Americas Cultural Summit: Alberto Manguel takes a stand on cultural citizenship

For those of a certain vintage, the regular appearances of the¬†anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist and editor Alberto Manguel on CBC Radio’s Morningside, were oases of intelligence. Itis comforting to know he is still at the same game, these days as the head of the National Library of Argentina.

Manguel is in Ottawa attending the Americas Culture Summit, a gathering of artists and culture officials from across the Western Hemisphere that concludes Friday afternoon. He’s speaking on the subject of cultural citizenship Friday morning in the National Arts Centre, a topic he talked about in an interview with ARTSFILE.

The question, he says the summit is asking have to do “whether this cultural citizenship can help us build better societies and understand better who the other is and how we connect with the other and find our identity reflected in the other.”

He believes it is important for people and nations to remember that they are not alone unto themselves. This comes, he says, at a time when certain governments, such as the Trump administration in the United States are push for “selfishness and egotism.”

Manguel says that no society can survive if its members “are not interlinked and talking to one another.”

What we are calling cultural identity encompasses all the other identities, he says.

“Culture defines who we are and we define who we are through culture. Our identity comes from what we create and what we learn and what we pay attention to. The age-old question of Who am I? is in some measure answered by what we do and who we do it with and who we do it for.”

That puts the artist in a central place in our cultural development, he says.

“Artists have always been trying to put into words and movements and colour our experience of the world and reflect it back to us. Art doesn’t give us answers, but it helps us to ask better questions. And if there is hope for us as a species, which is absolutely not certain, it comes through the possibility of identifying those questions and trying to, in every sense, behave better.”

Artists tell us why we should want to survive, he says. “Maybe the summit gives us a beginning of a form where we can discuss these questions.”

Politics today, he says, is geared toward separation and building walls that leave some people outside.

“Unless we change those parameters and offer a place for dialogue, we are condemned. We know that if we don’t change now we lose all hope of surviving and the politics of Trump will lead us to suicide and we have to stop him.”

This kind of debate is found in the evolving relationships between settler communities and Indigenous communities in Canada and Argentina. Manguel has a perspective on both nations as he is a citizen of both. The debate in Canada is more advanced, he says, as the discussion in Argentina is only beginning.

Manguel is trying to do his bit to advance the discussion in Argentina through the National Library there.

“We have just opened a centre for Indigenous people. In that centre we will start naming things differently, treating documents differently. That is something Canada has been doing for a longtime. And we want to learn from them in Argentina.

“It’s very important that the National Library does not belong to any particular group. It has to be inclusive.” The inclusion of Indigenous peoples in Argentina’s identity goes back to the beginnings of the nation, he says. The country’s declaration of independence in 1816 was written in Spanish and two Indigenous languages.

That has been ignored until today, he says, and “we are coming back to it now and saying we are many.”

Manguel says that he is trying to use the library as an example to other institutions in the country, “a place of debate and as a place of evidence.”

Cultural institutions can be very powerful, Manguel says. But if the society is trying to remedy forms of discrimination, then the institutions have to be redefined and move away from the 19th century European concepts that prevail in many of them.

He is supportive of the emergence of Indigenous artists in Canada, saying “it is high time too.” This is not happening in Argentina.

“There is a beginning of the need to acknowledge Indigenous people. But they are still suffering greatly throughout Argentina.” There has been some protest and violence but the political influence of Indigenous people in Argentina still needs recognition, he added.

While Canadians are thinking the process of reconciliation is too slow, Manguel has a wider perspective.

“Canada is exemplary, if you look at the rest of the word. Even Australia is not as advanced in its official efforts. We can complain about what Canada is doing and the mistakes it is making, but it is leagues ahead of any other country.”

Canada also leads, he says, in the way it welcomes newcomers by allowing them to bring their previous national identity in the the mix of cultures in this country. Too many nations define their identities in terms that exclude peoples, he says.

Manguel has a son living in Calgary so he says is back in his home country of choice (he became a Canadian citizen many years ago) as often as possible.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.