In June 2001, Humberto Ak’abal gave a memorable reading at the Municipal Library of Carmona as part of the presentation of Palimpsesto No. 16. In this collection, we published the volume Todo tiene habla, a representative anthology of his poems up to that date. Since then, the Guatemalan poet has visited us several times, and has regularly contributed a wide range of poetry and prose to the journal. This interview is the logical result of the close relationship that has grown between us. It is also, in a way, the culmination of the human and literary knowledge of a warm-hearted man, easy to get along with, attentive, and restrained—qualities that comport with the breadth of his gaze and the welcoming spirit of his poetry.
Francisco José Cruz: In “Ausencia recuperada,” a brief and moving autobiographical text included in Todo tiene habla (2000), you confess that your parents’ poverty robbed you of a childhood. At the age of six, you were already helping your father carry firewood. Many of your poems, with a bareness that speaks for itself, display the individual and collective consequences of this situation, such as “Cansancio,” “Sin puertas,” “Sal negra,” “La esclava,” and “Lejanía.” This latter poem reads: “In this little country / everything is far away: // food, / words, / clothing…” What feelings did you harbor at that time, faced with so much hardship? How did you shield yourself from it, and how has it marked the rest of your life?
Humberto Ak’abal: When I was little I was unaware of our poverty. It was normal for things to be mended or broken. When I became a teenager, a youth, I faced our reality. That was difficult, that crash. It hurt me, it did, it hurt me a great deal. Sadly my father had fallen into alcoholism and this meant our situation was even more difficult. I experienced a clash of feelings: frustration, shame, insecurity. But my mother was an example and a bastion of dignity. She instilled within me a love of purpose and incentivized me to look at life with my head held high. Drawing strength from I know not where, I did not seek refuge in bitterness or in envy. I worked the earth beside my father, I was a weaver of blankets made of sheep’s wool, and a laborer. I got used to my economic limitations. After my everyday work, looking to brighten my free time, I set about learning to play the guitar with the help of a weaver friend. Simple chords, nothing complex. There were no music classes in our town, you did everything by ear. That was a great liberation for me. I walked around town with a guitar on my shoulder, singing, serenading and making a few friends. Singing and playing helped me to find self-assurance.
Other than the guitar, books were a strong support system. They came to occupy a central place in my life, helping me to get over my insecurities, step by step. Ever since, I’ve grown accustomed to the simple life. I have no luxuries, my house is modest. I learned that happiness depends neither on poverty nor on abundance.
I remember a time when one of my translators into French, who met me when I was still a laborer, said to me, “You always talk about your poverty, but you look well dressed to me.” There was truth behind this observation because I was working in clothing factories. After starting as a sweeper, I learned to use industrial machines, and finally I became a designer. In the factories, there was always leftover cloth. They would sell these scraps for a token price or give them away. With them, I would design and make my trousers and shirts, and so I was “well dressed,” as my translator would say. The ironic part was that my clothes were made of fine cloth while I was walking around in old shoes without a penny in my pockets. This circumstance meant others did not notice my poverty.
But paradoxes still follow me. Now there are people who think I have a lot of money when they learn I travel to different countries, being invited to read and talk about my poetry. Every time something is said about me in the news, they think I’m getting paid a fortune for it. How hard it is to explain that this is not so. Even a cultural official, some years ago, once asked me, almost shouting, how much money I was receiving from the European community. And some things are even more absurd or ridiculous: one of those ignorant politicians once asked me why I didn’t leave a souvenir for the people, by paving a street, for example; another asked why I didn’t build a theatre… As you can see, it has not been easy for me to walk down these paths. And this is owed largely to the abysmal education we have in my country, and the lack of a reading culture.
F.J.C.: As you say in the text I mentioned earlier, the elders of your community were reluctant to send children to school out of fear of ideological or religious contamination. To keep them from going, they would even hide children away. Your poem “Mi vecino,” with the liveliness of dialogue, expresses a young boy’s sorrow and later joy at attending school—you, incidentally, only went until the age of twelve. How did you contend with this experience at the time, despite the mistrust of your family, whose values were rooted in a culture without writing? Was there some inner conflict or contradiction between inherited knowledge and the knowledge you acquired through official education?
H.A.: At first I was very afraid, but my curiosity to see and hear new things was key at that moment. And, somehow, the sensation of freedom also helped me to overcome my fear and thus maintain my interest in school. In that sense, I had no conflict with myself.
The problem was racism, discrimination, and scorn, because there was clear favoritism towards non-indigenous students. They were almost always placed before us, they were the face of the school, and we “inditos” (as they used to call us with disdainful paternalism) were always sent to the back. This was where I saw the elders were right. It was a difficult experience, discovering the two worlds in a single blow: the world of the indigenous and the world of the non-indigenous. And we could not complain because that would only make things worse. The laws were not in our favor either. And so the elders feared school due to these hard experiences.
