Stories Are All We Are

Paul Worley on Humberto Ak’abal

To quote the writer of mixed Cherokee, Greek, and German descent Thomas King, “stories are all we are,” and it is no exaggeration to say that the story of K’iche’ Maya poet Humberto Ak’abal’s sudden passing on January 28, 2019 was felt throughout the Americas. Few writers in the Western Hemisphere are held in higher regard for their poetic talents and style than Ak’abal. After his poetic career began in 1990 with the publication of El animalero (translated into English by Miguel Rivera as The Animal Gathering in 2008), Ak’abal quickly rose to international acclaim as one of contemporary literature’s most important Indigenous voices. His recent passing was immediately mourned by luminaries such as the Wayuu poet Vito Apüshana (aka Miguel Ángel López), and his loss continues to reverberate as poets, readers, and scholars prepare to attend this year’s Guatemalan International Book Fair, which organizers had originally planned to hold with Ak’abal as a guest of honor. His death no doubt means the celebration will take on a much more somber tone. In other words, although Ak’abal is no longer with us, in many ways his story will continue.

Ak’abal was born in the town of Momostenango, Totonicapán in 1952, two years before a CIA-backed coup would overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected government and eventually plunge the country into a decades-long civil war in which Maya peoples were the targets of military violence. The poet’s upbringing hardly presaged a literary career, much less that he would become perhaps the most translated and most anthologized Maya writer of the 20th century. As Gloria Chacón writes of his early life, he ceased formal schooling as an adolescent, working as both a weaver and a shepherd in his hometown before migrating to Guatemala City to look for better compensated work. Despite the cosmopolitan tone struck by works like his Gaviota y sueño: Venezia es un barco de piedra (2000; Seagulls and Dreams: Venice is a Stone Boat), pastoral scenes and aspects of Maya cosmology associated with people, places, and things drawn from his hometown remained a constant throughout his career. Indeed, perhaps more so than any other Maya writer of his generation, he deftly moved between overlapping worlds and identities. Poetically, he oscillated between K’iche’ and Spanish, at times publishing monolingually in one of those languages, at others bilingually in both, and, as outlined below, experimenting with untranslatable onomatopoeic sounds and expressions. He celebrated and dignified the everyday, but never failed to cast an unflinching gaze on the poverty and discrimination faced by Maya peoples in Guatemala in both his poetic work and his public life. And despite the larger-than-life persona he achieved, in poetry and in person he was self-deprecating and funny.

That said, it would be remiss not to mention the profound impact that racism had on Ak’abal’s life and career. On a professional level, most of his work was written in Spanish due to the fact that, like most Indigenous poets of his generation throughout the Americas, learning to read or write in his mother tongue, K’iche’, was never part of his formal schooling. Even so, early in his career Ak’abal showed a commitment to writing and publishing in both languages. For example, although I’ve been unable to locate a first edition of El animalero, to see which languages it was published in, one of its poems, “El Clarinero” (“Bluejay”) appeared in a bilingual K’iche’/Spanish format in the literary magazine Abrapalabra in 1993. That same year Ak’abal’s award-winning Guardian de la caída del Agua (Guardian of the Waterfall) came out in monolingual Spanish. Of course, regardless of the poet’s intentions or linguistic activism the realities of Indigenous-language publishing limit the size and scope of Indigenous-language texts. On the one hand, larger publishers with the means to publish bilingually see bilingual texts as having a limited audience. On the other, smaller, more activist presses that do publish bilingually do so in small print runs and with limited access to national and international distribution networks. Underscoring these points, Ak’abal’s fully bilingual Ajkem tzij/Tejedor de palabras (1996; Weaver of Words), is over 500 pages long and was published by one of Guatemala’s leading publishers of Maya literature, Cholsamaj. WorldCat lists a scant 45 copies in libraries around the globe and, despite the fact I am supposedly an expert in the field who would gladly purchase a copy if I could find one, my “copy” is a pdf file.

Despite the fact that a lot of his work reads as less political than that of younger writers such as Kaqchikel poet Rosa Chavéz or K’iche’ author Manuel Tzoc, Ak’abal’s approach demonstrates a profound awareness of his time and the larger framework of the racist society in which he wrote. Ak’abal not only filled his work with untranslated words from K’iche’ and made Maya cultural references that require his readers to engage Guatemala as a plurilingual and pluriethnic space, but also wore traditional Maya woven garments as a way to defy representations of what and who a Guatemalan literary figure could be. The most telling example of this awareness is perhaps his famous (though in Guatemala more infamous than famous) 2004 refusal to accept Guatemala’s highest literary honor, the Premio nacional de literatura ‘Miguel Ángel Asturias,’ a prize named for Guatemala’s first Nobel Laureate and its foremost literary figure. Despite the prestige of the award, Ak’abal found that he could not accept an award named for Asturias, who had written a Master’s thesis entitled, “El problem social del Indio” (“The Indian Problem”). When asked about this in an interview with BBC Mundo, he stated that, “Among other things, in his thesis he says a number of offensive things about Indigenous peoples in Guatemala. He describes us in derogatory and pejorative terms, like calling us a race of people whose time has passed. Since the prize bears his name, for me receiving it isn’t an honor because I am from the people he denigrated.”

