“I have run up and down the roads of Occitania: I am happy to see that my language is much alive”

Paulina Kamakine

Occitan poet

Paulina Kamakine.
Paulina Kamakine.
The bond with the land is an omnipresent feature of Occitan literature. But, which being has deeper roots in land than women —their cyclical rhythms, begetters of life, connoisseurs of life’s telluric nature? A way of being linked to a landscape, born in a territory, in an environment that cannot be separated from the person —this is Occitan literature.

In this context, a question arises: where are women in Occitan literature? In Occitania, they appear only marginally in literary anthologies: it might seem that women write less, or get less published.

Paulina Kamakine hails from Bigorre and has embarked on a journey to restore female position, hitherto absent, until recently hidden, in the European literary canon for centuries. Poet, linguist and woman of letters, she has vindicated the feminine in a greatly important work published in 2020: the anthology of poetry Paraulas de hemnas (‘Words of women’). Kamakine visited Lleida (Catalonia) in the third week of October to talk about the anthology during the festival Òc Cultura: Sens racinas pas de flors.

Nationalia: You have focused on women and literature. Why did you choose to start a project like Paraulas de hemnas?

Paulina Kamakine: Poetry is a way of relating to the world, and women have a precise way of writing, of being, of saying. Paraulas de hemnas is a book that allows us to go directly to the source of the feelings that women experience, to that emotionally rich sensitivity of silence, of joy… all those emotions that female poets go through, which were not very visible in Occitan literature. The aim is to give women a voice on the literary scene.

N: This anthology is therefore a work of historical restitution. The question you make visible is a double minoritisation: women, who were not visible in literature, and the language of Occitans, which is almost hidden in the countries where it is spoken, in a globalised world...

P. K.: The minoritisation is threefold, in fact. Paraulas de hemnas is the vindication of three elements that were invisible until recently, it is a triptych: women, poetry, and the Occitan language. These are three matters that have been undervalued, and I can’t understand why. Poetry is, for me, the essence. Occitan —la lenga nosta— is what is closest to our hearts. Women are a way of doing things, a point of view that we have been missing. If we don’t have the sensitivity of female poets, we can’t guide our lives correctly, we don’t have all the possible examples of what it means to live.

N: You made me think of Catalan writer Maria Mercè Marçal’s motto: “I am grateful to fate for three gifts: to have been born a woman, from the working class, and from an oppressed nation.” Tell us a little about Occitan female poets: who are they, what do they feel, what has it meant for them to be part of the anthology?

P. K.: For the poets, the anthology has not only been a recognition of their work, but also a personal journey. They have realised that poetry has been like a way to understand who they are. They didn’t think that what they wrote was publishable: “No, I write like this, but it’s nothing that has any value…”. With this anthology, they have begun a process: starting from the interview I did with each of them, many have returned to writing after years of abandoning it.

In front of each poem there is a portrait, a biography of each poet. Some portraits talk about the fear of language loss: they need to be read, to illustrate language. It’s important! All the female poets are afraid of this: from this point of view, they are all activists, they are all close to their linguistic conscience, to their desire to contribute their grain of sand in a very personal way.

Female poets have left their mark on history. Let me tell you a little story: we have Filadèlfa de Ierda, a Bigorre poetess who demanded that the engraving in Lourdes —Lorda, in Occitan— that reads “Que soy era inmaculada councepciou” be written in Occitan. Filadèlfa made people aware that the memorial plaque should not be written in French because the Virgin Mary, when she appeared to Bernadette, did not speak in French, but in Bigorre Occitan.

Poets want to protect their language; we want to be able to find it in the public space, when we go for a walk, especially if it is the historical truth. Historical truth cannot be changed: if it is in our language, it must remain in our language.

N: If we follow you in the press, we see that every month you are invited to a different town to hold a round table with some of the poets in Paraulas de hemnas, who are all alive. In the book you include poets from all the territories and dialects, the so-called Occitania Granda. The map of Occitania that we frame and hang on the wall, on paper, looks like a static reality; but to live the geography of a place while you travel is another thing.