Other than that, the modest knowledge I did acquire helped me to shed light on the knowledge I inherited. The valuable part of school, for me, was learning to read and write. That was where my pursuits began. My world expanded, and my readings allowed me to read my own surroundings, to value my roots and not be ashamed of my people, my community, my ancestors. Subconsciously, I wanted to tell the elders that school, apart from its negative aspects regarding our ways of being, could perfectly well be taken advantage of to reinforce our cultural values and to see the spirituality and ideas of our ancestors with new eyes. My formal education ended with elementary school, but my preoccupation with books never ended. I read to understand, but I have often read things I don’t understand. When I find myself faced with these pages, I remind myself that my ignorance was once even greater. I believed in many things I no longer believe in, and I suffer because of it. Some people who know me think I am no longer the person I once was, and they shun me. And, of course, I am not the person I once was in many ways, but at heart I have not changed. I simply see things in a different way these days. Books have shed such light on my path!
F.J.C.: One of the main goals of formal education was to teach the Spanish language to the indigenous population. Your poem “El viejo canto de la sangre,” which opens Las palabras crecen (2009), begins: “I did not nurse on Spanish.” And, later, another verse recognizes that “this language is a memory of pain,” alluding to the ravages of the Spanish conquest. Nonetheless, ever-willing to see the positive side of things—one of the moral qualities of your work—you admit that this imposed language became the key to understanding other worlds. Tell me how you lived through those first steps into learning the language, and the expectations—good and bad—they awoke in you, now that you have mastered Spanish.
H.A.: The language spoken in my home was K’iche’. Other than that, we would speak very rudimentary Spanish in order to communicate with those who did not speak our language. Since we were not educated in Spanish, our speech was limited and our pronunciation was terrible. Many people made fun of us. This was because we do not have certain sounds in the K’iche’ language, such as the sound of the letter “F.” So we could not say “fósforos” (matches). Instead, we would use a similar sound, saying “pósporos.” Likewise, we couldn’t say “final,” and instead we’d say “pinal.” Things like that drew mockery from those who spoke with us.
On this note too, I would emphasize the importance of reading. Reading helped me to distinguish the sounds of one language and the other. And, also, to value both. I came to recognize the riches provided to me by being bilingual. It was a spark, discovering that Spanish pushed me into the future because, through Spanish, I started to discover the world and, at the same time, to reaffirm the value of my K’iche’ language because it is my past, my identity, my permanence, the certainty of my self.
F.J.C.: As we mentioned earlier, at the age of twelve you left school to go work in degrading conditions in Guatemala’s capital city, and from the age of thirteen to twenty, back in Momostenango, you wove sheep’s wool with your father until his death. You then returned to the capital, fleeing from the war. In that environment, so far from literary stimuli, you came to understand, as you write in “Ausencia recuperada,” that “reading is an act of humility.” What did you mean by that?
H.A.: I believe reading is an act of humility because, as you read, you silently embark on a journey into yourself. Step by step, you take the measure of your state of mind. Each phrase, each paragraph that you read and that drives you to reflect is also a way to observe your own consciousness and to enter into a meditative state. It’s like going into a sacred space of seclusion, distant from all your surroundings…
And, thanks to reading, I have taken on general culture. It has helped me to understand and respect other ideas, other ways of seeing and thinking. So I see reading books as taking steps up, higher than myself. It takes effort to reach these steps. What I’m saying is ironic, because books are the most accessible thing in the world. Nevertheless, reaching out to pick them up and read them often requires humility, because it means recognizing your own ignorance.
F.J.C.: You published your first book, El animalero, in 1990, at the age of thirty-eight. Was it hard for you to get it published before then, or was that timing due only to your need to mature in your own characteristic tones and subjects? Along the same lines, how did you come to find these tones and subjects, and when did you realize you were a poet beyond the legacy you had received from the singers and marimbists of your father’s family? Ultimately, what led you to write rather than singing like them?
H.A.: Was it hard? Sure it was… I had to struggle against countless things. One of them was the fact that a man from the provinces, like myself, had the cheek to present himself as a poet in the city, being an “indio” to boot.
I’ll tell you a couple of anecdotes: my late friend, the poet Luis Alfredo Arango, appreciated my work. He suggested that the Department of Letters of the Ministry of Education should publish my first book, and since he suggested it, they said yes. Back then, a young poet who was working in that department was responsible for putting together a collection of Guatemalan poetry. He thought a book of mine might fit into this collection. So they gave him my manuscript. Once they pointed him out to me on the street, since I didn’t know him, and I got the nerve up to say hello and introduce myself as the poetry book’s author. He answered with few words: “Oh, you’re the one who’s getting promo from Maestro Arango, you’re the one who wrote that stuff. Well I’m not putting you in because I’m working with urban poetry and whatever you’re doing is rural…” I remember I asked him, “So where does the urban begin in Guatemala?” That was where that brusque conversation ended. Luis Alfredo was saddened. He told me not to worry, those sorts of things happened often, I had to have patience. Another day he suggested I go to the Diario de Centroamérica, the state newspaper, which was directed by a talented young man, to bring him some of my poems and see if he would include them in their literary supplement. And I went. That talented young man saw me and left me standing at the door for about an hour. Then he said to me, “What do you want?” I told him I was a poet from the provinces and I had brought some of my work to see if they might be able to publish it in their literary supplement, Tzolkin. I showed him my pages on his desk. He looked at them and said to me, “Don’t write bullshit, this isn’t poetry. Don’t waste my time…” I had to wait eight or ten years for the publication of my first book, El animalero.
