque language (first in Spanish and later in English). Since Bernardo Atxaga won Spain’s National Literature Prize in 1999 for his work Obabakoak (1998), the notion of progressing outside the Basque scene has become an ambition for writers. Some have managed it, such as Kirmen Uribe (1970–), who now resides in New York. Others are on their way, as demonstrated by the positive reception to translations of work by Eider Rodríguez, Katixa Agirre and Karmele Jaio. 

It is possible to point at the various stages Basque literature has gone through in terms of the internationalisation and globalisation of its works, and there is no doubt that, thanks to direct translations from Basque to English, knowledge of the Basque literary system is now growing. Sometimes it can feel like insufficient effort is being made, but knowledge of Basque literature is spreading through various networks, and Ínsula magazine, a leader in the field of literary studies, offers a strong platform for discovering Basque literature. We trust that this issue of The Riveter will also contribute generously to the internationalisation of Basque culture.

By Jon Kortazar

Translated by Andrew McDougall

(1)Translated by Andrew McDougall via Jon Juaristi’s translation into Spanish.

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