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Alan Durston

SSHRC Aurora Prize

SSHRC Aurora Prize: Alan Durston  

“My research explores questions around bilingualism and language revitalization that are prominent in Peru and also here in Canada.”

When SSHRC Aurora Prize winner Alan Durston came to Canada in 2007, he had little idea that his research was so Canadian.

Raised in Chile, Durston has studied the history of the Andean region for more than 20 years—first, as a student in the United Kingdom, the United States and Chile, and later as a visiting professor at several US universities. Now a professor of history at York University, Durston is recognized worldwide as an expert on the written history of Quechua—Peru’s main indigenous language.

His current research looks at a boom in Quechua writing that occurred between 1900 and 1975. During this period, Quechua literature moved beyond religious texts written by missionaries to include plays, poetry, political propaganda and journalism. It was part of an effort by Peru’s elites to construct a Peruvian national identity and literature.

“It is a history of language policy . . . of efforts to promote marginalized languages and to make Peru a bilingual country,” he explains. “I assumed most people would find it too remote and specialized, but I found a number of my colleagues in Canadian history are studying similar topics.”

Durston believes the Canadian example may be useful to Peru, since efforts to make Peru bilingual have largely failed. He says that, while Quechua is the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Western Hemisphere, its numbers are shrinking.

“I want to rediscover these efforts from 50 or 100 years ago and show their relevance to what is happening today,” Durston says. “I believe that current language revitalization projects in Peru could benefit from my research by learning from past experiences. Many people are not aware that these texts even exist.”

As part of his Aurora Prize-winning project, Durston will write a book that will be published in both English and Spanish. He also hopes to develop an online archive that will make important Quechua texts available to the general public.

“Right now, speakers assume that there aren’t many texts available in Quechua, and, as a result, there is not a lot of reading and writing going on,” says Durston. “I hope my research will stimulate interest in reading Quechua, and promote appreciation for the language.”

The SSHRC Aurora Prize is awarded annually to an outstanding new researcher who is building a reputation for exciting and original research in the social sciences or humanities.