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I did not have a great time in Guatemala, that much is true and will continue to be mined for anecdotal gold well into the foreseeable future. However, the one distinct positive of my trip south of the Mexican border was that it allowed me some alone time with the solitary book I’d taken with me on the trip, plonked on a hostel sofa consuming far more coffee than was either healthy or necessary for my stationary self. Let’s just say it was quite nice to settle down with nothing but a book and crushing thoughts of existential dread for company.
Even so, while Guatemala gave me time to read and reflect, I wish I’d done a bit more of both before I took the plunge and travelled there. At least that way I would have had a better grasp on the social, political and historical context of the world I was stepping into.
So, with that in mind, I’ve put together a Guatemala reading list with both (selfishly) myself in mind and (philanthropically) you guys too. First, I rounded up the most commonly recommended books on Guatemala, then I hunted down some lesser spotted titles, and finally I cut all the ones that seemed like overly dry, overly dull history texts (I’m sorry, but that meant both Historia de Guatemala, the Popul Vuh and La Patria del Criollo: An Interpretation of Colonial Guatemala had to go). Et voila! What you’re left with is this curated guide to the must-read books about Guatemala and Guatemalan history, all of which are on my ever-growing To Read list.
MUST-READ BOOKS ABOUT GUATEMALA
THE GUATEMALA READER BY VARIOUS
As with my Mexico must-read books post, I’m kicking off this list with a compiled collection of stories that will give even the most novice reader a brief insight into the Guatemalan way of life, history and culture. What’s apparently really cool about The Guatemala Reader is that everything from art to jokes to short stories are contained within too. Let’s just say it’s already on my Wish List.
MEN OF MAIZE BY MIGUEL ÁNGEL ASTURIAS
Poet, playwright, journalist, diplomat—Miguel Ángel Asturias had fingers in many pies, but perhaps one of his greatest legacies was his well-known, well-translated and loosely magical realist text Hombres de Maíz (Men of Maize). With a title that comes from a Mayan belief referenced in the Popul Vuh, Asturias’ trademark recognition, appreciation and use of Guatemalan indigenous history is clear from the get go.
I, RIGOBERTA MENCHU BY RIGOBERTA MENCHU
Ehh, take I, Rigoberta Menchu with a pinch of salt. While this supposedly autobiographical tale undoubtedly contributed to Rigoberta Menchu’s rise to activist fame and eventual winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, it was proven to be, in large parts, false.
That’s not to say that these atrocities didn’t happen during Guatemala’s horrific civil war, but they certainly didn’t all happen to Rigoberta and her family. Having said that, it makes for a must (if lengthy) read.
BITTER FRUIT BY STEPHEN SCHLESINGER AND STEPHEN KINZER
This was a title that cropped up time and again when I was researching the best books about Guatemalan history. Telling the story of the US coup of Guatemala in the 50s, Bitter Fruit focuses on a little-known snippet of Guatemalan and US history, showing just how much the US loves to meddle and muck up politics outside of their own. What’s new?
But seriously, if you want to know why the Guatemalan civil war began and who and how it was put in motion, this is the book to read.
Alternatively, check out another text which considers the inextricable and destructive US-Guatemala link during the 1940s and 50s—Shattered Hope by Pietro Gleijeses.
GUATEMALA: ETERNAL SPRING, ETERNAL TYRANNY BY JEAN-MARIE SIMON
Prefer looking at pictures to reading? You’re in luck. Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny is the definitive collection of Guatemalan civil war photojournalism. Sure, that means the subject matter is often uncomfortable or unpleasant, but it also means it’s extremely powerful too.
SENSELESSNESS BY HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA
The English-language translation of Insensatez, Senselessness, may centre around Guatemala (even though it’s never made explicit) but the author is a Honduran-born El Salvadoran. Even so, Senselessness and its themes of censorship, sex and the Catholic church (you’re intrigued already, right?), combined with the ‘poetically’ brutal atrocities of the civil war, makes for a fascinating read. I mean, I imagine it does. This book is still on my To Read list.
OTHER WORKS BY HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA: Tyrant Memory
RED MIDNIGHT BY BEN MIKAELSEN
Bolivian-American author Ben Mikaelsen is no stranger to writing about Guatemala, but his seventh novel Red Midnight is often considered the best introduction to both the country and his work.
OTHER WORKS BY BEN MIKAELSEN: Tree Girl
LAS FLORES BY DENISE PHÉ-FUNCHAL
Praised for, rather aptly, a way with words that make her work captivating, Denise Phé-Funchal debuted with her novel Las Flores (The Flowers, in English). Dabbling in both religion and lust (always a stellar combination), The Flowers is a narrative centring on mainly female protagonists sometime around the turn of the century in a tiny Latin American village. I cannot wait to read this!
LOVE IN A FEARFUL LAND BY HENRI NOUWEN
Another narrative focusing on religion, this time written by a non-Guatemalan, but rather more decidedly set in Guatemala, is Love in a Fearful Land by Dutch priest Henri Nouwen. The short but powerful read about two priests who meet opposing fates is set during the 80s, some of Guatemala’s darkest years in recent history.
THE BLINDFOLD’S EYES: MY JOURNEY FROM TORTURE TO TRUTH BY DIANNA ORTIZ
I feel like this list so far has been dominated by texts centring on what was ostensibly a pretty shitty time for both Guatemala and its people, and I recognise that there is so much more on offer when it comes to books about Guatemala than just narratives of past pain.
However, Dianna Ortiz’s The Blindfold’s Eyes can’t be ignored, given that it recounts the American nun’s experience of being abducted and tortured in Guatemala, giving an insight into the conflict from a survivor’s POV.
