Thoughts on Maya Literature or (is it Maya ts’íib?)

In preparation for my talk at LASA 2014 (Friday, March 23 at 2 PM!), I’ve begun to struggle a bit more in earnest with the ideas I originally laid out in my abstract, namely what are the implications of addressing non-Western verbal arts within the confines of Western categories? The categories that will be under consideration in the talk are “literature” and “ts’íib.” While the former needs no introduction (maybe), the latter is often, and problematically, translated as “literature” or “writing.” In the talk I plan on arguing that these translations of “ts’íib” elide important Maya conceptualizations of what we may broadly consider to be non-Western literary possibilities.

My point of entry for the talk will not be a literary text as such but rather an example of Maya ts’íib.

Monkey Scribe Vase

Monkey Scribe Vase

This particular vase was shown to me by a good friend who said that someone had brought it to him. It depicts the well-known image of the Maya monkey-scribes/gods who make their first appearance as the ill-fated older brothers of the Hero Twins in the K’iche’ Maya Popol wuj.  The vase itself has similar, though not identical, depictions of the monkey scribe on both sides, and both appearing to be reading aloud, pointing with their right hands at the codices held in their left.

Instead of proposing a definitive interpretation or reading of this vase, I plan on exploring the questions and challenges the vase poses to us as readers of Western, Latin script whose textual experiences cannot help but privilege this very particular tradition. What follows are my preliminary thoughts.

  1. We have no trouble seeing ts’íib as “writing” represented in the codices held by the monkey scribes. But what of the vase itself, as ts’iib includes concepts like line and painting? That is, the vase is also an example of ts’íib, though one that falls outside of what we consider “writing.”
  2. To what extent is the vase a metatext about reading/writing? By engaging with the vase qua text, the reader essentially imitates the monkey scribes in their acts of reading.
  3. The doubling on the vase itself typifies the double-life of many contemporary indigenous texts insofar as these “require” translations in order to be intelligible to non-indigenous audience. How is this problematic, and to what extent, intentionally or not, do the imperfections and differences between translations and “original” texts complicate non-indigenous approaches to these literatures?
  4. Finally, how does this sense of doubling counter constructions of there even being an “original” text? When I first saw this vase I had  feeling I had seen it somewhere before, and I eventually found the source, Kerr 1225. Is the vase in my friend’s house a “fake,” a “reproduction,” or perhaps something far more troubling, an “authentic” vase that is nonetheless the double of another that circulates as being “the” vase within the knowledge structures of the Western academy? What does this challenge our notions of authenticity, originality, and authorship as we approach pre-colonial, colonial, and contemporary texts that openly proclaim they are the work of a multiple and/or collective authors?
Kerr 1225

Kerr 1225



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