P. K.: Yes... I have run up and down the roads of my land of Òc. I undertook that journey to make sure that my language was still alive. The search was born out of a latent fear: “Oh no, my language is dying.” And I am happy to to see that my language is much alive. By travelling, I have discovered a poetic treasure that, for me, is one of the great riches of the world: the Occitan poetic treasure. Now it is yours as well.

N: You make me think of other landmark initiatives that have crossed the Occitan territory, such as the 2006 Chambra d’Òc’s walk L’Occitània a Pè, from the Occitan valleys of Piedmont up to Aran Valley, or La passem!, a relay race through the Occitan territories of Gascony, which is held on a yearly basis and is organised by the Bearn association Ligams. In a territory as large as Occitania, it is easy to feel lonely and dispersed, as we are all very far from each other: it is easy to feel that the territory and the language are but a fantasy. Does walking make you experience the territory in a different way?

P. K.: Yes, it is a gift to physically understand the territory and language; otherwise you can think it is a fantasy. The journey I made is a lived geography. I know my Occitania, and with my eyes closed I can go from meadow to meadow, from Gascony to Italy. Poetry opens up a space that can’t be seen usually.

N: I’m curious about how you live your identity. Travelling or living in other multilingual societies often brings us into contact with a mirror situation. When you look at yourself through the mirror of your other identities (French, European, etc.), what do you see? Now that you are in Catalonia, how do you see Occitania from here? And conversely, what is the Occitan imaginary of Catalonia?

P. K.: We often speak in Occitania about that: Catalonia is a dream for us, because we see that everyone still speaks the Catalan language there. We open our eyes wide when we think of Catalonia —that is what we were not able to be in Occitania, and it would have been wonderful. I would have loved it to be there as it is here: a free country where the language is spoken and the language is socialised.

I feel very close to Catalan poetry. A poem translated from Occitan into Catalan brings me more emotion than if translated into French. I have many books of Catalan poetry, I know that it is always a spring, an extraordinary source of poetry that will nourish my poetics, because Catalan is the language closest to us. It’s what we lack in Occitania, because we don’t have so much production. Poetry in Catalan nourishes Occitan poetry.

Paulina Kamakine and interview author Mariona Miret at 2022 Òc Cultura festival in Lleida (Catalonia).

N: Can you tell us about your personal and family relationship with the language? You studied a master’s degree in Human Sciences, and then you studied Occitan at university. Now it has a central place in your life: what has brought you here?

P. K.: The reason behind everything I do is to keep hearing the voice of my grandmother. She passed on the language to me. And for a long time, Occitan hibernated in me.

I remember once when I was in Brussels, I was about 23 years old, and there was a very proud woman who said to me: “Ah, but Occitan is a Patois, it’s a derivation of French, it’s not a language at all”... I was completely silent, and I felt a fracture inside me. I couldn’t find the words to say to her: “No, Occitan is not French, Occitan is a language!”. How will I be able to repair the wound that this fracture has opened up inside me, if I don’t even know how to defend my language, my identity, my culture?

I always move with softness, it’s my personality. But from that day on I realised that I was afraid that my language would be lost. That was a watershed moment for me, and I remember it very well because this story made me feel an emotion that made me realise that this is my path.

I then decided to go back to university for a year, only to study Occitan. At that time, I spoke the Rivièra Baisha dialect. I spoke it with my grandmother, with my father. My mother didn’t pass it on to me, but my mother’s husband spoke Occitan with me.

Bigorre Occitan is the language of my people. Everyone spoke Patois, where I come from, and that’s why I didn’t even know if it was a language. It took me some time to understand it.

N: The words you were given in Brussels brought you into contact with a longing for the language you didn’t know; an emptiness, a lack... How did your vision of Occitan change when you learnt that it was not a Patois, but a bigger language?

P. K.: I lacked the history of my country, and its literature. I only had a language inherited from my family. The year I studied it at university gave me back history and literature. At the time I read books to understand the history of Occitania.

