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  • Telling and Being Told: Storytelling and Cultural Control in Contemporary Yucatec Maya Literatures by Paul M. Worley
  • Christine A. Kray
Telling and Being Told: Storytelling and Cultural Control in Contemporary Yucatec Maya Literatures. By Paul M. Worley. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013. Pp. xii + 198, list of illustrations, acknowledgments, 3 appendices, references, index, 2 maps, 1 photograph.)

Paul Worley’s Telling and Being Told employs a comparative literature perspective in analyzing a selection of oral and written Yucatec Maya stories (and one poem) from the mid-nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. Worley’s focus is on control of the text. He asserts that Maya tales are a way in which storytellers assert cultural control and create masterful interpretations of the present through drawing upon tradition. Rather than being relics from the past, the tales are very much of the present and modernity, offering fresh interpretations and critical insights into the non-storied world. However, cultural brokers who have recorded or compiled these texts have often silenced the interpretive creativity of the storytellers through editing and reframing. In recent decades, researchers have allowed the agency of Maya storytellers to shine through in ways that reclaim a space for the Maya within modernity.

In chapter 1, Worley argues that indigenous oral stories generally are not studied as “literature,” but should be. He faults the orality-literacy binary, noting that “literature” is a label typically reserved for written texts, and more so, for texts written in dominant national languages, not indigenous ones. He argues that Maya oral stories should be studied as “literature” because when they are not, they are studied as “folklore,” which, in his view, relegates them to a subaltern position in a global cultural hierarchy. He further indicates that “folklore” implies that they are merely repetitions from out of the past, always and inevitably quaint and anachronistic. He suggests that since Spanish colonists suppressed glyphic writing systems and destroyed pre-Hispanic texts, oral storytelling stepped in as a mechanism for the transmission of indigenous knowledge, rendering urgent the serious study of Maya tales as literature. He notes that the Maya term that best characterizes oral storytelling is tsikbal (conversation), which implies dialogue, in that a tale well told requires both a skilled storyteller and also an audience that knows how to reply properly. Because of this, elements of the oral performance are necessarily stripped away when the story is reduced to print. He discusses various ongoing efforts to study Maya literatures (oral and written) throughout southern Mexico and Central America.

In chapter 2, Worley demonstrates how Yucatec Maya stories are a battleground for cultural control, as Maya storytellers and their author-narrators (those who record, transcribe, or compile the stories) may have radically different interpretations of the relationship between a story and the non-storied world. He demonstrates this through a comparison of four versions of “The Dwarf of Uxmal.” In the two stories recorded in the 1840s, the author-narrators depict the storyteller as “a radically other, anonymous Indian . . . [intending us to] interpret the story itself as a ruin” (p. 43), that is, belonging to a past that is lost and that is mechanically repeated by this passive storyteller. Then, Worley examines two renderings by storytellers Luis Gonzaga and Humberto Bonilla Caamal in Santa Elena, Yucatán, as they participated in the ongoing Tsikbal ich maya (Maya Dialogues) project, which involves several researchers and community members ( The tale incorporates cultural elements that signal political legitimacy (such as Zuyaa t’aan, which is esoteric knowledge encoded in riddles, and certain musical instruments), which were also seen in early colonial period texts (including the K’iche’ Popol wuj and the Yucatec Books of Chilam Balam). “The Dwarf of Uxmal” [End Page 223] is revealed as an allegory that indicates that despite their current subaltern status, the special cultural knowledge of the Maya will allow them to rise up and justly regain political control.

Worley examines a shift in how cultural brokers recorded and framed Maya oral stories over the twentieth century in chapter 3. First, as part of the indigenista movement of the early to mid-twentieth century, author-narrators sought to affect...


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