Nela Rio (poet, writer, artist, activist) was born in 1938 to parents of Italian descent in Córdoba, Argentina but calls Mendoza, in the Andes region of Argentina, where she lived her teenage years, home. She studied literature at university in Mendoza, where she discovered many Italian, Argentinean, and Uruguayan writers. She left Argentina in 1962 for the U.S., where her first husband pursued graduate studies. She then followed him to Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1969, where he taught Spanish at the University of New Brunswick. Rio completed a MA, started working at St. Thomas University, and has lived in Fredericton since, despite having divorced in 1975. A Canadian citizen since 1977, she taught Spanish language, civilization, and literature at St. Thomas University from the early seventies until her retirement in 2004. She has kept very close ties with her home country, going back often to see her family.
Rio’s research focuses on the women writers of the Spanish colonial period, including the celebrated Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and the earliest documented poet in the New World, Sor Leonor de Ovando, who wrote in the sixteenth-century on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). She is currently working on a book project about the nun.
Despite the effort of having to raise three children, Rio was also very active in local community organizations in Fredericton. She worked for peace, women’s rights, and against violence aimed at women. She also helped women immigrants and refugees, and joined Amnesty International. In her cultural work, she promoted poetry in the larger Fredericton community, mounting expos that featured international poets and collaborating with United Nations cultural organizations. A long-time member of the Ibero-American Academy of Poetry (founded in Spain in 1989), she led poetry activities (poster expos, recitals, workshops) in Fredericton in the Academy’s name, and, in 2009, founded the Fredericton Chapter —the only one in Canada— of the Academy, which numbers ten chapters around the world. In 2005, Rio also founded the Creative Registry of artists and writers for the Canadian Association of Hispanists, which serves as a promotional tool to showcase and share the work of artists writing in Spanish, as well as that of literary translators and individuals promoting Spanish and Latin American culture in Canada.
Nela Rio’s writing has been ongoing throughout her life. She won her first prize for a short story at the age of thirteen, and she started writing poetry the next year, which was published in newspapers and journals. Her writing, however, was only publicly recognized in Canada in the mid-eighties, when, having sent her work to various literary competitions in Spain, she was awarded second place for poetry and short-listed for international fiction prizes. At the time, her work had yet to be published in English translation, but is now translated into many languages, including, most recently, Slovenian.
In 1989, her collection En las noches que desvisten otras noches (During Nights that Undress Other Nights) was published in Spain by Orígenes from Madrid. The collection had been a finalist in the seventh José Luis Gallego International Poetry Contest and includes twenty-four poems, each dedicated “respectfully” to a different woman who suffered from shocking cruelty, violence, and torture. The material for the collection came from Rio’s knowledge of the violence in her home country and also from her community work with refugees from Central America. The book was published in two bilingual editions, translated into English by Elizabeth Gamble Miller in 2008 and into French by Jill Valéry in 2010. Referring to the English translation, George Elliott Clarke calls Rio a “feminist heir to the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda” (C6).
In 1992, Ediciones Terremozas, also of Madrid, published Aquella luz, la que estremece (That Light, the One That Trembles). The book had been a finalist for the eighth Carmen Conde Prize for Women’s Poetry the year before. This rich collection of erotic poetry shows the maturity of the author’s craft, very eloquently tracing the poetic voice’s sensuality and desire through implicit and explicit reference. This book was published in English translation in 2003 by Hugh Hazelton, who would go on to win a Governor General’s award for literary translation three years later.
Fredericton publisher Joe Blades of Broken Jaw Press became aware of Rio’s writing in the 1990s, and he has published a number of her works, including the three bilingual collections mentioned above. The two earliest of those – Túnel de proa verde / Tunnel of the Green Prow (1998) and Cuerpo amado / Beloved Body (2002) – were translated by Hugh Hazelton. Túnel de proa verde / Tunnel of the Green Prow focuses on women’s experience of complex situations and their ability to “triumph over the attempt to crush the human spirit,” as Richard Livermore said in his review of the collection. Cuerpo amado / Beloved Body turns the poetic gaze on aging, illness, and breast cancer, concretizing how those instances force one to question her identity and shatter her self esteem. George Elliott Clarke writes that in this book “Rio achieves an intoxicating lightness of style matched with unbearably intense feeling” (C6).
