Humberto Ak'abal
(Guatemala, 1952)   
Humberto Ak'abal

Humberto Ak’abal is a Guatemalan poet. He was born in Momostenango, in Quetzaltenango province. He is regarded by his countrymen as being the main ‘literary event’ of recent years.

Ak’abal holds a special position because he writes in his own Mayan language, Mayaquiché, in a country which has a tradition of repressing, rather than applauding, its indigenous population.

Between 1993 and 2001, Ak’abal has published numerous bilingual poetry collections, including: Ajyuq’- El Animalero (the animal keeper), his first; Guardián de la caída de agua (Guardian of the waterfall) 1993; Hojas del árbol pajarero (leaves on the bird tree) 1995; Ajkem tzij - Tejedor de palabras (weaver of words) 1996; Saqirisanik - Cielo Amarillo (yellow sky), published in 2000 in Spain; and Aqjtzij, Palabramiel (honey word), his latest collection, published in 2001.

Translations of Ak’abal’s work have appeared in France, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Italy and Denmark, and his poems have been included in several anthologies.

In 1993 he received the Quetzal de Oro from the Guatemalan Association of Journalists. In 1997 he was awarded the Swiss Blaise Cendrars prize, and in 1998 the Premio Continental Canto de América, from Unesco in Mexico.

Mayaquiché is the language of a people whose culture dates back to long before the Christian era. Ak’abal describes it as ‘a poetic, guttural language, rich in onomatopoeas’. In his work, trees, leaves, animals and things have the gift of speech. ‘The trees grow / without thinking of the axe.’ The Quiché language has no word for poet; he is called ‘singer’.

Ak’abal did not heed his grandfather’s warning not to touch any books (‘Books can make you lose your mind’), becoming a poet instead. He left his village, where he had earned a living as a shepherd and weaver, to try his luck as a street vendor and porter in the market place of Guatemala City. In the 1980s he began to write in Quiché. He translated his own poems into Spanish, but it was not until 1993 that he found a publisher willing to print his work. He has since returned to his village, where he now devotes himself exclusively to writing.

© Mariolein Sabarte Belacortu (Translated by Ko Kooman)

[Humberto Ak'abal took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 2002. This text was written on that occasion.]


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