A similar text which also puts victims’ voices to the fore, is What War? Testimonies of Maya Survivors by Laurie Levinger.
THE LONG NIGHT OF WHITE CHICKENS BY FRANCISCO GOLDMAN
Again, this title came up over and over during my research for this piece and so…gotta give credit where credit’s due. Written by Guatemalan-American Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens is described as appropriately evoking Guatemala (and plenty of actual real-life locations), all through a fictional narrative which hangs on the murder of the protagonist’s Guatemalan nanny.
OTHER WORKS BY FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: The Art of Political Murder
POEMAS DE LA IZQUIERDA ERÓTICA BY ANA MARÍA RODAS
In a brief respite from war-oriented texts and non-fiction, here’s some politically-charged, feminist poetry. My favourite kind.
Poemas de la izquierda erótica by Ana María Rodas, who was one of Guatemala’s brightest poetic stars, is one you should check out if you’re looking to test the waters with some bite sized snippets of Guatemalan literature.
SCANDALS IN THE HOUSE OF BIRDS BY NATHANIEL TARN
A contemporary look at Mayan life in a tiny village on the shore of Lake Atitlán is to be found within the excellently researched pages of Nathaniel Tarn’s Scandals in the House of Birds. If you’re even a tiny bit interested in the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, especially the Tz’utujil, this is the ethnography for you.
COMPLETE WORKS BY AUGUSTO MONTERROSO
One of Guatemala’s ‘boom’ writers, Augusto Monterroso is a prolific author, with a handful of well-known works. However, finding them individually can be tricky, so I would say just bite the bullet, dive right in, mix metaphors and get his Complete Works (Obras completas, if you’d prefer a Spanish-language version).
THE MASTERMIND BY DAVID UNGER
A political thriller set in 80s Guatemala and a half by Guatemalan poet and author David Unger, I imagine The Mastermind is one of those books that you get pulled into and can’t put down until the end. Read it and let me know?
For a non-fiction approach to Guatemalan history, try Gift of the Devil by Jim Handy instead.
SILENCE ON THE MOUNTAIN BY DANIEL WILKINSON
An unravelling of recent Guatemalan history with a detail almost unrivalled by other books of its nature, Silence on the Mountain takes a sharp, personal look at the Guatemalan conflict. Focusing on La Patria plantation, the broader history fans out from that central location, allowing Wilkinson to give voice to those who suffered the most.
Another text taking a look at the victims of the war is Buried Secrets by Victoria Sanford.
HOMIES AND HERMANOS BY ROBERT BRENNEMAN
Homies and Hermanos profiles dozens of former gang members who’ve left their violent lives behind and turned to God. While the reasoning behind this 180 seems clear at first glance (after all, Central American gang members pretty much have two ways out, religion or death), you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out if that’s really always the case.
CITY OF GOD BY KEVIN LEWIS O’NEILL
Another text if you’re interested in religion in Guatemala is City of God. I remember thinking that Guatemala was perhaps the most outwardly religious seeming place I’d ever visited (and I live in Mexico for Christ’s sake), as there was so much pro-God (and pro-life) graffiti on the buildings. This proliferation of religion that even I picked up on is only reinforced by Kevin Lewis O’Neill’s book, which explores the growth of Protestantism in Guatemala City.
OTHER GUATEMALAN WRITERS YOU SHOULD BE READING
These authors didn’t make it onto the main list for no other reason than it was getting long as fuck. Either that, or their works are a little more obscure, harder to find online or just not available in translation. However, if you’re happy to read in Spanish or do a little legwork for your Guatemalan literature, consider these writers too.
ELISA HALL DE ASTURIAS
The writer of Semilla de mostaza, Elisa Hall de Asturias caused controversy with this text as it was so good people literally didn’t think it could be written by a woman. However, nowadays, it’s considered a Guatemalan classic which should be read just to see what all the fuss was about. If you can find it, that is…
Accomplished all-rounder Carol Zardetto is best-known for her narrative Con pasión absoluta, which conflates memory and reality in a post-conflict Guatemala, ultimately painting a complex picture of identity. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s available in English.
VIRGILIO RODRIGUEZ MACAL
His criollo text Carazamba discusses topics of race and nationality and is pretty tricky to find in translation. In fact, I don’t even know if it’s available in translation to be honest.
Guatemalan-born Perera wrote Unfinished Conquest, another narrative about the civil war.
One of Guatemala’s most prominent contemporary writers, Aida Toledo is perhaps best known for Pezóculos, which is full of short stories and poetically written, ‘provocatively feminist’ tales (#goals, amirite?), although it’s close to impossible to find online (and in English).
JAVIER MOSQUERA SARAVIA
LUZ MÉNDEZ DE LA VEGA
Feminist writer and academic Luz Méndez de la Vega played a pivotal role in recovering and amplifying the voices of colonial-period Guatemalan women, as well as churning out a roster of works herself. Honestly. Pick anything by her and you’ll be happy.
MARIO MONTEFORTE TOLEDO
Short-storyist, poet and essayist Mario Monteforte Toledo spent 35 years exiled in Mexico (land of the exiled writers and artists). However, he is Guatemalan and comes highly recommended.
OK, Carlos Solórzano is technically Mexican, but he was born in Guatemala and he’s considered one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.
Professor, writer and dedicated to preserving Guatemala’s literary heritage, Lucrecia Méndez compiled Mujeres que cuentan in collaboration with Aida Toledo.
Did I miss out any seminal texts about Guatemala? Let me know in the comments!