Modern Languages

Intimate Frontiers: A Literary Geography of the Amazon – In Conversation with Felipe Martínez-Pinzón and Javier Uriarte

Felipe Martínez-Pinzón and Javier Uriarte’s Intimate Frontiers: A Literary Geography of the Amazon is the latest publication in our American Tropics series. The articles compiled in this book discuss different aspects of the cultures and literatures of the Amazon, focusing not on its natural resources or opportunities for economic exploit, but on the richness that inhabits its diverse archive of oral histories, images, songs, material culture, and texts. We spoke to Felipe Martínez-Pinzón and Javier Uriarte about their latest publication.


Firstly, could you tell us a bit about your edited collection, Intimate Frontiers: A Literary Geography of the Amazon?

The book analyzes the ways in which the Amazon has been represented in twentieth-century cultural productions. Analyzing materials as diverse as diaries, photographs, films, oral stories, novels, colonization projects, political discourses, anthems and maps —among others— this collection of articles by scholars working in Latin America, the USA, and Europe chooses to approach the region from the perspective of quotidian experiences of an intimate nature. Amazonia has been usually read from the vantage point of its “extraordinary” characteristics: its gigantism, its richness, or its exceptionality. With this book we want to privilege representations that, while challenging these commonly held notions, open a set of new readings. The general aim is to propose a “zoom in” into different particular materials of the region in order to make then a “zoom out”, if you will, that connects Amazonia to the rest of the world. Put in another way, we want to offer the reader a panorama of contemporary readings that gauge this region privileging notions such as the neighbor, the “commons” and the tropics as cultural constructs; constructs that, instead of focusing solely on difference, make us see the historical continuities connecting this region with the rest of the world.

What compelled you both to focus your research in this area?

Issues regarding the American tropics in general, and the Amazon in particular, have been a critical component of our research interests for years now. In our previous collaborative work, we have critically approached different projects of lettered and state transformation or domestication of nature and, more generally, of space. Our first incursion in these topics was in fact another edited volume we put together about the foundational importance of war in configuring spaces and representations of nature in Latin America. The title of the book is Entre el humo y la niebla: Guerra y cultura en América Latina, and it was published in 2016 by the Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana (IILI), housed at the University of Pittsburgh (USA).

As individual researchers, the cultural dynamics of the tropics have been a central interest of Martínez-Pinzón’s project. His first book, Una cultura de invernadero. Trópico y civilización en Colombia (Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2016), focuses on the ways the lettered elites in Colombia tried, during the nineteenth century, to “tame” climate —through the metaphorical and spatial figure of the “greenhouse”— in order to boost the country’s productivity and homogenize its populations. He now continues to explore these issues through the study of sketches of manners in 19th century Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.

Javier Uriarte is interested in the ways the state transforms, reconfigures and interprets certain frontier spaces whose belonging to the nation is frequently understood as unstable (this is the case of Amazonia). In his forthcoming book, The Desertmakers: Travel, War, and the State in Latin America, Uriarte studies the role that war plays on state appropriations and readings of diverse territories and subjects during the last decades of the nineteenth century. He is now working on a book entirely focused on the Amazon, tentatively titled “Bodies, Nature, and Spatial Imagination in Amazonia”.

The essays in this collection look at Amazonian history through diaries, novels, oral histories, documentary films, songs, and photographs. Are there any sources used in this collection which you could tell us more about?

As mentioned earlier, Intimate Frontiers brings together a vast array of cultural materials, not only to show that the richness of Amazonia truly lies in its visual, literary and oral stories, but also to put these materials in dialogue in order to visualize opaque corners of the region’s history. For instance, in her contribution, Cinthya Torres puts in dialogue maps, diplomatic documents and the journalistic articles of Brazilian intellectual Euclides Da Cunha to show how Brazil “built a case” to strengthen its presence in the region during the early 20th century. At the same time, Rike Bolte, in her article, places together the “myth” of the Yurupari, its writing and rewritings in with the context of the debates regarding the construction of a notion of “origins” for Colombian literature as produced by mid-20th century literary critics.  We would say that the real “sparks” of the contribution in our volume come from the diverse —and we would dare say, original— ways in which the authors place diverse materials in dialogue in order to bring a fresh approach to cultural production of and about the region.

