This is the university route on which a literature takes shape.
Such routes also exist for media, prizes, etc.
This dossier’s purpose is to make known, through the intersection of three critical gazes—each one authoritative, distinct, and complementary—the University of Salamanca’s José Antonio Ramos Sucre Lecture Series on Venezuelan Literature. These texts by José Balza (fiction writer and, with Carmen Ruiz Barrionuevo, the series’s co-founder), Gustavo Guerrero (a guest professor on many occasions), and Ioannis Antzus Ramos (a student heavily involved in its development) address, from the three most representative angles—teaching, research, and management—the relevance of and interest behind this series. Together, they spur us on to ensure that such a valuable project might continue, making its mark long into the future.
The José Antonio Ramos Sucre Lecture Series on Venezuelan Literature, housed in the Department of Spanish and Hispano-American Literature, has existed for almost three decades at the University of Salamanca. It will turn thirty in 2023. The idea behind it emerged, as Gustavo Guerrero and José Balza both recall in their illuminating articles, when Carmen Ruiz Barrionuevo, a professor of Hispano-American literature and an expert on Cuban and Venezuelan literature among other topics (with remarkable work on Ramos Sucre himself), and José Balza, an exceptional Venezuelan writer, noticed the lack of study, visibility, and knowledge of Venezuelan literature beyond the country’s borders. They came together, as Guerrero and Balza likewise note, in the long-past year of 1993, at a conference organized by renowned Peruvian critic Julio Ortega at Brown University in the United States. Context was not unimplicated in the imagining and construction of this cultural bridge between Venezuela and the United States; the founding of professorships and institutions of prestige is common practice at North American universities, and the tradition of donating to support such efforts is well known. I taught for two years at U.S. universities (Brown and Penn), and I learned from experience that such initiatives are deliciously indulged, sometimes turning to external funders, to donors who know how to spot that unusual potential for impact in academic programs on the culture, art, and literature of a given country. Nor is it insignificant, as Guerrero point out, that the Ramos Sucre Lectures Series was created shortly after 1992, almost simultaneous with the controversial pageantry surrounding the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish arrival in America, which gave rise to a transatlantic perspective of coming and going aptly stressed by Guerrero, who also recalls Professor Barrionuevo’s academic origins at the Universidad de La Laguna in the Canary Islands. The vision thereby grew broader, more horizontal, more enriching, and more pangeic.
The agreement signed between the USAL and Venezuela’s CENAL (the National Book Center, then known as the CONAC) worked—and worked well—for years; a cultural, literary, human interchange came into fruition. I must emphasize, though, that contact with Venezuela’s CENAL has ultimately become sporadic, intermittent. It has become impossible to agree on candidates’ proposals for teaching seminars and leading conferences for the first time in decades. The Lectures Series is still supported on paper by Venezuela’s Ministry of Culture, and managed by Venezuela’s Book and Reading Platform. Its goal is still the promotion, study, and research of Venezuelan literature from its origins, with special emphasis on contemporary authors—but, as I suggested, this is not the case in practice. The Lecture Series has been, up until recent times, a project with an established reputation in Venezuela and other Latin American and European countries: it represents a reference point as a space for critical reflection, knowledge, and learning on Venezuelan literature; fertile ground, as fruitful as can be, and not sufficiently well known even to Hispanists. I suppose—and this is a different debate, which I will only outline here—there are various reasons for which Venezuela, the country of not only Rómulo Gallegos, Teresa de la Parra, and José Antonio Ramos Sucre, but also Rafael Cadenas, Vicente Gerbasi, Ana Enriqueta Terán, Guillermo Sucre, Eugenio Montejo, Hanni Ossott, Yolanda Pantin, etc. is not at the center of its own cultural field. It should be, given the variety, quality, and originality of its prose writers, storytellers, poets, and visual artists. Perhaps the nation’s delicate political circumstances at certain historical moments, along with a certain intellectual apathy or peripheral slant at universities, which tend to center their attention on other regions like the Southern Cone, Mexico, Cuba, or Peru, might explain this relegation, which is quite unwarranted, also taking into account the historical importance of presses like Monte Ávila and Biblioteca Ayacucho.
Maintaining the high quality and lofty proposals of the professors and writers involved, when all the great names of Venezuelan literature’s past three decades have passed through Salamanca, strikes us as fundamental. This is the reason behind the moment of transition the Lecture Series is currently experiencing, divided by politics (cultural or otherwise)—an inner and outer rift that seems to allow for no nuance where nuance undoubtedly exists. It is important to highlight that the Lecture Series has lasted so long in the USAL’s Department of Spanish and Hispano-American Literature due also to the constant involvement, interest, and effort of Spanish and Venezuelan professors and graduate students. This is the greatest proof of its success, and of the importance of the institutional support of then-dean Julio Formoso, who played a key role in signing the agreement between what was then the CONAC and the USAL. Again, at present, this is no longer the case. The Ramos Sucre Lecture Series once offered two lines of programming each year: two courses on Venezuelan literature taught by outstanding professors from Venezuelan universities and a conference of Venezuelan writers that took place in the last week of November each year, which, as Ioannis Antzus Ramos emphasizes in his chronicle, was for years an inflection point in the intellectual growth of participating students and professors. Balza also recalled how nourishing the Lecture Series’ classes and conferences were in an interview he recently gave me via email: “The student’s work was demanding. It was like a reward: they witnessed the revelation of a written world, through authors with powerful bodies of work. Want an anecdote? I’ll give you two: a Greek student, María Mandalou, was studying phonetics but didn’t know it. We would meet early and I would ask her to teach me to pronounce well-loved names in her pure, age-old language. That was how I learned that the ancient Greeks didn’t put an accent on the ‘o’ in ‘Plato,’ and that ‘Aristotle’ didn’t have an accent either. And that was how I learned how to correctly pronounce the word ‘Athens’ (in Greek).”
With each visit from three or four of Venezuela’s truly remarkable writers, this encounter bolstered professors’ and students’ knowledge and dialogue on the most outstanding authors of the moment, establishing itself as a supplementary but essential part of the teaching program. The encounters always enjoyed a great deal of participation, and professors as well as doctoral students introduced the works of the invited authors. These conferences, seminars, and classes contributed to the completion of undergraduate as well as doctoral research projects. The courses took place for three weeks in November and May, offering thirty credit hours, and although they were open to all USAL students, in recent years they have become part of the department’s graduate program. The courses and activities are currently part of the Master’s program in Spanish and Hispano-American Literature, Literary Theory, and Comparative Literature. During the past two academic courses, despite the USAL’s budgetary shortfalls and the lack of support from the CENAL, whose proposals have had little or nothing to do with literature, the lecture series has featured Rafael Cadenas, José Balza (to whom a round table was dedicated, including Ernesto Pérez Zúñiga, Juan Carlos Chirinos, and Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez, in September 2019), as well as Antonio López Ortega, who gave an intensive course on the Venezuelan short story. In Fall 2020, the series featured three master classes taught by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza, Verónica Jaffé, and Marina Gasparini Lagrange, albeit virtually due to the COVID pandemic. For the 2020-2021 academic year, Luis Miguel Isava, Miguel Gomes, and Claudia Cavallin will be the invited video-lecturers. Due to the CENAL’s growing distance and the lack of other institutional or private support, the Ramos Sucre Lecture Series has been funded since 2019 thanks to a small but crucial annual contribution from the Department of Spanish and Hispano-American Literature itself. We are currently seeking greater official support from the leadership of our own university, while continuing to pursue external or private contributions that might help recapture the brilliance the lecture series once had and still deserves, and that might allow us to invite writers who remain within Venezuela as well as writers who have found it necessary to emigrate to other countries. All that matters is the incontestable quality of the Venezuelan literature that is beginning to be considered and published in our country: Pre-Textos, led by Manuel Borrás, Visor, and Fundación para la Cultura Urbana, a project coordinated by Marina Gasparini and dedicated to publishing the works of three Venezuelan poets per year, as well as other bold small presses—Índigo Editoras, Libero Editorial, Amargord, Petalurgia, Candaya—are doing their part, with guts and critical intelligence, for Venezuelan poetry and prose. From the United States, Latin American Literature Today, working with collaborators in various Latin American countries, has assumed a clear commitment to quality, original, and innovative Latin American literature, paying special attention to Venezuelan expression. The journal’s international and bilingual vocation makes it an effective and admirable forum.
Given the well-deserved international recognition earned by this series, which has continually and stimulatingly allowed USAL professors and students to come close to the great names behind the Venezuelan essay, poem, and novel and the vibrant, fruitful, and largely unexplored cultural field of this country in general, it would be negligent not to strive for its work to continue. This work is something almost “unheard of,” a true “marvel” as Balza calls it, despite all possible economic or political difficulties and contingencies, despite “Chavismo’s breakup of the cultural field and the atomization it is causing in the current diaspora” (Guerrero). For this reason, it is essential not to waste the absolutely extraordinary potential it has. Salamanca must continue to be the route on which Venezuelan writing takes shape.
Our goal is to strengthen the Lecture Series, and so we thank LALT for this privileged space, bilingual and with an undeniable reach. We want to row with hope and determination down the current of Venezuelan literature, on this whirlpool that recalls the strength and beauty of the Orinoco Delta—how it opens up and spills down different tributaries and streams, an imagination that nourishes the tales and novels of wonderful writer José Balza, one of its founders.
The net is woven and ready. We must not allow it to fall apart; we must not allow not only the fish, but also the gold, to slip through the cracks.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.