Rio is not solely a poet, however. El espacio de la luz / The Space of Light (2004), which contains both poems and six short stories, was translated by Elizabeth Gamble Miller and was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters’ Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Book of Translation in 2004. To date, this is the most complete source of Rio’s short fiction and poetic prose. Notable stories are “The Wisteria Garden,” which centers around a woman who paints to escape a violent domestic situation, and “Marietta, at the Angelus,” which explores sensuality in the Argentinean countryside. These stories were the subject of an MA thesis in Brazil by Andréia Pires, who also started a website dedicated to Rio.
Rio’s trilingual anthology – Sosteniendo la mirada: cuando las imágenes tiemblan/ Sustaining the Gaze: When Images Tremble / Soutenant le regard: Quand les images tremblent (2004) – was also published by Broken Jaw Press. Gamble Miller translated into English and Jill Valéry into French. It includes an introduction by Joe Blades and photos by award-winning New Brunswick photographer Brian Atkinson, whose images of Guatemalan women were taken during that country’s civil war (1994–97). The book is comprised of excerpts from testimonials by Guatemalan refugees, as well as poems by Rio inspired by her experience with these refugees.
Still with Broken Jaw Press, Rio published La luna, Tango, siempre la luna / The Moon, Tango, Always the Moon (2010), translated by Edith Jonsson-Devillers. This collection speaks to Rio’s origins as an Argentine (she uses the Argentinean brogue for the first time) and very skilfully combines the immigrant experience in Argentina with that of her own. Most strikingly, the collection foregrounds the symbolic richness and history of the origins of the tango dance in a way that takes the reader through various sensuous paces. More recently, Rio published En el umbral del atardecer… / On the Threshold of Dusk… (2013), translated by Elizabeth Gamble Miller with a prologue by Hugh Hazelton and El laberinto vertical / Vertical Labyrinth (2014) translated by Sophie M. Lavoie and Hugh Hazelton. On the Threshold… is a collection that explores the awareness of an imminent death while Vertical Labyrinth reconstructs the story of genesis from a female point of view. Rio also has a number of unpublished manuscripts including Poesía y otros ritmos.
Throughout her career, Rio has also endeavoured to showcase the work of other writers. She edited an anthology of poems dedicated to other women poets – El espacio no es un vacío, incluye todos los tiempos / The Space Isn’t a Blank, It Includes All the Times. Published by Broken Jaw, it extends to over 600 pages in its eBook version. In addition, she co-edited a bilingual anthology with fellow New Brunswick writer M. Travis Lane – Los Puentes del Rio San Juan / Bridges over the Saint John River (2011) – that features the work of four New Brunswick writers in Spanish translation (Jo-Anne Elder, M. Travis Lane, Lynn Davies, and Joe Blades) alongside four Hispano-Canadian writers translated into English.
In 2008, a colloquium about Nela Rio’s work was held in Ottawa at the Canadian Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México by Ottawa’s Red Cultural Hispánica. A collection of articles from that colloquium was edited by writer and translator Gabriela Etcheverry and published as Nela Rio. Escritura en foco: la mirada profunda (2012). Rio recently donated her papers (1967–2007) to the De Golver Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Her fonds consists of manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, academic papers and projects, recordings, and her correspondence and work for the project "La Voz y la Escritura."
Rio’s works have been included in a number of anthologies including, most importantly, the seminal work by Hugh Hazelton, Latinocanadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada (2007), which established the existence of the Latino-Canadian genre. Since then she has also been anthologized in Retrato de Una Nube: Primera antología del cuento hispano canadiense [Cloudburst: An Anthology of Hispanic Canadian Short Stories, 2013] and Lumbre y relumbre: Antología selecta de poetas hispano-canadienses contemporaneous [Lumbre y Relumbre: Anthology of Selected Contemporary Hispanic-Canadian Poetry, 2013], amongst other works. Rio’s poetry has been included in Writing Toward Hope: The Literature of Human Rights in Latin America, edited by fellow poet and academic Marjorie Agosín (2007).
Rio broke new ground when she became the first member of the League of Canadian Poets to be accorded full member status on the basis of books published solely in Spanish (and she was recently nominated for the League’s Pat Lowther Award  for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman). The first time a bilingual edition was short-listed, her nomination has created a precedent for other Canadians writing in a language other than English. Rio was also the first non-English/French-language poet to be invited to participate in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s Writing on the Wall project in 2009. Her triptych on one of Dali’s paintings was translated into French and English for the occasion.
Sophie M. Lavoie, Summer 2011, 2014
University of New Brunswick
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Rio, Nela. Aquella luz, la que estremece. Colección Torremozas 85. Madrid, España: Ediciones Torremozas, 1992.
