Tell tales

JAN Telling and Being Told COVERTelling and Being Told: Storytelling and Cultural Control in Contemporary Yucatec Maya Literatures
Paul M Worley
2013, University of Arizona Press
216 pages, hardback

THIS unassuming but important book makes a compelling case for the inclusion of oral literature within the mainstream literary studies canon. In a work that has implications far beyond the Yucatec Maya culture on which it focuses, Paul Worley argues that Western models of literary analysis must dispense with their prejudice against the oral tradition and address Mayan and other indigenous literatures on their own terms. Those terms were largely oral prior to the arrival of the Spanish, but not wholly so – and it was only the damaging impact of Conquest when Europeans consciously set out to destroy indigenous writing systems and archives that this became one of the principal means of disseminating traditional and cultural knowledge over the next 500 years through the key role of the storyteller. It is this character – a symbol of cultural survival through performance and the spoken word – that remains the vital, contemporary link with the Mayan literary canon. The author analyses the storyteller as the embodiment of indigenous knowledge and pays significant attention to the way in which storytellers place the past in a dynamic relationship with the present. He insists that by limiting the field of literary studies to written texts, critics of the oral tradition ignore a key aspect of Latin American history and its influence upon the literary tradition itself. This argument should have resonance in the study of literary cultures far from the Yucatán Peninsula where the storyteller has played a, frankly, heroic role in resisting colonial subjugation, such as Ireland, where storytelling persists as a living reminder of the rich contribution indigenous literature can make in a broader sense to the dominant lingua franca.