I can’t understand how I could have gone through the school system and not know anything about Occitania. How one thing could be invisible next to the other. The French school left me in total ignorance: I didn’t even know the name of my language, I didn’t know how to write my language. For a while I felt anger at realising that I had been forced to enter a reductive system, because speaking only one language doesn’t allow you to know the world.

There is no reason to do this: why should we stop one language from being spoken? There is no reason of the heart, but a mental reason: to seek to own us, to decide for us... I felt deeply betrayed. I reproached my parents for not having sent me to the Calandreta schools.... “Why did you take me to the French school?”.

N: And this has not only happened in France with the French school with regard to Occitan; it is also the case with Corsican, Alsatian, Franco-Provençal, Breton, Catalan...

P. K.: And Basque too. We have suffered, and we don’t know how to say it: we don’t know how to explain why we want to find out who we are, and why. I am a linguist, and when I listened to my grandmother speak, I told myself: this is a subjunctive, it works like this... it’s not a patois! My grandmother’s patois is a language: it has syntax, verbs, conjugations... When I listened to her, I gradually realised that it really was a language.

When I was at university I suffered again, because I speak Bigorre Occitan from the Rivièra Baisha, which is not a formatted language. When I was with people who had their master’s degree in Occitan, they looked at me and told me that I spoke in a strange way: “No, you can’t say that,” “No, that’s not the right word!”.

N: Standard varieties can really harm a language, if we don’t maintain an appreciation for all dialects. In this interview, stigmatisation has come up in many ways: of women, of the language, of your dialect... tell us a bit about how you see the state of the language today.

P. K.: Occitan is still socialised in our country, in our villages in the Bigorre, although in big cities it is much more difficult to hear it. You only hear it in small groups that meet to talk.

At university they told me: “Your grandmother didn’t know how to speak,” and I left university because of this. I had a very bad time. It was terrible for me to hear that my grandmother didn’t know how to speak. My grandmother spoke a real language, and a beautiful one, which is mine.

This was my starting point: I worked to build a spelling, to appropriate my treasure. My history, my Bigorre, my speech. The basis of my work is my family language, my grandmother’s, which I wanted to keep.

N: Your journey to revitalise the language is a deeply personal one, I understand, from what you tell us.

P. K.: Yes. Afterwards I have been afraid as I have realised that every time someone dies, in the countryside, then I can speak with fewer and fewer people. My language is in danger!

This created the need for me to get in touch with Occitan speakers. I needed to create an Occitan community in my environment, and I chose to do it through poetry, which allows me to docejar: to make it sweet, to stop the world. It is the countryside that has made me like this: trees, mountains, birds. The greatest simplicity. Let’s not think about money, about war. Let’s think about what is alive and what the heart dictates.

Following my heart, I went on a journey to find —I didn’t know it at the time— a hundred or so female poets, and to find a way to revitalise the language. Come on, women, let’s light little candles of Occitan poetry everywhere!

N: So is this just the beginning? They too are sparks that have been lit. You’ve been creating revitalisers along the way...

P. K.: Yes! I didn’t calculate time when I was with them. I was there for a week, a day down or a day up, with each one. I was interested in them, in their poetry.

I listened to the other. I spent time with each author’s writing, and their writing is their intimacy. I listened to them, and that gave them back their confidence. There are many female poets who have said to me, months later: “I’m writing again,” after years of not doing so. Some artists have set some poems to music. People have taken my work to use it, to create. Some poets didn’t know each other, but now they are friends. Reviews on the book have been published; some poets have gone on the radio to speak, others on France 3’s “Viure al país” —a French public television programme.

N: Following the need to devote your life to the language and try to save it, you have created a process of revitalisation that keeps going on.

P. K.: Of course! The process is not over. I keep receiving emails that expand the candles that Paraulas de hemnas has lit. In the future I will publish a second and a third volume of the anthology, with more poets, who will continue to make this project great and make this path collective. I left, driven by the fear of losing my language, and I have come back with passion.