I have always found Ak’abal’s work compelling for its intensity of language, its inversions and turns of phrase, and, like many others, his innovative use of onomatopoeia. Take, for example, the short lines of the bilingual poem “Naj/Lejanía”:

Everything is far away
in such a tiny country:


In the tradition of poets like the Peruvian Cesar Vallejo, here Ak’abal uses unthreatening, everyday words whose juxtaposition increases the tension within the poem. Geographic distance belies economic distance, foreclosing any future that would otherwise be implied by the ellipsis on which the poem ends. Perhaps not unrelated to the Andean concept of pachakuti or “world upside down,” such inversions often serve to challenge what outsiders know or think they know about Indigenous peoples and cultures. For instance, the poem “The Mecapal” (literally a tumpline worn across the forehead that is attached to a load on one’s back) upends romantic notions of the Indigenous laborer carrying a load on her/his back within the space of a few short words.
The Mecapal            

For Us           
for Us          

heaven ends        
where the mecapal        
On the one hand, the mecapal becomes synecdoche for a host of racist, abusive labor practices throughout the hemisphere. On the other, it speaks to how existing Indigenous systems of labor, culture, and knowledge have been co-opted under colonialism, with autochthonous elements like the mecapal, which takes its name from Náhuatl, becoming themselves sites of oppression. Moreover, note that the poet does not name what, exactly, begins with the mecapal, only that heaven ends there. Of course, this opens up an expansive notion of heaven and pleasure that exists beyond colonial burdens, while simultaneously pushing the reader to acknowledge colonialism’s harsh limitations.

Finally, any mention of Ak’abal’s work would be woefully incomplete without a foray into his innovative approach to onomatopoeia, something better explained or witnessed than represented. At last March’s 2018 Continental Intercultural Gathering of Amerindian Literatures (EILA) in Bogotá, Colombia, I saw him read several poems consisting entirely of bird names in K’iche’, names that, when repeated aloud, mimic an actual sound associated with a particular bird. “Ts’unun” or “Hummingbird,” for example, both designates that bird and approximates the sound a hummingbird makes as it flies back and forth. These can be experienced through this recording of his “Bird Song” cycle here. I was also fortunate enough to hear another of his earlier and most famous poems, “Xalolilo lelele” (from El animalero) when a number of EILA attendees went on a hike to the sacred lake of Guatavita. With the Yanakuna poet Fredy Chicangana playing the flute, Ak’abal’s poem of sounds echoed across the water and the mountains, sounds mixing with sounds in the rain, a sound-image that I will always have of him and of that moment.

Humberto Ak’abal the person was every bit the nuanced work that the author’s own oeuvre can be said to be: at turns warm, open, friendly, generous, quick-witted and sharp-tongued. Above all else, despite being universally acknowledged by scholars, critics, and many of his fellow poets as one of the 20th and 21st century’s foremost Indigenous writers, Ak’abal was humble and generous with his time. When I approached him about submitting work for a translation project, he sent in several poems on the condition that, should there be space limitations, I reduce the number of his poems included instead of cutting the work of other poets. In terms of performance, his legacy lives on in the multimedia, stylized performances of the aforementioned Maya poets Rosa Chávez and Manuel Tzoc, as well as in the Tsotsil poet Xun Betan, and the Yucatec writer Sol Ceh Moo. Thematically, Yucatec poets like Donny Brito continue to demonstrate the relevance of Maya ways of knowing through their writing, and support he showed to younger writers like the Broran writer Jarol Segura will no doubt be passed down to the next generation of Indigenous writers.

Since “stories are all we are,” I’d like to close with my own story of meeting Ak’abal. After several days in Bogotá several EILA participants and I were in a van on our way to participate in additional events in the Guajira, when Ak’abal showed us a cellphone picture that someone had taken of him, and that he really liked. When it came to me I jokingly said, “Of course it looks great! It’s also the first time the whole trip I’ve seen you without a beer,” to which he laughingly replied, “You ingrate! Who are you to say something like that?” For the rest of the trip he not only recounted this story every time the two of us sat down with someone who hadn’t already heard it, but he also referred to me as “ese ingrato,” or “that ingrate” up until the moment we parted ways in Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport, he heading for Guatemala and I back to Mexico. We had discussed potential future collaborations, including getting together at Guatemala’s 2019 International Book Fair. We may have also discussed drinking a few more beers. And while I am grateful for having met him, my takeaway from briefly knowing Humberto Ak’abal is that we are likely never quite grateful enough for the people in our lives. Perhaps part of the human condition is that the kindnesses we receive can never fully be returned. Ak’abal gave me a story that still makes me laugh, and the best I can do is to share it with you. We are, forever and always, “ingratos,” and the true genius of a poet like Ak’abal is that, despite having given us so much, he left us wanting more. U láak k’íin, kaambesaj.