Rigoberta Menchú Tum is telling the stories of her Mayan girlhood in The Girl from Chimel.

Groundwood - House of Anansi, 2005

(So it turns out that you can discover a Nobel Peace Prize winner by reading a storybook, by dabbling in the backlist of a favourite indie press.)

Although born into poverty in a northern Guatemalan province, Rigoberta Menchú Tum has many delightful stories to tell about her early years. (She was born in 1959, won the Peace Prize in 1992.)

With the assistance of Dante Liano, and the illustrations of Domi, she begins with the story of her Grandfather’s founding of the village in which she was born.

“‘This is it,’ Grandfather said. ‘This is the place where I’m going to build a village of one hundred houses and one hundred cornfields, for one hundred families from the four corners of the universe — the red, yellow, black, and white.'”

The rhythmic prose, the declarative tone, the evocative characterizations: these elements combine to create a broader understanding of a world than it seems that this slim volume could possibly contain.

With only a few pages, Grandfather takes shape. “He seemed timeless.” As do the stories. And, yet, her grandfather is only a place to begin.

“My grandfather founded this village, and in this village I was born. I, whose name is Rigoberta.”

For Rigoberta is at the heart of these stories, though they are the stories of not just one girl but the stories of a people as well.

“Since all people are alike, Maya tales are similar to those of the Spaniards.”

But these stories embody contradictions, echoed in the overarching reality that this impoverished girlhood could yield so many beautiful memories.

“Since all people are different, the stories of the Spaniards are different from those of the Maya.”

This question of similarities and differences is not left unexplained, however.

“For example, the Spaniard believe that there’s a place called hell where the devil lives. The Maya believe in Xib’ab’a, which is a place where the evil lords live.”

The Girl from Chimel takes the opportunity to explain aspects of the Mayan worldview as rooted in story.

Sometimes statements are made with the tone of simple truth.

“We live together with nature — inside nature. We are part of its energy, its force, and we need to invoke its spirit. We can’t live fighting nature.”

But more often than not, there is additional information offered, in the same authoritative inviting tone which presents stories of mushroom-hunting and bees that fly away in unexpected directions.

“When we are born, a little creature is born with us. This creature is just like us. If we sneeze, it sneezes as well, in the forest where it lives. If we sing, it also sings, in its animal language. If we hurt our finger, it will injure a foot, no matter where it is. What happens to us will happen to it. What happens to it happens to us. Sometimes that creature is wiser than we are.”

This is one’s nahual, “its shadow, its double” as Grandfather explained.

“The earth, the tree and the mountain all have their own spirits. The earth has its nahual, the rocks have their nahuales, the mountains have theirs, our ancestors have theirs, all people have nahuales — the sun, the animals, the winds and the air have nahuales.”

And so, in the context of story, the idea of living with nature is explained, even while Grandfather’s wrinkles “resembled a furrowed cornfield about to be planted” and two boys waiting for night to come were “yawning the way caged circus lions roar”.

As these brief glimpses into the prose reveal, the language is simple but filled with sensory detail, which adds to the sense that these stories are both familiar and strange.

Whether two pages long, or one of the longer stories (in the companion volumes, The Honey Pot and The Secret Legacy, also illustrated by Domi and translated by David Unger). these are sumptuous tales designed to reach readers of all ages.

Project Notes:
Day 10 of 45: I wanted to read every one of the books listed under Mayan Studies and  Latino Culture. (That’s right: this publisher has a section for each. Yes, they publish Giller-Prize nominees too. What breadth.) But that could be its own project. As it is, this volume wraps up my first theme for this reading project, the Lives of Girls and Women.

Tomorrow? Another theme, another book in my HOA45.