Here Was Paradise | Aquí era el paraíso by Humberto Ak’abal, Illustrations by Amelia Lau Carling

K’iche’ Mayan singer Humberto Ak’abal was one of the world’s foremost Indigenous poets, especially of the Americas, and this bilingual Spanish and English collection— fabulously illustrated by Amelia Lau Carling— opens his poetry to young readers. Born in the village of Momostenango in Guatemala, Humberto was thirty-eight years old before he published his first book of poetry. Originally written in his mother tongue, K’iche’, he then translated his poems to Spanish. A writer of predominantly short poems, Ak’abal was celebrated for the simplicity, or minimalism, of his style. While he wrote twenty-five books during his lifetime (regretfully, he passed suddenly in 2019) few were translated into English, which makes this edition even more significant.

Here Was Paradise is a fine selection of Ak’abal’s poetry offering a unique immersion in his world. Arranged in twelve sections, some being “The Poet and His World”, “Village Mornings”, “Birds”, “Ghosts”, and “500 Years”. It opens contemplatively with:

Birth

We poets are born old:

as the years pass
we turn ever more into children.

There is no word for “poet” in K’iche’, there is only “singer”. The section titled “Birds” includes one of my favourite poems: Cantos de pájaros/Bird Songs. Ak’abal not only captures birdsong particular to Momostenango, but let’s it sing from the page.

Klis, klis, klis…
Ch’ok, ch’ok, ch’ok…
Tz’unun, tz’unun, tz’unun…
B’uqpurix, b’uqpurix, b’uqpurix…
Wiswil, wiswil, wiswil…

The most joyful and wonderous poems capture the Mayan natural world. Stones choose to remain silent, clouds lonely for landscape return from the city to the country, the singer transforms into a jaguar and sticks stars to his fur. Often reflexive and matter of fact, what makes Here Was Paradise a superior read, especially for children, is Ak’abal’s singular perspective and voice. The heart of the singer connects with each reader. Although matter of fact, Ak’abal is deft in how he approaches painful subjects, often preferring a narrative approach, such as in:

When I Was

“When I was pregnant,
expecting you,
I felt a great urge
to eat earth;
I pulled of bits
of adobe
and ate them up!”

My mother’s confession
broke my heart.
I suckled milk of mud,
that’s why my skin
is the color of earth.

An Indigenous and K’iche’ activist, Ak’abal refused to translate K’iche’ names, words or onomatopoeia. His poetry is known for directly addressing colonization’s lasting oppression and poverty, especially in “500 Years” and the collection’s titular poem:

Paradise

Here was paradise

Corn, wheat, beans, 
there was no forbidden fruit,
the snakes were mute.

Je’lik ch’umil and Kowilaj che’
made love on the grass
and covered themselves with sky.

Until the serpents
spoke,

forbade the fruit
and divided paradise
among themselves.

Here Was Paradise is the kind of poetry collection that will alter a young reader in the profound way that only fine books can. Undoubtably, Humberto Ak’abal’s poetry will spark a strong love of poetry, interest in more Indigenous voices, and activism towards equality. Here Was Paradise can only grow in appreciation with each re-reading.


HUMBERTO AK’ABAL was born in the Maya K’iche’ village Momostenango in Guatemala in 1952. He worked as a blanket weaver (one of the activities for which Momostenango is renowned,) a shepherd, a sweeper, then a garment maker in a maquila in Guatemala City. When he was thirty-eight, he published his first book of poetry. Ak’abal is famous worldwide as one of the great contemporary poets in the Spanish language, and one of the greatest Indigenous poets of the Americas, having written over twenty-five books. 

He died in January 2019, leaving his widow, Mayulí Bieri, and son Nakil Ak’abal Bieri.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Groundwood Books; Bilingual edition (Aug. 1 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 172 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773064959
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773064956

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KAYLA GEITZLER, MA, is from Moncton, within Siknikt of the Mi’kma’ki. “A Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry” & Attic Owl Reading Series host, she was Moncton’s first Anglophone Poet Laureate. Her first poetry collection was a finalist for two awards. Kayla is co-editor of the multilingual anthology Cadence Voix Feminines Female Voices. She was a technical editor on pipeline projects & designed ATC courseware. As an editor, writing consultant & instructor, Kayla's affordable expertise helps writers & organizations achieve success.