Kirmen Uribe is a Basque writer, who was born into a fishing family in Ondarroa (Biscay) on October 5, 1970. He studied Basque Philology at the University of the Basque Country–Gasteiz, and did his graduate studies in Comparative Literature in Trento, Italy. He won his first literary award, in 1995, when he was in prison for resisting the military draft (since he didn’t care to participate in the then-obligatory service); this was the Becerro de Bengoa Prize, for his book-length essay in collaboration with Jon Elordi, Lizardi and Eroticism.
In October of 2009 he was awarded the Spanish Literature Prize, for his novel Bilbao–New York–Bilbao. For the same work he had received the 2008 Critics’ Prize for a novel written in Basque.
Poetry and Multimedia
The critic Jon Kortazar has said that the appearance of Kirmen Uribe’s poetry collection Bitartean heldu eskutik (Meanwhile Take My Hand), published by Susa in 2001, was a “peaceful revolution” in the world of Basque literature. It received the Critics Prize for poetry written in Basque, and its first edition sold out within a month. The book has since been translated into Spanish (Visor, 2003), French (Castor Astral, 2006), English (Graywolf, 2007), Catalan (Proa, 2010) and Russian (Издательство Герника, 2011). The U.S.-born writer Elizabeth Macklin translated it into English directly from Basque, and this would be the first time a book translated directly from Basque was published by a commercial press in the United States of America. Meanwhile Take My Hand was a finalist for the 2008 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, which recognizes the best book of poetry in translation published in the United States in the previous year.
Uribe has taken part in a number of onstage performances combining literature with other arts. In 2000, with musician Mikel Urdangarin and filmmaker Josu Eizagirre, he began work on Bar Puerto, which united poetry, music, video and oral history onstage, to recount the life experiences of the residents of an old neighborhood that was torn down to build a highway in Uribe’s home town. In the fall of 2003, in collaboration with musicians Urdangarin, Bingen Mendizabal and Rafa Rueda and artist Mikel Valverde, Uribe published the CD-book Zaharregia, txikiegia agian (Too Old, Too Small, Maybe; Gaztelupeko Hotsak), which was the outcome of a half dozen readings-with-music the group had done in New York earlier that year; the question in its title refers to the Basque language, whether our language might not be too old and too small for our globalized times.
The filmmaker Arkaitz Basterra based his documentary Agian (Maybe) on the group’s work together; the film had its première at the 2006 San Sebastian Film Festival. When the French translation of Bitartean heldu eskutik appeared, that same year, Uribe worked in collaboration with the Bordeaux-born playwright François Mouget on the performance piece Entre-temps donne moi la main.
Books for Young People
Kirmen Uribe has published a number of books for children and young adults as well. The best-known are the humorous adventures of Garmendia, a Basque who in the nineteenth century goes to America to work as a sheepherder and ends up a gunslinger. So far he has appeared in three little books: Garmendia and the Black Rider (Elkar, 2003), Garmendia the King (Elkar, 2004) and Garmendia and Fanny’s Secret (Elkar, 2006). Garmendia the King won the New Book prize, thanks to the voting of the young people in Basque secondary schools.
For younger children Uribe has written the books Guti (Elkar, 2005), the story of a fishermen’s dog who is left without a boat, and I’m Not Blond—So What? (Elkar, 2004), which recounts the anxieties of a little Moroccan girl named Amira, who has trouble making friends in her new home in the Basque Country. For the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Kukubiltxo theatre group, Uribe adapted Mikel Zarate’s children’s story Ekidazu for the stage, and Kukubiltxo performed it in 2002, with the musical collaboration of Oskorri.
On the International Scene
Kirmen Uribe has participated in a number of international literary festivals, among them New York’s PEN World Voices Festival, the Berlin international poetry festival, the Taipei international poetry festival, the Manchester (England) literature festival, the Bordeaux ‘¡Mira!’ festival, the Vilenica (Slovenia) international festival (twice) and the Havana (Cuba) international poetry festival. He has given lectures and led seminars at a number of internationally known universities, among them Stanford, Brown, New York University, City University of New York, California Institute of the Arts, University of California-San Diego, Taipei’s Fu-Jen Catholic University, UNAM and Iberoamericana in Mexico City, the National University in Lima, and the University of Warsaw.
His poems have appeared in renowned periodicals and international anthologies. In May of 2003 The New Yorker magazine published his poem “May.” Since then his work has appeared in other U.S. journals as well. In 2006, the Berlin online magazine Lyrikline published a selection of ten of his poems in German translation; it was the first time that journal of international poetry had ever published work by a Basque writer. In 2008, the American literary critics Kevin Prufer and Wayne Millar included three of Uribe’s poems in their New European Poets anthology. The Harvard Book Review has said of him, “Uribe’s voice speaks across cultures…. His poems may be rooted [in the Basque Country], but they bloom outwards.”
In 2008 Uribe published his first novel, Bilbao–New York–Bilbao (Elkar). The book sparked great curiosity. It received the Critics Prize and the Spanish Literature Prize for Narrative. In early 2010 it was brought out simultaneously in Spanish (Seix-Barral), Galician (Xerais) and Catalan (Edicions 62). The novel Bilbao–New York–Bilbao is set on a hypothetical flight that its narrator, one Kirmen Uribe, takes from Bilbao’s Loiu Airport to New York’s J.F.K. On the flight the writer contemplates his supposed novel-in-progress, which is about three generations of a family, his own, whose life is bound up with the sea. Bilbao–New York–Bilbao is a novel with no conventional plot to speak of. Its structure is that of a net, and the knots of the net are the stories of the three generations as they intersect with crosswise stories and reflections on the twentieth century as it was experienced in the Basque Country. An essay by the author on the novel and novel-writing appears on the website of the Center for Fiction.