Intimate Frontiers aims to look past commonly held notions about the region, instead working with more everyday experiences. Why was it important to publish a book focusing on these more intimate experiences?

We are convinced that it is fundamental that we critically approach some of the commonly held notions about the Amazon, since the region has often been described and imagined as a vast indomitable and mysterious territory, or as a biodiverse and beautiful region, as “the lungs of the earth”. Above all, many of these extraordinarily strong representational traditions assume the Amazon is an homogeneous space, erasing the concrete differences between parts of this enormous and changing territory. It is important to emphasize that Amazonia is not an unknown void, but a cosmopolitan frontier, centrally shaped by migration, capital, and powerful networks of readings and transits. It is home to several “minimal” stories, so many times silenced or forgotten, which our book aims to recover and bring to the foreground. In sum, where the Amazon has often been seen as the site of epic feats, we are inclined to consider it as a home; we are interested in reading the region as a contentious location where diplomatic negotiations amongst and between neighboring countries take place; and finally, we wonder why and how it has become the space where sexual fantasies are deployed.

Following the general idea of Liverpool UP’s American Tropics collection, with Intimate Frontiers we want to contribute to a less national-oriented history of Amazonia, privileging more a history of rivers, of connections, than a history of mountains, of divisions. Also, it seems to us that the focus on the connections between the human and the non-human worlds —connections to which not only Amazonia is subject to, naturally— can help debunk myths and metaphors that, instead of helping us comprehend the region, make its history opaque.

How does this volume pave the way for future research into Amazonian history?

Some of the aspects that we bring to the foreground and that we think can be further studied by scholars working in the field are related to the images of home and of interior spaces, and focuses on minimal or quotidian encounters that reveal the dynamics of the region under a different light. In Intimate Frontiers the notion of home becomes the center of various and many different cultural products inspired by Amazonia and explored in the essays reunited. This book, thus, proposes to rethink topics such as the Green Hell from the perspective of the (un)homely, and in so doing, invites readers to complicate and thus better understand the representational traditions connected to the region. Each of these readings presents the possibility of uncovering small yet intricate stories that, together, compose, beyond Amazonia’s ‘gigantic’ physical geography, the region’s rich literary geography. Through the discussion of twentieth-century cultural artifacts from or about the Amazon, this book offers a heterogeneous and interdisciplinary corpus of essays that constitute illuminating and up-to-date perspectives on its cultural richness.

What are you both planning on working on next?

Martínez-Pinzón is currently working on a book on “sketches of manners” (cuadros de costumbres) and liberal reforms in postindependence Latin America. The so-called “costumbrismo” has been read as a genre that conveys post-war’s everyday life and boredom, and assembles national peoples in detailed series of laboring types. Critics of these collections of sketches have wondered at the “inexplicable contrast” between “the peaceful and inert” society represented by them and the “political violence that marks the [19th] century” (Terán Navas). However, when we read these sketches in the context of the State’s growing control over frontier zones during a time of liberal reforms and civil wars, sketches of manners emerge as a vehicle to produce everyday life for the sake of the writers’ political agendas. Martínez-Pinzón reads these visual and literary sketches, not as the product of a peaceful people, but as sites of contention in which Post-Independence elites –what he calls Patricians– waged a war to legitimize themselves as the representatives of pacified populations.

Javier Uriarte is working on a book tentatively titled “Bodies, Nature, and Spatial Imagination in Amazonia”. This project focuses on the study of the representation of bodies moving across Amazonia in literature and travel narratives published between 1904-1914. During these ten years, the unprecedented penetration of global capital in the region, known as the Rubber Boom (1850-1920), dramatically transformed it. Specifically, Uriarte explores the relationship between moving bodies in the Amazon, and different conceptualizations of nature, labor, and sexuality that are crucial components of the corpus being studied.

We certainly do not discard working on new projects —edited volumes, re-editions, monographs or exhibits— which bring together, in different ways, the topics and problems that have structured our interventions so far: war, space and literature in 19th and 20th century Latin America.

For more information on Intimate Frontiers, please visit our website.


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