With regard to the tones of my work, I think I already had them in my blood. My grandfathers were musicians, playing the marimba, and my grandmothers were storytellers. So the rest was a matter of keeping an eye on my surroundings, on our own ways of being, the colors and flavors specific to my people. There was my voice. All I did was take possession of it and lift up my eyes with dignity, because I think the ethics of what you are don’t change. I see no difference between the way I speak and the way I write, I am the same in both.
Why was I not a singer like my grandfathers? There, something happened of which I’m unaware. My grandfathers were musicians who played by ear, and my grandmothers were storytellers, reaching back into their memories. Perhaps learning to write guided me to the pleasure of reading and rereading myself, but this was not a conscious goal. Maybe it was a way to carry on the family tradition, but in a different way. Although I still believe that the sound of my mother tongue is musical.
F.J.C.: In “Una poesía de confluencias,” the preface to Las palabras crecen, you situate yourself in relation to K’iche’ and Spanish and say, “by this point, I have a mixed culture,” to the extent that the two languages “at some time are fused within me, each nourishing the other.” In practical terms, how does this affect you when you write? How do you tackle the task of translating yourself? Do you think of your poems in both languages at once? What advantages does Spanish offer over K’iche’ and vice versa?
H.A.: It’s funny, there are things that come straight to me in Spanish, although I’d say always with a strong foundation in my own cultural surroundings. But there are other things that can only be conceived of in my mother tongue. My subjects and my concerns give me away, and I don’t think either language is superimposed over the other. For me, poetry must be close to the people, to engage in a conversation. In that sense, considering myself entirely bilingual has helped me a great deal.
Since we lack translators of our Maya languages, self-translation is a necessity in order to universalize our thought. One advantage of this is that you can play with your ideas, molding them within the text and willingly betraying yourself. Perhaps the disadvantage of someone else translating you is that the text can take on a different character. At any rate, speaking both languages has given me new possibilities: Spanish allows me to communicate with much of the world, and K’iche’ keeps me close to my people. The most surprising part for me is that, from the K’iche’ language, I can also see the world through other eyes and, from the Spanish language, I can see my own culture through a different gaze. I am a two-headed poet.
F.J.C.: Essayist Carlos Montemayor has pointed out that in the 1990s there emerged simultaneously, but without coordination, a new group of writers in various indigenous languages, publishing in books and journals. Nonetheless, in contrast to this plural flourishing of the ethnic literatures of America, you situate yourself, in your own words, “to one side of the path: independent.” Did you identify at the time with this scene of writers? I also ask this question in view of your pessimism regarding the concept of an “indigenous literature,” whose existence you called into question in an interview with Juan Guillermo Sánchez in 2011. There, you decried the creative stagnation of young writers and their lack of authenticity. Along these lines, how do you see your relationship with poets of other minority languages of the continent?
H.A.: Frankly, I have almost no relationship with them, except that we sometimes meet at poetry festivals where I have the chance to greet my brothers from other Amerindian cultures. Not even with others from Guatemala because, in general, literary encounters take place in the capital, and I live in a rural area. So I don’t know many of them personally. And I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t believe there is an indigenous poetry movement on a continental scale. There are individual efforts, yes: indigenous poets who make their work known independently on community radio programs, in some regional publication or another, or, with great effort, in a book, almost always with a limited print run. And, from what little I know, they have more luck in some countries than in others. Although I must add that social media and electronic forums are being put to use at present.
When it comes to my own assessment, perhaps I’m very bold or very jealous, who can say. But I have often felt that my colleagues are more attuned to political circumstances or social revindications—which I do not oppose—than to matters of poetry. And other times, they limit themselves to translating stories from the oral tradition, which strikes me as more anthropological than poetic. Anyway, I know I’m sending myself to the stake.
In other cases, I’m afraid there is not yet a difference between imitation and influence. It is also very easy to fall into language inversion, that is, writing first in Spanish and then translating into your mother tongue. Then there are those who have lost their mother tongue and, nonetheless, identify with the ethnicity to which they belong. They’ve started to be called “indigenous writers practicing in Spanish.” The thing is, writing in our indigenous languages is our great challenge. In Guatemala, for example, the official language is Spanish. On a regional level, efforts are made to make education bilingual. The state, through the Ministry of Education, supports this idea, but does not provide the necessary materials to support effective bilingualism. So writing creatively in our first languages, except with some worthy exceptions, is frankly an uphill battle.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon