Sunday, February 20, 2011

Notes on a Poetics of Indexing

"Anglo-Americans: all look alike, 29"

That is one of the first lines in the index for No Word for Welcome. I recently reviewed that index, a project by turns frustrating, illuminating, and entertaining. I approached the task with dread, avoiding it for as long as possible. Not because I fear order or laborious detail – even my spice rack is alphabetized – but because it required reading my book Yet Again.

As almost any author can tell you, when your book is close to publication, reading the phone book in a viper-filled pit seems more attractive than reading one’s own manuscript one more time.

To my surprise and relief, it wasn’t all that bad. Yes, it was strange to see a portion of my brain, and a dozen years of work and experience, plotted out as a list of five hundred and fifty topics. But as I worked my way from Acapulco and American season to Ernesto Zedillo and Zoque, I enjoyed laughing at myself, and delighting in the poetry of simple entries like the one above. The lack of ornament and embellishment of "Anglo-Americans: all look alike" gives it more power than the long passage to which it refers.

Some entries offered word-problems, puzzles to solve: How to translate El Día de la Raza?

The indexer had chosen "Day of the Race," a homely term that seemed too easy to misinterpret. I asked several friends for suggestions. "Mestizo People’s Day," one suggested. Well, I can assure you the istmeños in the Oaxacan town where I lived were not celebrating mestizaje. One of those istmeño townies, a human rights lawyer who is now the Executive Director of Long Island’s amazing Workplace Project, thought the holiday first needed a name-change in Spanish, to "Día de la Resistencia." (I agree, but that’s, unfortunately, beside the point.) A friend who teaches Latin American literature suggested "don’t translate it, explain it." (Great idea, but not possible in an index.) Another friend chimed in: "Roots Day?" (Conjuring Alex Haley?)

The index offers an explanation that’s pertinent here: istmeños (people of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), xxiii

The explanations that the indexer offered for some terms created their own poetry:

"bienvenid@s" (de-gendered greeting), 170
chahuixtle (corn disease, something bad), 8, 9, 53, 274
cual mitcats ("missionary's child," one who fawns on foreigners), 190
protagonismo (unwarranted self-promotion), xv

An index’s flat, uninflected presentation, its egalitarianism, struck me as both humorous and elegant. Joke and metaphor, deep theme and small quirk, are all laid out with equal emphasis.

time: God's and Zedillo's, 68; as a spiral, xxiii, 152

A brief explanation of how istmeños refer to "regular time" and "Daylight Savings Time" (imposed throughout Mexico by former president Ernesto Zedillo, but ignored in the countryside) is on a level playing field with my realization that the istmeños’ sense of how time passes matches my own lifelong experience: it’s not a line, it’s a spiral.

My favorite entry:

immigration, 74-75; and Central Americans, 63; for employment, 30-31, 118-19, 184; from outer space, 154

As for Día de la Raza, I ended up choosing Kathleen Alcalá’s suggestion: "Day of the People." An incomplete translation, to be sure, but if a reader wants the full story, she’ll have to read the whole book.

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