---. Aquella luz, la que estremece / The Light That Makes Us Tremble. Trans. Hugh Hazelton. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2008.
---. Cuerpo amado / Beloved Body. Trans. Hugh Hazelton. Bilingual ed. Gladys Ilarregui, Prologue. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2002.
---. El espacio de la luz / The Space of Light. Trans. E. Gamble Miller. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2004.
---. El laberinto vertical / Vertical Labyrinth. Trans. Sophie M. Lavoie and Hugh Hazelton. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2014.
---. En el umbral del atardecer… / On the Threshold of Dusk… Trans. Elizabeth Gamble Miller. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2013.
---. En las noches que desvisten otras noches … Colección La Lira de Licario. Madrid, Spain: Ediciones Orígenes, 1989.
---. En las noches que desvisten otras noches / Durant les nuits qui déshabillent d’autres nuits. Trans. J. Valéry. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2010.
---. En las noches que desvisten otras noches / During Nights that Undress Other Nights. Trans. E Gamble Miller. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2003.
---. La luna, Tango, siempre la luna / The Moon, Tango, Always the Moon. Trans. Edith Jonsson-Devillers. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2010.
---. Los espejos hacen preguntas / The Mirrors Ask Questions. Trans. Elizabeth Gamble Miller. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Gold Leaf Press, 1999.
---. Sosteniendo la mirada: cuando las imágenes tiemblan / Sustaining the Gaze: When Images Tremble / Soutenant le regard: quand les images tremblent. Photography by Brian Atkinson. Trans. E. Gamble Miller and Jill Valéry. Trilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2004.
---. Túnel de proa verde / Tunnel of the Green Prow. Trans. Hugh Hazelton. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 1998.
---. Túnel de proa verde / Tunnel of the Green Prow. Trans. Hugh Hazelton. 2nd ed. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2004.
Rio, Nela, and M. Travis Lane, eds. Los Puentes del Rio San Juan / Bridges over the Saint John River. Bilingual ed. Fredericton: Academia Iberoamericana de Poesía/Broken Jaw Press, 2011.
Rio, Nela, and Juan Pablo Ortiz-Hernández, eds. Dieciocho voces de la poesía hispano-canadiense. Mexico: Acento Editores, 2009.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Agosín, Marjorie, ed. Writing Toward Hope: The Literature of Human Rights in Latin America. New Haven, CT/London: Yale UP, 2007.
“Argentine Poet, Author, Artist Does Canada Proud.” Touch BASE, the Magazine for Global Canadians 9.2 (Mar. 2007): 12.
Clarke, George Elliott. “April Showers Bring Beautiful Poetry.” The Sunday Herald [Halifax, NS] 6 Apr. 2003: C6.
Etcheverry, Gabriela, ed. Nela Rio. Escritura en foco: la mirada profunda. Ottawa: Qantati, 2012.
Gamble-Miller, Elizabeth. “Literary Techniques in Nela Rio's En las noches que desvisten otras noches.” En las noches que desvisten otras noches / During Nights That Undress Other Nights. By Nela Rio. Fredericton: Broken Jaw Press, 2003. 68-75.
Hazelton, Hugh. “Eros and Thanatos in the Work of Nela Rio.” Latinocanadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2007. 129-151.
Livermore, Richard. Rev. of Túnel de proa verde / Tunnel of the Green Prow by Nela Rio. New Hope International Review.
Nowlan, Michael O. “The Light That Makes us Tremble Is ‘a Fascinating Presentation of Poems.’” The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, NB] 20 Dec. 2008: C3.
---. “Poetic Voice of a ‘Woman Who Has Been Abducted, Tortured, Humiliated.’” The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, NB] 22 May 2004: B7.
Schurch, Tamara. El árbol y el exilio en la poesía de Nela Rio y Rafael Alberti. MA Thesis. U of Calgary, 2004.
Torres-Recinos, Julio, and Margarita Feliciano, eds. Lumbre y relumbre: Antología selecta de la poesía hispano canadiense. Toronto/Ottawa: Antares/Editorial Lugar Común, 2013.
Torres-Recinos, Julio, and Luis Molina Lora, eds. Cloudburst: An Anthology of Hispanic Canadian Short Stories. Rev. by Hugh Hazelton. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 2013.
---, eds. Retrato de una nube: Primera antología del cuento hispano canadiense. Ottawa: Editorial Lugar Común, 2008.