CUNY: Bernardo Atxaga Chair 2020

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.

CUNY: Bernardo Atxaga Chair 2020
  • 26
    Oct 2020
    Oct 2020
    New York

Mari Jose Olaziregi: "In Atxaga´s work, actuality and the power of attraction come together in a constant search”

This year the Bernardo Atxaga Chair at the City University of New York (CUNY) celebrates its tenth anniversary. To mark the occasion, the Chair ‑the first to be created by the Etxepare Basque Institute‑ will focus on the work of the acclaimed author from Asteasu with a seminar titled "Bernardo Atxaga´s literary creation: memory and writing", led by Mari Jose Olaziregi, PhD in Basque Philology and professor of literature at the UPV/EHU. We caught up with Olaziregi to learn more about the seminar that will start next Monday at the prestigious CUNY Graduate Center.

This pioneering chair was created in 2011 when you were director for the promotion and dissemination of the Basque language at the Etxepare Basque Institute. What is its objective?

To promote the study, knowledge and research of the Basque language and literature. More precisely, this chair offers an annual academic doctoral program taught by outstanding guest professors in the field who travel to New York. Among other topics, it deals with various aspects of Basque literature, history of Basque cinema, sociolinguistics, etc.

What do you remember about the official inauguration of the Chair?

I remember that it was Atxaga himself who, in September of that same year, inaugurated the Chair at the CUNY Graduate Center. We organized a really nice event, with the musician Jabi Muguruza and the translator Miren Gabantxo.

This year you will be the guest professor. What is your student profile and class dynamics?

It will be a one-week seminar, with two hours of classes every day. About ten doctoral students from the field of Linguistics, Literature and Cultural Studies will take part. Students at CUNY are usually serious and show great interest. I think this year I’ll also have a good number of people keen on literature, and "atxagazales" (Atxaga fans). It will be a real pleasure to interact with them.

So, your students happen to know that Atxaga gave a tremendous boost to Basque literature...

Of course, and that is why I’ll discuss his work on a global level as well as in the context of Basque literature. We’ll look at how his work has been received, the fact of writing in a minoritized language, etc. Next, we’ll focus on the different themes, concepts, motifs and poetics that weave together Atxaga´s universe, and we’ll read fragments from his books.

Which novels will you focus on?

Without overlooking the importance that poetry, theatre and literature for children and young adults have had in Atxaga´s prolific work, our first goal will be the book of short stories Obabakoak. We’ll delve go into the geography of Obaba, the poetics and way of seeing the world in the stories that happen there, as well as underlining the importance of metaliterature in the book. Then we’ll focus on The Accordionist´s Son, as an example of the step Atxaga took in the 90s towards novels that revolve around historical memory. We’ll talk about the importance of utopia, and about the reasons the novel gives about the whys and wherefores of the Basque conflict. We’ll finish the course focusing on Atxaga´s last two novels in which he takes a turn towards autobiography, more specifically Nevada Days. We’ll compare and contrast these with novels that became excellent narratives of Basque emigration such as Sweet Promised Land by Robert Laxalt.

In the course you will also look at film adaptations of his novels...

That’s right. We’ll watch some scenes from films like Obaba or The Accordionist´s Son, and we’ll address the various perspectives.

In that sense, would you say that Atxaga is a visual writer?

I don´t know exactly what you mean, because literature and film have very different codes. You can make a very bad film adaptation from a great work of literature, but it also works the other way around. We have many examples. In our case, I think that the films Obaba and The Accordionist´s Son, as well as Aizpea Goenaga’s Zeru horiek, successfully conveyed the atmosphere and conflicts of Atxaga’s work on the screen.

The fact is that a fast narrative pace does not guarantee that the film adaptation will be better...

Of course not, and neither does one with lots of scenes. Because in the end, to adapt is to create. Let´s take as an example the adaptation of Esteban Werfell´s story in the film Obaba. In that story memory is the key, and Montxo Armendaiz knew how to adapt the mysterious atmosphere of the book.

How would you summarize Atxaga´s literature in one sentence?

With that question I feel like I have to put an entire ocean into a glass [laughs]. But I can tell you that in Atxaga´s work, actuality and the power of attraction come together in a constant search. And on this path Atxaga has established a dialogue with creators from different disciplines (musicians, filmmakers, painters...) to interpret with new eyes the life that nourishes literature.

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